Mao Had to Kill Those Boring Little People: Book Review

Books on China tend to cover the Communist period from 1949 until today.

Now for one that harks back to what the authors believe were the roots of the Chinese miracle: the reaction to the humiliation of the Opium War in 1842.

It’s a good idea, though the execution is another matter. We soon see that Orville Schell, Director of the Center on U.S.- China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, and John Delury, an assistant professor of East Asian Studies in South Korea, have an agenda that not everyone will share.

The Confucian ideal of a harmonious agrarian life had its critics from the start. The so-called Legalists believed in wealth, power, and an authoritarian state. As the West thrust itself on the country, this more utilitarian tradition revived.

Like China, Britain was an imperialist power, though more technologically advanced and with overwhelming military might. It was England’s arrogance that sparked a movement to renovate the decrepit Manchu state.

It was slow going. Heroic modernizers like the scholar-official Lin Zexu sought to resist the British by “imitating the enemy’s best methods” or “self-strengthening.”

Others recognized that it wasn’t just know-how: Western advantages included a spirit of free enquiry, yet even in the 1870s conservatives were resisting an improved math and science curriculum as a betrayal of Confucius.

“Western methods, Chinese core” was a compromise that, as a pretext for authoritarian government, has its uses today.

Modernizing Promise

The Empress Dowager Cixi was two-faced on reform (locking up her own son wasn’t too progressive), and after the demise of the Qing dynasty in 1911, modernizers like Kang You-wei and Sun Yat-sen somehow never came to much, for all their promise.

Warlordism, a Japanese invasion and civil war didn’t help, and for Chiang Kai-shek the authors reserve a particular scorn.

And so we come to the star of the book: Chairman Mao.

“For better or worse, he was a leader unafraid to exercise authority” is the verdict.

The same could be said of Pol Pot or Genghis Khan, but no matter. Legalism was a way of controlling the people and their officials and Mao certainly did that, as well as unifying the country and enforcing modernization, in his manner.

The authors make no secret of their awe and admiration. For Mao, no setback or monstrous cruelty goes unqualified.

“Singular” is the book’s mollifying term for the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, the biggest man-made disaster in history in which tens of millions starved, were purged or beaten to death.

Widespread Cannibalism

The subject gets five pages. Despite Yang Jisheng’s authoritative book “Tombstone,” mention of widespread cannibalism goes by the board here, together with any claim to scholarly objectivity.

While admitting the chaos and deaths caused by the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, the chapter heading -- “Creative Destruction” -- suggests it wasn’t all bad. Having spent three years in Beijing at the peak of the Red Guard tyranny (1966-69), I disagree.

A strange beast is stirring in China studies. As the Chinese learn more about Mao’s atrocities his Western apologists become more serpentine in his defense.

Hence the assertion, endlessly repeated here, that the Great Helmsman prepared the way for the country’s flourishing.

We blink, we read again, but there it is: “Seen this way, Mao’s brutal interim was perhaps the essential, but paradoxical, precursor to China’s subsequent boom under Deng Xiaoping and his successors, the antecedent to the Chinese people being able to free themselves at last from their past…”

Mao’s Legacy

“Mao presented Deng with a vast new construction site on which the demolition of old structures and strictures had already largely been completed.”

Do the deaths of some 70 million in this demolition validate in retrospect his totalitarian methods? (the authors coyly prefer “totalistic.”) The book’s logic leads in strange directions, and an element of black humor is hard to resist.

Mao once said of Hitler: “The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are.”

Hitler’s wars killed fewer than Mao’s dictatorship, but then on the ruins of Germany its postwar economic miracle was built. So was it all worthwhile in Germany too? I simplify a little, but the authors obfuscate a lot.

The remainder of the book, on the post-Mao era, has little new to offer, and daintily skirts the issue of democracy. The photographs, on the other hand, are outstanding.

“Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century” by Orville Schell and John Delury is published by Random House in the U.S. and Little/ Brown in the U.K. (496 pages, $30 or 14.99 pounds). To buy the book in North America, click here.

(George Walden is a former U.K. diplomat and Conservative minister. He is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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