No.s 59-60, Oct. 2014

Nos. 59-60
(Oct. 2014):

Remembering Socialist China, 1949-1976


About the Authors

Mobo Gao: Why Is the Battle for China's Past Relevant to Us Today?

Dongping Han: The Socialist Legacy Underwrites the Rise of Today’s China in the World

Hao Qi: Distribution and Social Transition at Tonggang

Remembering Socialist China, 1949-1976


On October 1, 1949, at Tienanmen Square, Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Ten days earlier, on September 21, 1949, Mao had declared to the delegates of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, in words that would reverberate through the world:

Fellow Delegates, we are all convinced that our work will go down in the history of mankind, demonstrating that the Chinese people, comprising one quarter of humanity, have now stood up.

That quarter of humanity included those most oppressed, hungry, illiterate and wracked by disease. Their voices had been suppressed for centuries, and most of all for the preceding century, in which foreign powers dominated China. (Those voices could only be heard during great peasant rebellions which over the centuries toppled dynasties, only to recede once more.) Now, however, the ordinary people of China proceeded not only to stand up but to come to the fore of Chinese political life, through successive mass movements. Whether, in the net, one considers that progression to have been “terrible” or “fine” depends on one’s class standpoint.

It is to mark the 65th anniversary of that proclamation in Tienanmen Square, and the 27 years of socialist China that followed it, that we are bringing out this special issue. Innumerable books have been written on that period by scholars from around the world. Many of these writings are outstanding, and worth returning to in order to better understand that experience. Our intention is not to duplicate those efforts. The aim of this special issue is to bring out the voices of China’s ordinary people that, once again, cannot be heard.

Changing views on China
Over the last century, there have been dramatic shifts in the coverage of China in the rest of the world. Revealingly, these shifts can be linked to the fortunes of the revolutionary forces in China.

At one time, for those whose only source of information on China was the international press, Chiang Kai-shek appeared to be the chief representative of Chinese nationalism, adorning five covers of Time magazine between 1927 and 1936. Pioneering writers on China such as Anna Louise Strong and Agnes Smedley began telling the English-speaking world about the Chinese Communists in the early 1930s. But it was Edgar Snow’s riveting account in Red Star over China (1937) that introduced Mao Zedong to a wider public abroad. What gave Snow’s account additional relevance and urgency was that it showed that the Communists, who many outsiders believed were finished off as a force, were in fact vibrantly alive and re-building. In the 1940s, books by Jack Belden and Theodore White confirmed the continued ascendancy and vitality of the Communists. In February 1949, Mao first appeared on the cover of Time (with the caption: “Communist Boss learned tyranny as a boy”.)

The social epic that began in China from October 1949 was conveyed to the world outside by many remarkable chroniclers. William Hinton lived in a Chinese village during land reform and provided a living picture of it in Fanshen; Joshua Horn, an English surgeon, served in the new People’s Republic for 15 years and narrated his experiences in Away with All Pests!; Rewi Alley, a New Zealander, stayed on in China and became a member of the Chinese Communist Party; and so on. Among the visitors who wrote valuable accounts were Felix Greene, Jan Myrdal, E.L. Wheelwright and Bruce McFarlane, Victor and Ruth Sidel. The Left Keynesian economist Joan Robinson visited socialist China six times, and became its vocal supporter for a period. China’s development model so influenced a leading monetary economist, John Gurley of Stanford, that he changed his very worldview. Gurley wrote:

The truth is that China over the past two decades has made very remarkable economic advances (though not steadily) on almost all fronts. The basic, overriding economic fact about China is that for twenty years it has fed, clothed and housed everyone, has kept them healthy, and has educated most. Millions have not starved; sidewalks and streets have not been covered with multitudes of sleeping, begging, hungry, and illiterate human beings; millions are not disease-ridden. To find such deplorable conditions, one does not look to China these days but, rather, to India, Pakistan, and almost anywhere in the underdeveloped world.1

