The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. Vol. III: The Coming of the Cataclysm 1961-66 
by Roderick MacFarquhar.
Oxford, 733 pp., £70, October 1977, 0 19 214997 0
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What do we know of recent Chinese history and how do we know it? This third, massive volume of Roderick MacFarquhar’s Origins of the Cultural Revolution, the first volume of which appeared in 1974, completes what is perhaps the most ambitious effort yet undertaken to unravel why and how this great and confusing event came about. Yet even after reading the 730 pages of the final volume, I was left wondering whether the thoughts and acts of the Chinese Communist Party’s leaders have become any more knowable.

The issue was very much to the fore when President Jiang Zemin paid a state visit to America in 1997. His itinerary included a speech at Harvard, where Professor MacFarquhar, the rounding editor of the China Quarterly, is now a professor of history, and which has the John Fairbank Center, the pre-eminent centre for Chinese studies in the Western world. Outside the lecture theatre, protesters chanted that Jiang was a brutal tyrant; when he entered, however, many people stood up and applauded him. Earlier, students and faculty had debated whether he should be welcomed at all, since the human rights record of his Government disgusts many in America. The usual arguments were trotted out in the campus press about the merits of engaging in dialogue.

This issue has been often rehearsed, but it is far from stale or irrelevant, especially when it comes to China and to President Jiang. For fifty years, Jiang has been a faithful member of the Chinese Communist Party, during which time that Party has been accused of murdering an estimated seventy or eighty million of its own people, of waging genocide against subject races like the Tibetans, and of attempting to wreck the world’s oldest continuous civilisation. The astonishing thing is that nobody has much of a clue about what Jiang was doing or even where he was for much of that time. He has been China’s leader for ten years now, and before that he ran Shanghai, the country’s most important city. He has visited more than thirty countries in recent years and every week receives visitors from around the world. On the other hand, it is not even possible to be sure whether he ever finished his engineering degree; what he did as an engineer at the Number One Automobile Factory in the Fifties, when many intellectuals were persecuted and when thirty million starved to death in the Great Leap Forward; on which side he was during the Cultural Revolution, when he held nominal posts in various state factories. Most significantly, no one is sure what he was doing in June 1989, when the Party leadership voted to send in the tanks, to crush the student protesters. Was he there at all? Or in favour of force? Did he even play a role in the events in Shanghai, where the Army was not sent in?

All this would be worth knowing, since Jiang controls, with the powers of an absolute dictator (at least on paper), the world’s most powerful totalitarian state, and the last significant surviving Communist Party. After twenty years of the Open Door policy, we still know remarkably little about China’s secretive leadership. Compared to what it was under Mao, China is now a vastly different and more open society, yet it is still well nigh impossible to scrutinise the workings of the Party, and its fifty million-plus members. It remains an organisation, a state within a state, whose leaders are answerable to no one.

It is extraordinary how tightly the Party wields control over its own past. Nearly every book published in China, every film, every television programme, every newspaper is vetted, to ensure it matches the partly fictional version of history that the Party presents to the outside world. This is a country where officials still memorise whole books printed in order to provide them with the answers they must give to foreigners on sensitive questions. It even prints books which instruct officials on how they must write the history of their country, factory or their own lives, spelling out what they can put in and what they must leave out.

Few, even within the Party, are granted access to the archives, even their own personal files. Many people do not understand much of what has happened in their own lifetimes, and they often lie to their children about what they themselves did or saw. Everyone has done things they prefer not to recall. It is true that you can now meet and interview senior Party members, but they are still bound by an omertà-style code of silence, which is itself reinforced by an instinctive, inbred loathing to reveal the truth to ‘barbarians’.

What makes this all the more tantalising is the fact that the Chinese Communist Party runs one of the most massive bureaucracies ever created. If only you could get your hands on them, vast stores of documents exist which could be mined by Western scholars for years to come. Occasionally, historical dossiers are opened but usually only when the Party feels that this will help it to manipulate public opinion or humiliate the losers in some internal power struggle.

