Tag Archives: Mao Zedong

The Rise of the Communists and the Fall of the KMT

This week I read Strategy and the Chinese Civil War by my friend, Adam Elkus. The piece appeared in a special edition, “Strategic Misfortunes,” of Infinity Journal. IN a private communication, Adam told me the piece “dispense[s] with some of the CPP’s own myth-making,” which I agree with. It’s a fascinating article, and one that knee-caps the idea that Mao Zedong was particularly unusual in his knowledge of agrarian guerrilla warfare. (Mao certainly, however, was a fantastic self-promoter.)

KMT China Was A Failed State

I think I disagree with Elkus’s article in one area. Throughout the article Adam writes as if the KMT was an effective government; that is, as if China was not already a failed state by the time that Chiang Kaishek seized power. While this point does not problematize Elkus’ assertion that the rise of the Communists was result of KMT military failure, it should clarify that KMT military failure was primarily a result of KMT political failure, and not simply the result of a few bad strategic decisions.

In the rest of this post I want to take issue with several points of the KMT chronology laid out by Elkus, including

1. The “KMT” that ran mainland China between and 1949, and Taiwan from 1946-2000, is a successor to the “KMT” founded by Sun Yatsen in Beijing.
2. The KMT conducted a White Terror in mainland China in the 1920s
3. The KMT attempted to use the NRA to eliminate the Communist Party
4. The KMT embarked on the Strong Point offensive for primarily military, and not political, reasons

The [Chinese] KMT Was  Never A Secret Society

China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War motivated the Qing leaders to create a powerful and bureaucratic military organized around European lines with the aid of German advisers. The 1911 revolution was not won by mass mobilization; Sun Yat-Sen’s GMD was a secret society that focused its efforts on winning over intellectuals, economic elites, and soldiers in Qing military forces. Yuan Shikai, Marshal of the Qing’s forces, defected with his elite Beiyang Army to Sun’s side and tilted the military balance in favor of the rebels. A lack of political consensus over the structure and distribution of political power helped fragment the military balance and thus create the impetus for China’s infamous ‘warlord period’.

In Chinese histories there are two political parties known as “KMT,” which Adam calls “GMD.” The first, known in simplified hanzi as 國民黨 and literally translated as National People’s Party, was a reorganization of secret societies founded by Sun Yatsen for the purpose of overthrowing the Qing dynasty and institution an anti-Manchu race war in mainland Chinese. The others, sometimes known as the “KMT” or the “Chinese KMT,” known in traditional hanzi as 中國國民黨, and literally translated as the “China National People’s Party,” was founded by Sun Yatsen in 1919-1923 with Soviet Assistance (in nearly the same time and place and with nearly the same cast as the founding of the Communist Party), for the purpose of overthrowing the Beijing Government and reconquering the foreign concessions on Mainland China.

More seriously, the and its predecessors (the Revolutionary Alliance, the Revive China Society, etc) played only a marginal role in the collapse of the Qing. The Qing collapsed because of an outbreak of racial violence (including genocide) along Rwandan lines against the Manchu minority, combined with the military coup by the Yuan Shikai. Sun, the foreign face of the intervention, was not involved.

(Throughout this article I will reference to both parties simply as “KMT.” Elkus uses the term “GMD,” based on the pinyin transliteration of the name, that was never used at the time to refer to the KMT, and is only rarely used to refer to the Chinese KMT.)

The KMT Was Incapable of Conducting a White Terror

German influence may have been eventually eclipsed by the Soviets, but German ideas still figured strongly in GMD doctrine and operations. GMD and CCP political-military commanders both had military training in Europe and received training from Soviet advisers in the Whampoa Military Academy, before the White Terror suppression of CCP forces in Shanghai and beyond by the GMD that ended their putative alliance in the late 1920s. Both the GMD and the CCP adopted political commissar systems and were strongly influenced by the Soviet idea of the party army

Adam Elkus is not alone is calling the April 12 Incident a “White Terror,” but the term “White Terror” dramatically exaggerates the scale and competency of the KMT at the time.

