China Book Reviews


Mobo Gao, The Battle for China's Past, Pluto Press, London, 2008.

ISBN: 978-0-7453-2780-8

Mobo Gao, The Battle for China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, Pluto Press, London, 2008.

by Jason Lee

Mao Zedong and his policies have long been demonized in the West, with the Cultural Revolution considered a fundamental violation of human rights. As China embraces capitalism, the Mao era is also being surgically denigrated by the Chinese political and intellectual elite.

In his new book,
The Battle for China’s Past, Professor Mobo Gao attempts to rescue the Cultural Revolution by claiming that it benefited both China and the broad masses of the Chinese people. In the process, Gao dismisses the neo-liberal agenda of the "capitalist counter-revolutionaries" inside the Chinese Communist Party and unmasks the reality of the growing divide between urban and rural China."

Mao's political experiment, the Cultural Revolution," writes Gao, "like all other social revolutions before it, claimed many victims. It did however, again like all other social revolutions, have some positive outcomes. It encouraged grassroots participation in management and it also inspired the idea of popular democracy. The mass criticism practised in the era of Mao in general and during the Cultural Revolution in particular, though ritualized and mobilized from the top, did provide a rich repertoire of protest techniques." (p.6)

The Red Guards, says Gao, "were not just passive followers of a charismatic leader, but agents actively involved in a variety of ideological disputes and contests for power. The Chinese were not the brainless masses manipulated by a ruthless dictator so often portrayed in the Western media. They must be seen as agents of history and subjects of their own lives like any other people. " (p.6)

Gao is of course correct to argue that the Cultural Revolution involved many millions of people "who willingly participated" in what they at the time saw as a movement to better Chinese society. A whole range of ideas from politics to education and healthcare, from literature to the arts and industrial and agricultural policies were examined, tried and tested. As Gao says, some of these experiments succeeded, some failed, and some did not have time to come to fruition before they were prematurely terminated. Considerable scientific progress was indeed made at this time. The archaeological discoveries at Mawangdui "led to the discovery of a Chinese medical remedy for malaria, while the delivery of primary healthcare, the development of integrated techniques for controlling insect pests, and the advance of earthquake predictions are examples of the the scientific progress made at the time." (p.5)
Gao also notes that "the average life expectancy of the majority of Chinese increased from 35 in 1949 to 63 by 1975," and that Mao's revolution also "brought unity and stability to a nation tortured for so long by disunity and instability. It was a revolution that carried out land reform, promoted women's status, improved popular literacy, and eventually transformed Chinese society beyond recognition." (p.81)

In later chapters, Gao deconstructs the dominant contemporary Chinese elite discourse about the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s policies, showing how the elite’s identification with Western values has shaped their remembering of the past. The consequence of this is that whereas Chairman Mao pursued policies designed to narrow the gap between the cities and the countryside, between agriculture and industry, and between mental and manual labor, the current leadership is prepared to exacerbate them, to allow the Gini co-efficient to rise to crisis point, in order to benefit themselves through a pursuit of policies designed to narrow the gap between China and the West.

Gao offers scathing criticisms of Jung Chang’s
Wild Swans, Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The memoirs of Mao’s personal physician, and Chang and Halliday’s Mao: The Untold Story. He does not have the space to comprehensively rebut these works that have influenced the way millions in the West now view Mao and the Cultural Revolution, but he does offer sufficient critiquing of their dishonesty and unreliability as to strip away their general credibility.

For example, Gao convincingly challenges the Jung/Halliday claim that 38 million people starved to death during the Great Leap Forward, noting that (1) there were never any reliable demographic censuses to make possible an accurate figure, (2) it is hard to know whether some casualties during the great Leap Forward were deaths by hunger or premature deaths due to hardship, and (3) some estimates try to  assess the 'missing' population on the basis of normal death and birth rates and therefore most likely would have included millions who might not have even been born. The result of using dubious methods produces "unrealistic and inflated" figures. (p.85)
A fourth problem is that natural disasters such as floods and droughts were not considered as a factor in causing the famine. Some parts of China during this period were hit with "the worst floods in a century". For Jung and Halliday's 38 million death figure to be accurate, it would have meant that one in every twenty Chinese had died during this period - which clearly couldn't have been the case, and would have been "something the authorities could not have hidden away no matter how hard they tried." (p.86)

Gao also argues that it is unreasonable to describe those who died from famine as having been "murdered" by the Chairman. "Mao should certainly be held primarily responsible for the consequences of the Great Leap Forward," suggests Gao. "First he should be held responsible for initiating the movement by criticizing Zhou Enlai, Deng Zihui and other more cautious leaders before the Great leap Forward started. Second, Mao was mainly responsible for the quick and dramatic collectivization around the winter of 1957 and spring of 1958. The sudden change in organization from co-ops to big collective communes meant that no adequate supervision and monitoring systems could be implemented to manage grain production. This organizational failure undoubtedly had detrimental consequences in grain production. Eventually there was a food shortage everywhere in China and disastrous famine in some areas. But to identify Mao as the person responsible for policy disaster is not the same as to say Mao was the murderer of so many people. Who is supposed to be the murderer of the millions of Russians whose life expectancy has been shortened by ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union?" (p.86)

Aside from this, the increase of life expectancy achieved during the Mao era alone has given an estimated 35 billion extra collective years of life to the Chinese people, and although living standards remained low, and were for many at subsistence level, "it is plain truth," says Gao, "that except for the Great Leap Forward years of 1959 and 1960 and the Cultural Revolution years of 1967 and 1968, Chinese economic growth was not only steady but also outpaced most developing countries. By 1976 China had laid down a sound industrial and agricultural base for an economic take off. These facts are proved and accepted by both Chinese and Western scholars in their macro studies (Meisner 1986, Lardy 1978, Rawski 1993, Chow 1985, Perkins 1985, and Field 1986) as well as micro case studies (Forster 2003, Bramall 1993 and Endicott 1989). Even the Chinese official statistics released by the post-Mao authorities who shout loud anti-Mao rhetoric of economic calamities cannot deny these facts." (p.87)

Professor Gao is right to rescue the Mao era from those who would have us believe that the period was a total disaster, with no worthwhile legacies, just as he is right to highlight the inequalities behind the glitter of present-day China. The problem I have with Gao's thesis though, is this: he fails to acknowledge the fact that per capita literacy levels continued to climb  throughout the Deng and Zhang periods, as did per capita life expectancy and overall living standards. Market reforms may have increased inequalities, but they have also brought about many improvements. Mao laid the foundations solidly enough to enable the "capitalist counter-revolutionaries" to introduce their market reforms, that is true, but today's China isn't the great disaster that Gao makes it out to be.