To give an idea of this, I once met an official who offered to show me the files regarding one of the least known campaigns of the Cultural Revolution, waged against the Mongols, a minority of fewer than four million. Most of them were, and are, harmless, semi-literate herdsmen, yet over 800,000 were persecuted and often tortured, to force them to admit to membership of a pro-independence organisation which did not exist. For every one of those people, the case files have been compiled and stored, along with the reports of informers, agents and investigators, all of which could one day be read. And just recently, the report of the last Panchen Lama has come to light after thirty-five years, giving an entirely new dimension to the fate of the Tibetans during the period covered by this book. Presented to Mao in 1962, it is an extensive and damaging investigation into the suffering and deaths of the Tibetans, which led to its author being incarcerated and tortured for the next 17 years. The question is: how many more such documents exist?

All this makes China-watching an enormously challenging task and the work of scholars like MacFarquhar tremendously important. For thirty years he has been wrestling with the most fascinating puzzle of all: what was the Cultural Revolution and how did it come about? In the spring of 1966, China seemed a stable, disciplined and united nation. It was led by a group of men whose comradeship had been forged by the Long March, by Japanese aggression and by civil war. They had made a revolution and then boldly undertaken to remake a society of 600 million people. Their instrument of rule and regeneration was arguably the world’s most efficient and dynamic Communist Party. Within months, this image of peace and harmony had been shattered, and the Party machine reduced to a shambles.

In the first two volumes, Contradictions Among the People 1956-1957, and The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960, MacFarquhar combed through editorials in Party newspapers, through speeches, records of meetings, resolutions, diplomatic rows and economic statistics to try and understand what was then going through the minds of the top leaders, above all that of Mao. The third volume, the largest (it includes 200 pages of notes and indexes) and the most fascinating, looks at the Party’s response to the greatest famine in human history, which killed at least thirty million people. These three volumes will serve in future as a cornerstone for our understanding of this extraordinary moment of history. Yet, in his conclusions, MacFarquhar admits that he was unable to find the answers to many of his questions.

In the decade leading up to the Cultural Revolution, the record shows that Mao was always in overall charge if not always in day-to-day command. He controlled the agenda. The force of his personality and prestige, coupled with the institutional weight of the Party chairmanship within a leader-friendly Leninist system, ensured that. But MacFarquhar goes on to ask why, if this account of the lead-up is correct (albeit at variance with the earlier conventional wisdom), the Cultural Revolution was even necessary. If Mao could call the shots, why shoot the pianists? The answer, he concludes, is rooted in Mao’s ultimate dread: the image of extinction that stalked him was the death of the revolution itself. MacFarquhar thus takes the view that Mao was inspired by a genuine if misbegotten idealism, that he genuinely believed in a spiritual rebirth, and in the search for the revolutionary grail.

MacFarquhar cannot, on the other hand, explain the mystery of Liu Shaoqi, who was Mao’s chosen successor, his closest comrade for forty years (born in a Hunan village just a few miles from Mao’s), and President, yet who did nothing to save himself: Mao had Liu brutally tortured and murdered. While Liu almost certainly never considered mounting a coup, it seems extraordinary that he put up no resistance. Instead, he presided over the demise of his principal political ally in May 1966. Did he think this was the price to be paid for remaining Mao’s heir apparent? Or was it simply the disciplined behaviour of the ultimate apparatchik? Did he experience no conflict of loyalty between the claims of the leader and the claims of the Party, or even of the country? Or did his behaviour represent, as with some of Stalin’s victims, a refusal or inability to grasp the enormity of the anti-Party actions the leader had begun to commit? Was there no higher kind of loyalty? Or was Liu transfixed, like a rabbit before a snake?

Despite the enormous amount of information MacFarquhar has unearthed, much of it new, he is unable to shed light on the psychology of the leaders. What kind of people could they be who continued to hold meetings, issue resolutions and promise that utopia was just round the corner, while tens of millions of peasants perished? And if it was all the responsibility of Mao, why didn’t they get rid of him after his Great Leap Forward had turned the country into a living hell? Instead, Mao continued to rule for another 15 years, regretting nothing, during which time he set out to destroy the Party and the lives of its most respected members.

MacFarquhar sometimes tries to explain the subservience to Mao by drawing comparisons with the way in which Margaret Thatcher dominated her Cabinet, convinced as she was that she was right about everything. This, and the slightly flippant tone that often creeps in, is unsettling because it serves to minimise the fact that Mao’s power rested on a vast edifice of terror and coercion, on continual purges, and on an expanding network of slave labour camps which paralysed the populace and made other leaders reluctant to act.