Here is are some comparisons of other “White Terrors

  • April 12 Incident: 350 dead
  • Greek White Terror: 1,200 dead
  • Hungarian White Terror: 1,300 dead
  • Taiwanese White Terror: 3,500 dead
  • Bulgarian White Terror: 5,000 dead
  • German White Terror: 15,000 dead
  • Finnish White Terror: 20,000 dead
  • Russian White Terror: Tens of Thousands
  • Spanish White Terror: 200,000 dead

While the April 12 incident was aimed at destroying the urban wing Chinese Communist Party, the KMT had neither the capability or will to enforce a “terror.”

The KMT Allowed the Communists to Escape

The final encirclement campaign severely reduced the CCP base areas. The GMD’s aggressive pursuit of the Communist remnants during the torturous Long March destroyed nine tenths of CCP military power. Were it not for the onset of Japanese aggression, it is quite likely that the GMD would have completely destroyed the weakened CCP forces. The Second Sino-Japanese War not only provided breathing room for the CCP, but also allowed the CCP the opportunity to finally compete for political authority on a national scale. CCP forces infiltrated behind Japanese lines to organize the masses against the Japanese and build up a power base.

As in contemporary mainland China, the relationship between the Army, Party, and Government is ambiguous. As this is the only section of my post that deals primarily with military matters, I will refer to the armed-wing of the KMT’s State-Military-Party triarchy by its name at the time, the “National Revolutionary Army” or NRA.

The only area where Elkus succumbs to Communist myth-making is in two sentences, where Elkus claims

1. The National Revolutionary Army aggressively persued the remnants of the Chinese Soviet Republic. Thus, the collapse in Communist personnel from 86,000 to 7,000 in one year was because of successful attacks by the NRA on the CSR troops
2. The Japanese invasion for the major obstacle to the NRA destruction of the CSR in Yan’an

Both of these claims are incorrect.

First, the CSR military was composed of informally conscripted troops, the majority of whom defected as soon as they were able. The collapse of the CSR terror apparatus during the beginning of the long march thus began wave after wave of escapes, leaving the CSR to be composed exclusively of (a) a small group of fanatical believers and (b) warlords and fighters who had death sentences from the KMT that they were unable to negotiate away. The KMT’s decision to have the NRA allow the CSR forces to escape is in keeping with Sun-Tzu’s maxim to avoid a victory of annihilation, and instead allow one’s enemy a means of escape.

Second, the NRA was unable to destroy the Communists, not because of the Japanese, but because the NRA was a simply the strongest of many militias operating in mainland China at the time. The true battle was not military, but political. Rival claimants to KMT supremacy, such as the “Christian Warlord” Feng Yuxiang (and his confusingly named “KMA,” or Nationalist Army), Wang Jingwei (who may or may not have been the legitimate President of the Republic of China), and Song Qingling) (the ultra-hot widow of Sun Yatsen), and the father-and-son duo Zhang Zuolin and Zhang Xueliang (who kept Mussolini’s daughter as a mistress and later was powerful enough to kidnap Chiang Kaichek, eventually going on to the longest-serving political prisoner in recorded history) prevented Chiang and the KMT from being able to consider the liquidation of any one faction as either necessary or desirable.

The KMT Was Fighting For Bargaining Position, Not Victory

Thus, the GMD decided to embark on the Strong Point offensive, an attempt to destroy the CCP’s political apparatus to the west in Yan’an as well as the trapped CCP army in the east.[xxxi] The Strong Point offensive was based on the tenuous assumptions that the GMD had secured its conquered territory and could afford to shift its effort away from the northeast and northern theaters. It failed to finish off the CCP, even though it came close enough that the party headquarters in Yan’an were evacuated.[xxxii] By the end of the Strong Point offensive in 1947, the CCP still had its strategic base in the northeast, and the GMD had failed to fully pacify a single region or completely destroy the Communist mobile armies. The GMD’s strategic reserves were exhausted, and it lacked the resources to properly defend all of its gains. The GMD held the coastline and all of the major cities and railroads from Shaanxi to Shandong, but this counted for little as long as Communist armies remained intact.

