Stalin’s China Policy

It takes a special kind of man to make Josef Stalin look like a leader who truly just wanted the best for all people. Mao was that special kind of man.

Stalin and other Soviet Communists defined imperialism as the maintenance of a large-scale, multinational, state which extended overseas. Thus, in Stalin’s view, the United Kingdom and France were major imperialist powers, with extensive overseas possessions, while China, India, and the Soviet Union were simply large countries with extensive territories and a multinational population. Whether Stalin’s dislike of “imperialism” was ideological or pragmatic is besides the point — Stalin’s post-war Soviet Union was focused on dismantling the “imperialist” powers, and not a general world revolution against capitalism.

World Powers 1957

In early post-war India, the Communists acted in a “united front” with the ruling Indian National Congress to consolidate Indian national power. The Communist “revolutions” in India, such as the against against Hyderabad, were simply a part of Congress’s war against the princely states. The Communist Party of India never achieved national power, and from the point of view of Stalin, this was fine. India steadily removed the “imperialist” remnants, while the Communists patiently waited for India to develop economically.

Stalin’s plan for China was similar. The purpose of the Chinese communists was not to establish a democratic people’s republic in East Asia, but to assist the KMT in abolishing the treaty ports, extraterritoriality, and not assist the United Kingdom or France in foreign policy endeavours. The Chinese Communists, who were more ambitious than their Indian counterparts, could not understand why Stalin and COMINTERN kept instructing them to harm their own interests and support the KMT. The reason was that Stalin’s objective was not a “Communist” China… Stalin’s objective was an “anti-imperialist” China. If the early General Secretaries of the Chinese Communist Party — such as Chen Duxiu, Xiang Zhongfa, and Wang Ming — had triumphed, China would have slums but no Great Leap Forward and no Cultural Revolution. If Zhou Enlai had not sided with Mao, Zhou (and tens of millions of other Chinese) might have lived longer.

Instead of the guiding hand of Stalin, the Chinese Communists followed Mao into catastrophe.

There are very few countries in the world, where if the leadership had been more affectionate toward Stalin, there would have been less trouble.

China is one of those countries.

Thoughts from “Mao Zedong: The Unknown Story,” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

On Mao

On Twitter, Purpleslog asked for a good book on Mao Zedong. OF course, the answer is Mao Zedong: The Unknown Story. I warned him, though, that “Problem is, he is a rotten human being. Absolutely unsympathetic. Hard to stomach.

This is true.

If Jawaharlal Nehru was the “last British ruler of India,” then Mao Zedong was the last Chinese. China’s first attempt at Westernization was the Hundred Days of 1898, and while that was aborted, the Xinhai Revolution would come just 13 years later. Soon the Three Principles of the People were promulgated by China’s first President, the Hawaiian-educated Dr. Sun Yatsen. The Three Principles have an obviously American source: that a China of the people (民族主義), by the people (民權主義), and for the people (民生主義), will not perish from the Earth. Other pioneers included the triracial (Chinese/Spanish/Black) Eugene Chen, the London-educated Foreign Minister, and Feng Yuxiang, the influential warlord and member of the Methodist Episcopol Church.

Mao early on co-opted the Japanese- and French-educated Zhou Enlai. Important members of the next generation included Lin Biao (who studied under Zhou and Vasily Blucher), as well as Deng Xiaoping (educated in France and the Soviet Union), Liu Shaoqi (educated in the Soviet Union), Yang Shangkun (educated in the Soviet Union), and others.

Mao, by contrast, graduated from the First Provincial Normal School in Hunan, though for a time he worked as a librarian in Beijing.

Mao was left behind by time. He was out-of-step with the rest of the leadership class of China, though his connected him more firmly to both China’s past and China’s peasantry than the modern education of his rivals. Mao Zedong was the last Supreme Leader of China to enjoy writing poetry. He left the math portion of his college entrance exam blank, because math offended him. His first attempt to leave the country was denied — he couldn’t pass an exam for foreign exchange students, because he couldn’t speak standard Chinese.

Mao is like an emperor, like some figure from history. This is because he was. He was the last Chinese leader who fit the role of poetic Emperor perfectly, dismissing five year plans and (seemingly, truly believing) that adoration of his thought would be more helpful to workers than proper diet, proper tools, or technical training. Mao’s unpredictable, go-with-the-flow attitude served him well as a guerrilla leader, but was disastrous for everyone else. To use just one example, when his Defense Minister fled to Russia (with the obvious intent of forming a ‘Free China’ movement that would serve as a figurehead to any future Russian invasion), Mao’s reply was: “Rain falls, birds fly, girls want to be married. Some things can’t be helped.” No normal person thinks this way.

For modern readers, Mao is inexplicable. Like the smiling cannibals on Papua New Guinea, we share too little with him to empathize with him. He’s a weird leader, and only the poor, the backward, the uneducated, and the weird adore him.

Review of “Thousand Pieces of Gold” by Ruthanne Lum McCunn

Yesterday I finished Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. I had previously seen the Revisionist Western (1991) film adaptation of the work, which was very similar in tone to Broken Trail (2006). Both the book and the film are historical fiction that center on the life of Polly Bemis, an illegal Chinese immigrant in Warrens, Idaho (current population: 12). Though the film removes some of the drama from the early part of the book, and greatly increase the drama at the end, the main part of both stories is similar.

