Some must get rich first

Colin Legum

  • The Heart of the Dragon by Alasdair Clayre
    Harvill, 281 pp, £12.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 00 272115 5
  • The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. Vol. II: The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960 by Roderick MacFarquhar
    Oxford, 470 pp, £22.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 19 214996 2
  • Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro
    Chatto, 301 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2751 1
  • Shenfan by William Hinton
    Secker, 789 pp, £15.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 436 19630 1
  • The Messiah and the Mandarins by Dennis Bloodworth
    Weidenfeld, 331 pp, £9.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 297 78054 9
  • The Cambridge History of China. Vol. XII: Republican China 1912-1949, Part I edited by John Fairbank
    Cambridge, 1002 pp, £50.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 521 23541 3
  • The Middle Kingdom: Inside China Today by Erwin Wickert
    Harvill, 397 pp, £12.50, August 1983, ISBN 0 00 272113 9

An estimated thirty to thirty-five million Chinese died, and millions more suffered, in the great revolution associated with Mao Tse-tung’s leadership, but at the very least, he laid the foundations on which it became possible to build a modern industrial society. The great revolution has now entered its fifth phase: an era emblazoned in neon lights all over the country as the Four M’s – modernisation of agriculture, industry, national defence, science and technology. What is missing from the Four M’s is Maoism.

Mao’s dynasty – which is what in the end it became – brought about the reunification of China under a system of centralised control; the destruction of the feudal land system, and the introduction of a new production system of agricultural communes; the creation of a unified, professional army; and the elevation of China into a new position of world importance. The Chinese could again see themselves as the proud inheritors of the world’s most ancient continuous civilisation, whose history is popularly retold and wonderfully illustrated in The Heart of the Dragon, the excellent book based on the television series prepared by Alasdair Clayre, who died shortly before it was published. Although the quest for modernisation began a century ago under the Ch’ing Dynasty statesman, Chang Chih-tung (1837-1909), and was pursued with fervour by Mao, his own commitment to egalitarianism and permanent revolution seriously impeded, and at times even reversed, progress towards this objective. Only now, under Mao’s latterday opponents (particularly the shrewd, authoritarian and tough old survivor, Deng Xiaping), has China become fully engaged in a pragmatic policy of rapid industrial modernisation, but on a scale so audacious as to make the final outcome unpredictable.

The first phase of Mao’s revolutionary period – the War of Liberation – saw the defeat of feudal and bourgeois China through an armed class struggle, and brought the promise of a new world revolutionary movement led by a close alliance between Beijing and Moscow. The Long March alone claimed the lives of 82,000 of the 90,000 who had set out on that astonishing venture. The second phase – the land reform movement of the Fifties – saw 20 million of China’s 35 million landlords arraigned before people’s courts; between two and three million were shot. In 1950, when Mao called for the suppression of counter-revolutionaries, 800,000 ‘vicious elements’ were put to death – a figure later increased by Zhou Enlai to two million, and by others to six million. The third phase, which overlapped with the second, witnessed the beginning and end of the honeymoon with Moscow: the injection of foreign technology and its abrupt termination with the expulsion of the Soviets. The Great Leap Forward, which followed, was a demonstration of self-reliance.

The period of the Great Leap is described with authority and a wealth of detail in the middle volume of Roderick MacFarquhar’s formidable Origins of the Cultural Revolution. It was a failure which left the country in a state of near-chaos. The mortality rate, nationwide, had doubled from 1.08 per cent in 1957 to 2.54 per cent in 1960 – a year in which the population actually declined by 4.5 per cent. MacFarquhar cites Chinese authorities for his staggering conclusion that the number who died in that period, above what might be expected in any normal year, was between 16.4 and 29.5 million. Because the whole nation’s effort was concentrated on steel production, the full harvest was not brought in. The number of those who died in this self-induced famine was equal to the total population of Scandinavia. Mao’s calamitous experiment (which was opposed at the time by a number of those who had formerly been his closest colleagues, including Deng Xiaping) was repeated in the fourth phase: the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-1975 – Mao’s desperate last attempt to eradicate both the traditional obstacles to further progress and the new bureaucracies that had sprung up under a centralising system of production and control. It ended in a virtual civil war.

The true number of casualties claimed by the Cultural Revolution has not been finally established, and it seems unlikely that it ever will be. A popular estimate I often heard quoted in China was between one and two million deaths, many of them suicides, but the much lower figure of 34,800 killed or driven to suicide was mentioned in the official indictment against the Gang of Four. That indictment also alleged that 729,500 people had been framed and persecuted, including 80,000 soldiers and 300,000 party dignitaries. A further hundred million, mainly professionals, academics, bureaucrats and other ‘privileged’ people, were dismissed from their jobs and sent to work in the countryside. Their offices, institutions and libraries were closed down, and their books and manuscripts destroyed. Families were broken up. Academics in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xiang still spoke only reluctantly about these nine years. Now, 12 years later, they are still trying to catch up on the lost decade of their intellectual pursuits. For most of the period of the Cultural Revolution, schools remained shut, leaving an entire generation of children without any education, other than what they were taught in the ranks of the vengeful Red Guards.

Son of the Revolution is the biography of Liang Heng, who was a child of four living in Changsa when the Cultural Revolution began. His father, a frightened party newspaperman, was quick to disown his wife, a police functionary, when she was branded as a ‘rightist’ because she had once criticised a superior during the brief period of the Hundred Flowers campaign in 1957. His justification for driving his wife into isolation and penury, and denying her access to her three children, was his wish to protect them from the vengeance of the Red Guards. This questionable act of sacrifice saved neither himself nor his children from persecution and discrimination.

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