This pervasive fear of the Party still haunts the Chinese, even though those terrible times may never come back. It infects those who could provide the kind of personal insight essential to understanding what happened. Without the key testimony of participants, the nature of the court around Mao and so much else remains obscure. The exception which proves the point is Mao’s personal doctor, Li Zhisui, who retired to America and there wrote a devastating record of everything he had witnessed.

Much, for example, has been written about Premier Zhou Enlai, but only someone as prominently placed as Li Zhisui was can explain the nature of his relationship with Mao. The faithful premier is often portrayed as the Party’s greatest saint, worshipped even now by many victims of the purges, who Zhou charmed into thinking he was protecting them. Yet MacFarquhar quotes Li Zhisui’s blunt explanation that the relationship between Mao and Zhou could be summed up in three words: master and slave. Far from shielding people, Zhou, according to the doctor, was Mao’s chief instrument in operating the purges.

Only from someone who has defected can one hope to get reliable accounts. Investigative journalism is simply not possible in China. You can’t go anywhere in the country to report without prior permission, and without having consulted the relevant foreign affairs office and other organisations. Permission is often refused and parts of the country that are open to tourists are off limits to foreign journalists. Areas of unrest, such as Tibet or Xinjiang, cannot be visited at will any more than places where a newsworthy event – a natural disaster, a bombing, a strike, a peasant protest – have taken place. And when you do get there, long afterwards, and find that the official version of events was quite wrong, it is too late, no one is interested any more.

As for interviews, these normally take place only in the presence of other Party officials, who take notes. Plain-clothes police follow journalists, tap their phones, open their mail, videotape their meetings with contacts and so on. Western journalists live in walled compounds, with guards who inspect and check the identity of every Chinese who enters. Contact with senior figures is even more tightly controlled, with propaganda officials insisting on written questions and answers. Free questioning rarely takes place. And ordinary people, unless they know you very well and you are speaking one to one, almost never dare contact you or volunteer any information.

You can, as a journalist, work around the rules of course, but there remain enormous constraints on what you can do. And when you are given access to sensitive information or testimony, you have to assume it is because the Party has a particular goal in mind. Leaks to the Hong Kong press about internal party politics, for example, are usually only made by the now defeated liberal wing. People go outside the system only after all else has failed.

Chinese politics was and is impenetrable. Western scholars studying the Mao era have to rely heavily on what has been published by the Party, and this is dreary stuff: meetings, slogans, resolutions, the 10 points of this, the 20 articles of that and tables of economic statistics. The intervening forty years have not lent such material much enchantment and it is no wonder that MacFarquhar should allow a cynical tone to creep into his writing. Besides, even today, false figures are made up to disguise what is really happening; top officials, now as then, rely on quite different sets of figures, which are not published.

At the People’s Congress of 1997, for instance, the Premier, Li Peng, read out a Government report describing the economy in glowing terms, with a figure of less than 3 per cent unemployment. If you were to read this forty years on, you wouldn’t know that the state sector was in fact crippled, with some thirty million workers either made redundant or unpaid, and 170 million unemployed in the countryside, and that the country’s finances were close to collapse because of the trillion-plus yuan of non-recoverable debts, amounting to 30 per cent of GNP.

Historians must rely on written documents and if this is all that is available, you must sift through them. But what it means is that such terrible events as the famine are viewed almost entirely through the bloodless prism of the Party bureaucracy. Voices from outside the Party apparatus are never heard in this book, except in the first few pages, which are devoted to the famine and include a few personal reminiscences. This leads to curious anomalies. It is noticeable how little material is available for 1960, when few details have emerged about what Mao or the Party did in this most crucial year of the famine. As MacFarquhar points out, the worse the agricultural crisis became, the less the People’s Daily had to say about it. In 1961, 59 per cent of its editorial coverage dealt with international events, and in 1962 an average of only three articles a month dealt with agriculture.

An even more fundamental problem with MacFarquhar’s trilogy goes to the heart of the question to what extent we are still being manipulated where the Cultural Revolution and much else is concerned. When he started his research, few people outside China realised how brutal and murderous both the Great Leap Forward and the famine had been. They were regarded as economic setbacks largely caused by natural disasters, which is still the official line. This means that the three volumes look into matters which were subsidiary to food production and the threat of a peasant rebellion, such as China’s twisted relations with Moscow or Vietnam, the war with India and so on. None of these issues, important though they are from the perspective of global politics, triggered the internal Party war which dominated the Cultural Revolution.