The book begins in the Qing Empire, and centers around the efforts of Lalu Nathoy’s father to create a good life for his family. The general breakdown of law and order enables criminal gangs to roam the countryside, abducting/purchasing young girls (the distinction is not always clear) and selling them to intermediaries. As with all raw commodities the real profits are in marketing. Lalu, whose original purchase price is quite low, sells for US$3,000 in the 1880s to a Chinese merchant in Idaho.

The middle part of the book, and nearly all of the movie, concern Lalu’s life in Warrens. She quickly takes the English name “Polly,” and in spite of her purchase to a Chinese man, soon begins living with Charles Bemis. McCunn’s habit of writing around major events, instead of in them, harms this part of the narrative. For instance, chapters will describe events minutes, hours, or even months after important and dramatic events in the narrative. During this part of the narrative, both the book and the movie work best as a rather generic romance.

The end of the book, which takes place after the events of the film, concern Chalres and Polly’s move to a mining claim / homestead on the Salmon River. The location of their home is now a National Historic site, but is inaccessible except by raft, horse, or helicopter. A pet cougar, two seemingly homosexual neighbors, and a freak fire make this part of the narrative the least likely, but seems to be the most historically grounded part of the story. Some people just have interesting lives.

Recently, Ruthanne Lum McCunn wrote a reader’s guide entitled “Reclaiming Polly Bemis: China’s Daughter, Idaho’s Legendary Pioneer” [PDF]. Given that Thousand Pieces of Gold is itself a revisionst western, the revisionist interpretations that can now be found on the internet are rather ironic. McCunn challenges these. She describes her sources, some of whom had known Polly in their youth (and have since past away). McCunn also argues, based on habit, name, and Polly’s recollection of her early life, that she probably was a Daur Mongol, and not ethnically Chinese. The truth may be lost to history.

Thousand Pieces of Gold is an interesting story. The writing is not great. Many of the most interesting parts of Polly’s life are left unexplained. Still, the book was informative, and I am glad I read it.

Review of “The Lost Symbol” by Dan Brown

My commute gives me time for listening to ChinesePod, APM Marketplace, and audiobooks. The most recent, and unabridged, audio I listened to was The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. Symbol continues the story of Dr. Robert Langdon, whose previous adventures were chronicled in Angels & Demons and The DaVinci Code. Dan Brown has also written Digital Fortress and Deception Point. I have read them all.

Brown specializes in formulaic thrillers that reference history, technology, culture, and science. Brown’s work are most enjoyable when you already have a grounding in the field, so when he references it the feeling is like unexpectedly seeing an old friend in the news. Brown is not much of an educational writer, though, so while you will learn neat trivia about cool things like, say, Kryptos

It was totally invisible hows that possible? They used the Earth’s magnetic field X information was gathered and transmitted undergruund [sic] to an unknown location X does Langley know about this? They should its buried out there somewhere X Who knows the exact location? Only WW This was his last message X Thirty-eight degrees fifty seven minute six point five seconds North seventy seven degrees eight minutes four second west X layer two

… don’t expect a history lesson.

Dan Brown’s work often has a tone, that few reviewers pick up on, that I think is reflective of a frightening strain in American political life. There is a sort of authoritarian iconoclasm, a distrust of known authority and blind trust in hidden authority, that reminds me of populism and strikes me as strange.

The Lost Symbol is a fun and easy thriller. It emphasizes the romance of Washington, DC, and is the race for a ‘hidden’ location that was obvious to me at Chapter 50 (about 2/5ths of the way thru the book). Fun if empty stuff — cotton candy for the brain.

Update: Thanks to Mark Shea for the link!

Review of “Lost: Via Domus”

I celebrated my official assession to Doctoral Candidacy (and some other good news) by finishing LOST: Via Domus, which I began a while ago. Via Domus (translated as “The Way Home” in the game”), is composed of four “episodes” that take place parallel to the main action of LOST: Force Majeure, A New Day, Via Domus, Forty-Two, Hotel Persephone, Whatever It Takes, and Worth a Thousand Words, each with about an hour of gamepplay. The game concerns a character who wakes up shortly after the original airline crash, not knowing his name or why he was onboard.

The island is beautifully rendered, but unfortunately one cannot explore much of it. Like Half-Life 2, there is an invisible rail that guides the player. At all times, there is a right thing to do, and a right place to be. This can be annoying, as alternative solutions that do not fit within the pre-written story are generally impossible to execute. At times this is annoying, such as when your character refuses to take a little detour, and instead has to run away from a smoke monster while carrying dynamite.

However, while gameplay can be limiting, the writing is fantastic. In most games, you play through the protaganist. In via domus, you play as him. The first time I realized this I was perturbed, but then I realized it was an original perspective on gameplay. While the main character decides what he wants, it is your puppeteering that gets him there. This at times raises moral qualms. The ending is more satisfying than most video game endings, as well.

I enjoyed LOST: Via Domus. I recommend it to anyone with an XBOX 360 or a sufficiently powerful PC.