The Strong Point offensive was founded on a political, and not military, assumption: that a partition of China was now inevitable. China in 1947 was believed to be divided by three large patrons, each with client regions

  • Britain, and her client Tibet and colony Nepal
  • Russia, and her clients Manchuria, Mongolia, East Turkestan
  • The US, and her client KMT, on the mainland and Taiwan

The KMT correctly concluded that it was inconceivable any of the major foreign powers would completely abandon all of their Chinese clients. Thus, national reunification was impossible. The KMT’s strategy at that point was to abandon attempts to reunify by force any area in the zone of a patron state, and instead attempt to consolidate the zone within the patronage of her patron, the US. The KMT also realized that time was not on its side: in the absence of a home-grown military solution, the large powers would likely partition China at the Yellow River.

Thus, the Strong Point’s assumption was not that the Communists had been defeated in Manchuria, but that the Communists were about to win a political victory everywhere north of the Yellow River unless the facts on the ground changed, rapidly.

Final Analysis

Elkus’s Strategy and the Chinese Civil War is a vital piece, in that it shatters the myth that Mao was a particularly insightful guerrilla leader, or that Communism was particularly attractive to the Chinese people in the 1930s and 1940s. It can be improved by further recognizing that the KMT, another Leninist Party, was likewise unpopular, ill-equipped, and indecisive.

Chiang, Mao, and Wang

Middle to late 20th century China was dominated by three men.

Wang Jingwei was the most educated. He spoke English with his friends, and went to graduate school oversees. Predictably, he cast in his lot with the Japanese.

Chiang Kaishek was an adolescent in a Japanese military academy. He was the first publicly known Chinese “Red,” famous for an early attack on the middle class in Canton. Predictably, he became famous fighting both the Japanese and the Communists, and was a pro-American leader.

Mao Zedong was a librarian who hated to travel. Into his old age he would quote classical poetry, and he spent the least time abroad of any of these men. Predictably, he launched the anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution and throw in his lote with the Soviet Union’s “internationalism.”

I begin this way because of a recent thread on Chicago Boyz, “CHINA-BURMA-INDIA: Remembering the Forgotten Theater of World War II” by onparkstreet. The discussion of this post revolved around two American Generals, Claire Chennault and Joseph Stillwell, who had dramatically impressions of Chiang Kaishek’s commitment to the American cause during the Second World War.

Chennault (whose wife was a Beijinger) believed that Chiang was a brilliant leader willing to take risks to drive back Imperial Japan and its client, the Nanjing Regime of Wang Jingwei. Stillwell (who spoke Chinese and lived in Beijing for four years during the 1920s) believed that Chiang was corrupt imbecile who refused to engage in any real fighting against the Empire of Japan.

Both were half right. Chiang was a brilliant leader who refused to engage in any real fighting against the Empire of Japan.

The reason for this is that Chiang, like Wang (But unlike Mao) was not a romantic fool. Chiang and Wang both quickly realized that China was so weak and divided that no Chinese faction could seriously influecne the fate of the great powers, but all were in danger of extinction. Therefore Chiang and Wang both bided there time and let fate have its way.

In this way, Chiang and Wang shared a perspective with Deng Xiaoping, who in his old age wrote to his senior followers:

Observe carefully, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership. Enemy troops are outside the walls. They are stronger than we. We should be mainly on the defensive.

Sickness took Wang Jingwei’s life in 1944. After Mao’s reckless pro-attack stance lead to the liquidation of the Communist Party in Hebie during Japan’s “Three-Alls” reprisal campaign, the Communists also took the defensive.

The fall of Japan spelled the end of the Wang Regime, but both the Communists and the KMT benefited from their defensive posture. Because cadres of both parties (the CCP and the KMT) and armies (the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, and the KMT’s National Revolutionary Army, or NRA) were largely intact, both were able to radically remake post-war society following the establishment of the Communist Regime in Beijing and the KMT Regime in Taipei Regime in 1949.