Mao himself explained the reason for this war often enough: the Party, he said, had split into two groups, one of which was in favour of collectivisation while the other (in the eyes of Mao and the ultraleftists) favoured policies closer to capitalism – which meant only that peasants could own a little land to grow food and trade it.

Agriculture has been the key domestic issue in China for millennia, and Party members believed that collectivisation could solve the problem, as it had supposedly worked so well in the Soviet Union. As far back as the Thirties, however, the Party élite were split on the question of how quickly and successfully it could be introduced, along with a Stalinist class struggle against the rich peasants.

Mao was proved right about many things but the gigantic failure of his agricultural schemes, and the mass starvation which followed, probably meant that he lost the support of most of the Party, and the peasantry – i.e. the vast majority of the population. It is hard to prove, but he was perhaps not paranoid when he acted as if people were trying to remove him from power. The manoeuvrings within the leadership may have been quite subtle, as is suggested by statements made by top leaders in the Party press or at public meetings, and by the accusations levelled and confessions extracted during the Cultural Revolution.

This means one must try to decide, for instance, whether Liu Shaoqi or Deng Xiaoping really supported the Great Leap Forward at the beginning, even though they endorsed it in public. Or did they oppose it but, once the decision to proceed was taken by Mao, find themselves obliged to support it in accordance with Party norms? Mao could then accuse Liu of having been a doubter, if not a traitor, all along.

In this volume, MacFarquhar wonders whether intellectuals really dared to criticise Mao in 1961-62, when both a play and an opera appeared, concerning the Ming official Hai Rui, who served the dynasty founded by Zhu Yuanzhang, on whom Mao had modelled himself. An attack on the opera and on its author later marked the start of the Cultural Revolution, it having been decided that the play at least was a not-soveiled criticism of Mao. Again, did writers like Deng Tuo deliberately attack Mao in a newspaper column? MacFarquhar is not even sure that Deng Tuo was particularly exasperated by the leftism of which Mao was the source. He was, however, one of the first victims of the Cultural Revolution – he supposedly committed suicide – and in the Thirties had written a book on famines, so one would imagine that he had strong feelings about the famine Mao had created in China.

Even forty years later, the truth about those years cannot be discussed in China because it would call everything into question. Instead, an edifice of lies has been constructed which is presented as history. Party propaganda maintains that the Cultural Revolution was the greatest disaster to afflict China – the ‘ten years of chaos’ it is called. During that time, schools closed, temples were smashed, works of art burned, intellectuals persecuted and China isolated itself, all supposedly in a temporary aberration. This account has now become familiar, through films, novels and histories. Every tour guide in China tells this version of the Cultural Revolution, and many of them believe it to be true.

In actual fact, the massive assault on Chinese culture had begun ten years before, in the mid-Fifties, with the suspension of all civil rights, the persecution of intellectuals and the virtual outlawing of private property. There were probably more people in camps in the late Fifties than during the Cultural Revolution itself (although they were not often senior figures). Indeed, even before 1949, many Party leaders had made no secret of what they wanted to do once they ruled China, because they had often carried out these same policies in occupied areas. As MacFarquhar makes clear, many terrible things which came to the attention of the world during the Cultural Revolution had started long before.

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Vol. 21 No. 21 · 28 October 1999

Jasper Becker, reviewing The Origins of the Cultural Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar (LRB, 29 July), tells us much about the problems of writing Chinese history but fails to acknowledge that MacFarquhar tells us a great deal, despite the obstacles. At the end of his review Becker says MacFarquhar makes it clear that ‘many terrible things which came to the attention of the world during the Cultural Revolution had started long before.’ Quite. But Becker fails to outline what MacFarquhar actually says and instead tells us about his own experiences in China during a period that has no relevance to MacFarquhar’s subject. In his survey of the book, he simply paraphrases MacFarquhar. It is therefore puzzling to read in Becker’s article that ‘Chinese politics was and is impenetrable.’

Jonathan Mirsky
London W11

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