While non-socialist and anti-socialist scholars naturally expressed greater reservations about China’s pattern of development, they were compelled to acknowledge these achievements – perhaps not as an essential part of socialist China’s economic model, not as part of the Chinese people standing up, but as some sort of national peculiarity. The first World Bank report on China, prepared in 1980-81 with the help of Dengist Chinese officials as the groundwork for taking China’s economy in a different direction, could not help echoing Gurley’s remarks:

Nonetheless, and despite slow growth of the average level of consumption, China’s most remarkable achievement during the past three decades has been to make low-income groups far better off in terms of basic needs than their counterparts in most other poor countries. They all have work; their food supply is guaranteed through a mixture of state rationing and collective self-insurance; most of their children are not only at school, but being comparatively well taught; and the great majority have access to basic health care and family planning services. Life expectancy – whose dependence on many other economic and social variables makes it probably the best single indicator of the extent of real poverty in a country – is... outstandingly high for a country at China’s per capita income level.2

When Mao died on September 9, 1976, the New York Times obituary (by Fox Butterfield) began: “Mao Tse-tung, who began as an obscure peasant, died one of history’s great revolutionary figures.” Such an assessment was even at the time grudging, accompanied by numerous disparaging remarks and censures; but today it would be difficult to imagine an article in the New York Times beginning with those words.

Academic regime change
After Mao’s death, the fall from power of his close associates, and the consolidation of the power of those who wished to take China down a different path, the coverage of China abroad changed dramatically. Every achievement was systematically denigrated, with the help of the new regime. Now, for example, Chinese officials told the world that the miraculous performance of Dazhai, once held up throughout the world as a model of socialist agriculture, had been manufactured.3 Deng Xiao-ping told the 1980 World Bank mission: “We are very poor. We have lost touch with the world. We need the World Bank to catch up.”4

In theory, regime change in itself ought not to change the views of social scientists, but in fact the changes in China did so. Most foreign scholars who had written approvingly of the earlier socialist policies were now shaken. Some changed their views a bewildering 180 degrees, becoming energetic critics of the earlier policies and unquestioning consumers of ‘revelations’ produced by the new regime and by others inimical to earlier policies. Indeed academia played a major role in authenticating all manner of attacks on the earlier period, or even personal attacks on Mao Zedong. (A particularly sorry example was the supposed memoir of one of Mao’s physicians: Despite having been exposed as a poor hoax5, it continues to be treated as factual by several of the most reputed academic historians.6)

The central point of the attack on the socialist period has been the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61. After the death of Mao, amid an official campaign against the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the Deng regime released sensational figures suggesting that 16.5 million people died during the Great Leap. “Isn’t it indeed strange”, asked Hinton, “that this famine was not discovered at the time but only extrapolated backward from censuses taken 20 years later, then spinning the figures to put the worst interpretation on very dubious records.”7 Joseph Ball pointed out that “there seems to be no way of independently authenticating these figures due to the great mystery about how they were gathered and preserved for twenty years before being released to the general public.”8

New estimates of the death toll rose higher and higher, as if in an auction: American demographer Judith Banister raised the toll to 30 million.9 Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, in their 2005 ‘biography’ of Mao10, put the figure at 37.67 million. Frank Dikötter, in his 2010 book on the subject11 puts the death toll at 45 million (he also informs us that some historians speculate that the true figure is 50 to 60 million).

The entire period of Mao’s leadership is now portrayed as a disaster, one long killing-spree. The first sentence of Chang and Halliday’s book reads: “Mao Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime” – deaths which, according to Chang-Halliday, he welcomed, even celebrated. Hitler, then, pales by comparison. Dikötter has produced a second volume of his planned trilogy of the Mao period (titled The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-5), and it is possible that by the time he completes his third volume he will better Chang-Halliday’s score.