What Mao meant by “Left” and “Right”

How could Mao Zedong call the Chairman of the Communist Party, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and the Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China “Rightist,” while also labeling the Soviet Union “Rightist,” while confiding to Nixon that he trusted governments of Rightists more than governments of Leftists?

Because those terms meant different things to Mao than they mean to us.

The iconic picture from Tiananmen Square, showing the Goddess of Democracy starring at Chairman Mao Zedong, is often interpretted to show Democracy starring down Communism. Rather, the Goddess and the Chairman were two faces of what intellectualls in the square would have identified as Leftism: a belief in the spontaneous power of the people to organize amongst themselves for the common good when an oppressive regime has been removed.

Both the portrait of the Chairman and the statue of the Goddess were positioned along the Central Axis, or “Dragon Line,” of Beijing. While they face each other, they both look at right angles away from Zhongnanhai, a former imperial garden and public park where the Communist leadership lives and works. At the time of Tiananmen the party machinery was led by Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, two survivors from the old days fighting the KMT. Deng and Chen were two faces of what reflective officials in Zhongnanhai would have identified as Rightism: a belief in the importance of an educated bureaucracy to guide a people basically incompetent to look after themselves.

In the days before the Massacre the protesters showed classic signs of what Mao would have termed the people’s spontaneous energy



(If the liberated area of Beijing actually stretched to the Third Ring Road, as Wikileaks implies, this would have included all of non-suburban Beijing in 1989. The term ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’ may thus be as much of a misnomer as if the fall of 1871 Battle of Paris as the “Place de la Concorde Massacre'”)

Understanding that the Massacre was interpreted by all reflective individuals involved as a a Left/Right struggle is critical to understanding the 40 years that proceeded it, and the 22 since:

Under slogans such as “Down with one-party dictatorship!” and greatly aided by the KMT (full of spies, wildly corrupt, and distracted by the greatest purge in the history of 20th-century regimes), the Chinese Communist Party established “New China” in 1949. After referring itself to a time as simply the Republic of China, and then trying on Democratic People’s Republic of China, the new regime soon settled on calling itself the “People’s Republic of China.”

The Communists made many promises to gain power, and broke nearly all of them.

The regime was lead by its Chairman, Mao Zedong, with tremendous help from Returned Students (including Deng Xiaoping) and the Whampoa Clique (such as Lin Biao). Certainly highly-influential people, including Premier Zhou Enlai, acted as godfather to both factions. But 1949 China had not yet been purged of ideology, and both Left and Right tendencies were visible to Mao in the party.

Mao’s dilemma, as a Leftist, is that naive attempts to simply exterminate the bureaucratic class had failed as early in the Chinese Soviet Republic (1931-1937). The CSR’s attempt at Leftism failed for the same reason the first liberal Chinese Republic failed in the 1910s: material conditions had not created a sufficient number of liberals to lead the country in the 1910s, as it had not created a sufficient number of educated peasants to lead the CSR in the 1930s.

Mao’s struggle, from 1949 till his head, was to allow the Right to build up the State, the Military, and the Bureaucracy, to safeguard the development of the peasantry until the time they were able to spontaneously organize. Thus, Mao typically governed as a Rightist in order to build Leftism.

Mao’s right-hand man and nemesis, Zhou Enlai, had the opposite estrategy. Zhou’s great legacy was to rebuild the bureaucracy that had nearly been destroyed by a serious of revolutions following 1911. Mao needed Zhou as a Rightest leader to give the Leftist cohorts he was building up time to mature. Zhou needed Mao’s political power and cover to build a Rightist bureaucracy. Between the two of them they allowed 100 million Chinese to die, because neither was willing to abandon the other in their opposing quest to change China.

Mao’s first designated successor, Liu Shaoqi, was a Rightist whose prestige was greatly helped by Mao’s failed Left-wing shock, the Great Leap Forward. Unfortunately for Liu, he was one of the first victims of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s second designated successor, Lin Biao, spoke and agitated as a Leftist, while secretly believing in Rightism and governing as one, as well. Lin became one of the last victims of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s third designated successor, Wang Hongwen was a Leftist. He also was proof of Mao’s fear that the peasantry was not yet competent enough to govern. Wang was simply shoved aside due to general incompetence and political impotence, though he would be arrested, tried, and jailed (for a time) later following Mao’s death.

