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.

9/29/2008 12:56:18 pm

I'm not convinced by Professor Gao's argument that the Mao era offered better living conditions for the majority of Chinese people than now. It may have been more egalitarian but China is surely a more colorful, creative and dynamic place today, with higher overall standards of healthcare, education and housing. Most Chinese that I know are becoming increasingly optimistic about their country's future, not less.

9/29/2008 05:51:01 pm

Mao is very often assessed very unfairly, I agree. Descriptions of everyday life during the Mao era has tended in recent decades to be the domain of the memoirist. Books in the vein of Wild Swans, which you say Gao attacks, have dominated the market in Western languages, competing to present tales of suffering, persecution and determined survival. Western readersw cannot help but be moved by these stories, though few such readers are able to assess the interests behind many of these tellers of family tales. Most of these memoirs have been the work of Chinese whose positions of relative social and political influence were challenged by the Red Guards, and so the writing and publication of these memoirs have often been part of a re-assertion of social status and what the authors see as political propriety, even if unacknowledged by the writers.

Gao's book, judging from your review of it, provides a badly-needed counter weight to the hysterical and demonizing claims of the likes of Jung and Halliday. I shall definitely track myself down a copy.

9/29/2008 06:44:49 pm

Geoff, Gao spends the entire fourth chapter demolishing the Jung and Halliday's book - pointing out a number of serious flaws and demonstrating why their referencing system is deceptive and dishonest. He then counters their "unknown story" (which he dismisses as fiction) with the "known story". Jung and Halliday's work, he concludes, cannot be taken as a scholarly and authoritative work, and "the fact that the book has been taken as serious scholarship by the popular media is an intellectual scandal." (p.81)

In Gao's view, the reason why the Western mainstream media promote such negative portrayals of Mao and the Mao era, is because "without a complete uprooting of the CCP in China it is not yet the End of this global climate of liberal democracy and neoconservative market capitalism triumph, the fall of the Berlin Wall is not enough to draw the final curtain. The Chinese stubbornly remain 'communist' by refusing to dig Mao's grave. Therefore, the Great Wall of China is still to be brought down so as to bury revolution permanently." (p.93)

Mao then, is an ideological threat to both the West and to China's new capitalist leaders (although China's leadership continue to employ the rhetoric of communism as a unifying ideology, keeping the portrait of Mao hanging high on the Tiananmen rostrum).

9/29/2008 07:39:25 pm

Good to see this book getting a positive review, cause the truth is, there is a vast majority of people in today's China who not only like and admire Chairman Mao but who also remember his time as the 'good old days'. This is the REAL reason why today's capitalist counter-revolutionaries have yet to take down Mao's portrait from the Tiananmen rostrum. They are scared that if they do, they will provoke a widespread, hostile reaction from the rural masses.

Many Chinese expatriots like Jung Chang hate Mao because they or their families were the victims of Mao's theory and practice of class struggle. But many people such as rural farmers and urban workers don't have reasons to dislike him. It is important to hear the voice that resonates among the vast majority of Chinese, who cannot simply be dismissed as ignorant and brainwashed. We have to remind ourselves that in China, as in any other society, there was and there is a social hierarchy, and that perceptions by different sectors of Chinese society should be considered equally legitimate.

Mobo Gao's book reminds us of this. I recommend you buy it, read it, and cherish it for its valuable insights and great wisdom.

9/29/2008 07:42:39 pm

Sober reminder to all you communist nuts: Mao murdered 70 million people! Go read Chang and Halliday's book more carefully.

9/29/2008 08:23:05 pm

fishbone, it is YOU who needs to read Chang and Halliday's book more carefully. Then you will see just how fraudulent they really are.

The review here has already dealt with their stupid claim that 38 millon people were "murdered" by Mao during the Great Leap Forward.

The other alleged 27 million "murder" victims, according to Chang and Halliday, died in prisons or labor camps.

Let's examine this claim. Firstly, they estimate that there were roughly 10 million prisoners in China's prisons every year in China during Mao's 27 years in power, and that the death rate was as high as 10 percent. Therefore, they say, the death toll would have been 10,000,000 x 10 percent x 27 years = 27,000,000.

1. How did the figure of 10,000 different prisoners for every single year that Mao was in power come about? They seem to have pulled this out from out of a hat.

2. Even if there were this many prisoners, how do we know that many of them, if not the majority, were not there because they commited genuine crimes?

3. Clearly Chang and Halliday mean to assert that the prison population increased by 10,000 prisoners every year for 27 years, so that the accumulated number of individuals imprisoned over this period reached 100,000,000. Again, where is their credible evidence for this?

4. What was the source of the 10 percent death rate? They don't even say! How surprising!

5. Even if their imaginative figures had some basis in reality, on what grounds could one draw the conclusion that every death in prison should have been the responsibility of Mao? That's just plain silly. If a crazed prison officer here in the US for example, abuses an individual prisoner so much that that prisoner ends up commiting suicide, should the President we held personally responsible, and labeled a "murderer"? Of course not.

The Chang and Halliday book isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

9/29/2008 10:31:11 pm

Jason - you conclude your review by stating that the problem you have with Gao's thesis is that "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."

I agree entirely. This sounds like an interesting book, and so I shall be certain to buy myself a copy. But as a Marxist, Gao is clearly ideologically-driven, which blinds him to post-Mao improvements in general living standards.

For a more light-hearted and amusing take on Mao - one that parodies the commercialisation of his image - check this rather hilarious blog I just discovered, titled "The Chinglish Adventures of Chairman Mao", at:

9/30/2008 10:17:46 am

Monkey Boy, the Mao dude was just another Hitler or Stalin. So what if the figures offered by Chang and Halliday are exaggerated? The man was responsible for way too many deaths nevertheless.

10/11/2008 07:14:28 pm

This book is excellent, and deserves 5 stars! I have also reviewed this book, on my site, but in more detail.

10/13/2008 12:34:58 pm

servethepeople, I enjoyed your review, though I disagree with you when you say that this book deserves 5 stars. As I said in my review, Gao overlooks the fact that although market reforms have increased inequalities, they have also brought about many improvements. His book lacks balance, in my opinion.

3/5/2009 12:56:52 pm

Evil man, condemned by his own lips. "What does it matter how many people die?"
What about- The mass killing of sparrows, sex with child virgins, the back yard ovens, the disastrous Collectivization, the atom bomb, slaughter of the Indonesian Communists, the Korean War, the murder of Lin Biao and so on and so on. He was like an anvil on their necks and they only got going when he died.

10/14/2009 03:23:58 pm

An excellent book, deserves 5 stars. Refreshing, challenging and also "feels right" after talking to people about Mao over the years (here, in China).

10/19/2009 10:23:39 am

Thanks for your comment Greg. Gao's book is well worth a read and goes a long way towards rescuing the era from the kind of overly-critical one-sided nonsense pushed by the likes of Jung and halliday. But I can't agree with you that it is worth 5 stars - Gao describes himself as a "Marxist-Leninist-Maoist" and so he is (by his admission) ideologically driven in his assessments: essentially, he fails (as I said in my review) to adequately acknowledge the continued improvements brought about by the post-Mao market reforms. Despite his anti-capitalist sentiments, Gao's strong criticisms of today's China ironically mirror those of anti-communists like Will Hutton, Minxin Pei, Jasper Becker, Jason Lee, etc.


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