Joseph Ball12 and Utsa Patnaik13 have carefully and at length countered some claims regarding the death toll of the Great Leap Forward. Regarding the the Chang-Halliday ‘biography’, scholars of Chinese history have expressed a wide range of negative opinions, from serious reservations to outright repudiation.14 However, any scrupulous efforts at questioning the death toll industry have been largely ignored by the international mass media.15

What do China’s common people know and think?
What is interesting is that the efforts of death toll-inflating academics and media appear to have had little impact on the working people of China.

If we were to accept Dikötter’s figure of 45 million in the Leap, or Chang-Halliday’s career total of 70 million, it would be difficult to understand why Mao continues to be so popular in China. “Today,” says a news report unsympathetic to Mao, “reverence for the late leader is on the rise.... Ordinary people, especially from the bottom social strata, miss his reign and some even set up shrines at home to worship him. Statues of the great leader continue to be erected across the country with fanfare. Indeed, analysts and party faithfuls say Mao has more popular support today than at any time since his death in 1976.”16

Indeed anti-Communists find the resilience of his popularity baffling and frustrating. Yawei Liu, the director of the Carter Center China Program (Atlanta), complains that “Mao’s legacy overshadows China to this day, so ‘without such a thorough verdict, it would be hard for China to launch meaningful political reform.”17 Says Zhang Weng, another US-based academic: “Though Mao’s ideology and policies are anathema to most people in the West, many Chinese still miss Mao and his era. They believe that Mao, who died in 1976, was the one person who put an end to China’s century of humiliation, and they still have not realized that his policies for a new China in which everyone would be equal amounted to a utopian pipe dream.”18 Du Daozheng, publisher of the anti-Maoist magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, confesses: “If there is one man, one vote now, the leftists would get most of the votes. ...because we haven’t told the truth to our people; we have never thoroughly exposed and criticised Mao.”19

These liberals can hardly conceal their contempt for the common people, who are simply ruled out as either rational actors or a source of historical truth.

During the Cultural Revolution, it may have been difficult for many to fully comprehend Mao’s charge that his opponents, veteran Party members, wished to take China down the capitalist road. But the years that followed would have given the ordinary masses of China ample basis to form a judgement. Hinton wrote in 1988:

If the truth were as Deane outlines, how could one explain the high prestige Mao continues to enjoy so widely in the countryside, on the shop floor, and many other sectors of Chinese life? Successors have been blackening Mao's name for a decade now. Years ago the authorities ordered party committees to remove his portrait from their walls. Last year they sent men with jackhammers to tear down Mao's statue at Beijing University. Mao suddenly disappeared from many other places before and after that incident, though not yet from the Tiananmen Gate. Meanwhile a statue of Liu has been raised up in Beijing.

But in spite of all this, portraits and busts of Mao can be found in millions of peasants', herdsmen's and workers' homes and on many a party committee wall. I have heard so many people say “After all, the old man was right!”20

Media accounts do occasionally quote the views of ordinary Chinese, but these, of course, are not cited as evidence of consciousness of their class interests. Rather, they are portrayed as confused moral nostalgia for “simpler days”, a fetishistic mania for Mao memorabilia, a morbid religious reverence for his embalmed body, and so on. However, if one makes a special effort, one can hear the voices of common people even in these reports.

Exactly 50 years on, it is not hard to find other evidence that Mao lives on in the minds of Chinese people. From the lucky talisman which hangs from a Beijing taxi driver's windscreen, to books, badges, cigarette lighters – even Chairman Mao yo-yos – the Mao memorabilia industry is alive and well. ... Amongst ordinary Chinese, his legend is so woven into the fabric of society that he has gained something of the status of a popular cult. A restaurant owner intent on making money will see no contradiction in putting up a poster of the Chairman for good luck. For all Mao's mistakes, it is more than just nostalgia which underpins his status. Every year, Chinese in their millions visit Mao's birthplace, Shaoshan, and file past his embalmed body in the Mao Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. Although many Chinese may be richer than they ever were under the Chairman, they also complain of corruption and greed at the heart of government.21