Mao’s fourth designated successor, Hua Guofeng, and Hua’s successor, Deng Xiaoping both attempted to straddle the Left-Right divide, but for different reasons than Mao.

Mao was a Leftist who used Rightists as tools. Hua was a harmless opportunitist whose only contribution was to promise to say whatever Mao would have said, and do whatever Mao would have done (really!). Deng, in contrast, viewed both the Left and Riught as tools to helping China stand up.

Deng, like Mao, was an earthy fellow. Both enjoyed shocking audiences, Mao with profanity and Deng with undiplomatic honesty. Both felt extremely comfortable granting and taking favor from former peasants. While Mao was a romantic who truly believed in the self-organizing ability of the people, however, Deng had traveled abroad and learned a much deeper lesson: being poor sucks. From watching his friends die at a French factory, to learning his father had to sell land to support his living experiences overseas, Deng keenly believed that China’s problem was not a distant bureacracy but grinding poverty.

Like Mao, Deng could attack the Bureaucrats when it suited him (and both called them “women with bound feet” at times). Like Mao, Deng could rely on Rightists to govern for him, or take away their power when it seemed to obstruct the economic power of the people. Unlike Mao, however, Deng lived without a romantic sensibility, and so could easily believe cases were disasterous levels of incompetence emerged from trusting the common people.

Deng’s lack of heart-felt Leftism lead him to be purged three times (and to the crippling of his son), but his usefulness as an attack-dog against bureaucrats, his focus on results, his ability to praise Mao as long as Mao lived, and his wide network of friends meant he was never permanently gone.

Mao used the right to built the Left, Zhou used the Left to build the Right, Deng used the Right and Left to build China.

In the present day, China has a Bureaucracy that runs the second-largest economy in the world. While it’s relative size is probably smaller than in ancient days, this is the greatest performance for the bureaucracy in China’s history since the Great Divergence.

Also in the present day, China has a population that is connected to the world and knowledgeable about it. While it’s relative freedom is probably smaller than during the Republic, this is the greatest performance for the people since the Nanjing Decade.

When I visit China I am struck by the admiration for Mao, Zhou, and Deng, though of the three only Zhou is considered to be perfect. Opinions on Mao range from “Mao is #1” to “Mao is Evil,” while Deng’s reputation is admiration for the economic miracle combined with sadness at the increase in crime, corruption, and class differences.

In both China and the West the terms “left” and “right” seem to originate with the idea that the “right” is in support of the ruling powers while the “left” is opposed. At the time these terms were first used, however, the sttaus quo in the West meant rich landowners whose origins traced to the feudal era, while in Chian the status quo meant the powerful bureaucracy. In both China and the United States the Left/Right divide relates to the citizen’s relation to power: in China Left therefore meant being opposed to the bureaucracy, while in the West Left meant being opposed to the rich or the socially normal.

Review of “Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958 – 1962,” by Frank Dikotter

After some books, I have the impression of having fleshed out my understanding with a broader knowledge of a subject

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe by Frank Dikotter is definitely one of these books. A “social history” in the best sense of the word, Mao’s Great Famine focuses on the leadership, the implementation, and the consequences of the man-made famine that killed at least 45,000,000 Chinese. Dikotter convincingly argues that the Great Leap Forward had a higher death-tool and was more disruptive than the Cultural Revolution, as the Great Leap Forward primarily targeted farmers. The book is a useful addition to my library.

Unlike most histories of the Chinese Communist Party , Mao’s Great Famine is primarily a social history concerned with the experience of common Chinese during the autogenocide that killed approximately one out of every ten Chinese people.

The book begins, and ends, on the top. All the usual suspects are there.