Ordinary people, such as Liu Yanhan, 59, a collector of Mao memorabilia from Hubei, increasingly long for the Mao era, which they perceive as more socially fair and morally pure. “In our society, there is a huge rich-poor gap, corruption, moral degradation, drug addiction, prostitution – it’s a mess. They need to relearn from Mao to rectify these poisonous things,” he says.22

“For us, Mao Zedong is the founder of our country. We deeply admire him. He lives in our hearts,” said Ms. Wang, who is from the northeastern city of Shenyang. “In his day, education was free,” she added. Her 76-year-old mother, in Beijing for the first time, had only one request: to see Mao’s body. “She doesn’t want to do anything else,” Ms. Wang said. “When we’ve done this, we can go home.”23

Swimming against the current of the academic industry and the international mass media, some scholars have begun the task of recording the views and experiences of the common Chinese people regarding the period of socialist China, as a vital source of historical truth regarding that period. The present issue contains essays by three such scholars. We wish strength to their continuing efforts.

The present issue is dedicated to the memory of our dear friend, Nirmal Chandra, a keen student of socialist economies. He would have been interested to read it.

– The Editor

October 1, 2014.




1. John G. Gurley, China’s Economy and the Maoist Strategy, p. 13. (back)

2. World Bank, China: Socialist Economic Development, vol. I, 1983, p. 11. (back)

3. These post-Mao claims about Dazhai were countered by William Hinton, who had directly examined Dazhai. See The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978-89, Monthly Review Press, 1990. (back)

4. Pieter Bottelier, “China and the World Bank: How a Partnership Was Built”, Stanford Center for International Development, Working Paper no. 277, 2006, p. 4. (back)

5. Manufacturing History: Sex, Lies, and Random House’s Memoirs of Mao’s Physician, ed. Q. M. Borja and Xu L. Dong, 1996. (back)

6. For example, Jonathan Spence and Stuart Schram. (back)

7. William Hinton, “On the Role of Mao Zedong”, Monthly Review, September 2004. Also see Hinton, Through a Glass Darkly: U.S. Views of the Chinese Revolution, Monthly Review Press, 2006, for a careful dissection of the views of certain US scholars who became born-again evangelists against the socialist period. (back)

8. Joseph Ball, “Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?”, (back)

9 .J. Banister, China's Changing Population, 1987. (back)

10. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, 2005. (back)

11. Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62, 2010. (back)

12. Op. cit. Also see: Joseph Ball, “Mao did not want half of China to starve to death: A key document in Frank Dikotter’s book ‘Mao’s Great Famine’”, (back)

13. “On Famine and Measuring ‘Famine Deaths’, Thinking Social Science in India: Essays in Honour of Alice Thorner. Ed. Sujata Patel, Jasodhara Bagchi, and Krishna Raj. New Delhi: Sage, 2002. Reproduced at: (back)

14 .Gregory Benton, Lin Chun, eds., Was Mao Really a Monster? The Academic Response to Chang and Halliday’s “Mao: The Unknown Story”, 2010; Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, 2008. (back)

15. To take a typical example, the BBC website’s capsule biography of Mao begins:Mao was a Chinese communist leader and founder of the People’s Republic of China. He was responsible for the disastrous policies of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’.” (back)

16. Verna Yu, “China still dealing the legacy of Mao Zedong, 120 years after his birth”, December 21, 2013, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong. (back)

17. Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “Mao’s legacy still divides China”, New York Times, May 5, 2011 (back)

18. Zheng Wang, “It’s all about Mao”, New York Times, August 22, 2013 (back)

19. Yu, op. cit. (back)

20. Hinton, The Great Reversal, p. 163. (back)

21. Kate Liang, “Mao’s legacy”, BBC News, November 9, 1999, (back)

22. Yu, op. cit. (back)

23. Tatlow, op. cit. (back)



All material © copyright 2015 by Research Unit for Political Economy