There’s Lin Biao, the perpetually ill (But with what? PTSD? acute anxiety? fibromyagia) marshall, who realized that the secret to success in a system built on lies is to just lie through your teeth:

The thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct… Chairman Mao’s superiority has many aspects, not just one, and I know from experience that Chairman Mao’s most outstanding quality is realism. What he says is much more realistic than what others say. He is always pretty close to the mark. He is never out of touch with reality… I feel very deeply that when in the past our work was done well, it was precisely when we thoroughly implemented and did not interfere with Chairman Mao’s thought. Every time Chairman Mao’s ideas were not sufficiently respected or suffered interference, there have been problems. That is essentially what the history of our party over the last few decades shows.

And there’s Liu Shaoqi, a man whose temperament would have been perfectly fit for the post of, say the East German Minister of Agriculture

So many people have died of hunger.. History will judge you [Mao Zedong] and me, even cannibalism will go into the books!

And there’s Zhou Enlai, Lin’s mentor, lying through his teeth

This was my mistake… the shortcomings and errors of the last few years occurred precisely when we contravened the general line and Chairman Mao’s precious instructions

And there’s Mao himself, as profoundly alone as a man can be:

The Three Red Banners have been shot down, now land is being divided up again… What have you done to resist this? What’s going to happen after I’m dead?

Dikotter does introduce new facts about the high-levels of government during the Great Leap Forard. For instance, Dikotter documents that the massive grain shipments to the Soviet Union during the Great Leap Forward, which are often cited by Chinese as a reason for mass death, but traditionally denied by western historians, actually did happen, Likewise, Dikotter at least implies that Mao’s paranoia of Peng Dehui‘s cooperation with Soeviet authorities wasn’t entirely baseless. But Maos Great Famine does not end there. Indeed, it just begins.

In a recent article on Chinese student applications to American colleges,” the New York Times had for a while a multimedia feature, showing full-page scans of “admission brochures” prepared by Chinese high school students. A page of one brochure had this sentence:

My philosophy: The God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

This sentence, combined with the National Exam mentality and the scholar-bureaucrat tradition, go a great deal of the way to explaining the Great Leap Forward’s death toll of 45 million people. In sum:

To obtain a promotion, excel at meeting a simple, well-known metric
To keep your position, simply obey your superior

In the context of the Great Leap Forward, the way for a bureaucrat to be promoted was to report an increase in one of the few metrics that mattered (say, grain produced in the county). The way not to be fired was to simply obey the instruction to collect farm taxes in the form of, say, 30% of the reported harvest. The logical end-point of this is reporting a harvest 300% larger than the actual harvest, and collecting 100% of the actual harvest to pay in taxes.

This is exactly what happened.

But in another sense, this hides what happened. The story of Mao, Zhou, Liu, and Lin is the story of the leadership. The mundane world of the bureaucrats is the world of the mechanism. The section of the book titled “Ways of Dying” is what actually happened.

I won’t describe that section, except to say it brought to tears, and it involves a simple formula:

The motivation of a starving worker to work is his fear of torture less his weakness from malnourishment.

That is exactly what happened.

Mao’s Great Famine, especially the ways of dying section, was a hard book to read. It is also a hard book to review. It is written by a European, and thus the style is different from either the nostalgic nature of Chinese histories, or facts-first nature of American histories. This is a good book to read, and it makes a persuasive case for a minimum death toll of 45 million.

Mao’s Great Famine is best read along with The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers. One tells how the Party reacts in bad times, and the other in good, but it is the same party, the same mechanism, the same people (or their children or grandchildren) — only the leadership has changed.

This is a disturbing book, and not a comfortable one to read, but critical for understanding the nature of Mao’s rule.

When Stalinism is a Good Thing

The birth of modern science in the 19th century allowed the emergence of the modern state. Previously, the state could only spend extracted wealth in two ways:

  • Consumption by elites
  • Fighting other states
  • Charity

The evolutionary consequences of these actions have been described by Greg Clark in his history, A Farewell to Alms. In the context of generations, it was not obvious which of these is the best strategy. Pre-scientific production methods meant that the population would equal a land’s carrying capacity, adjusted for hygiene.  Thus, luxuries and wars that reduced the number of people through starvation and death lead to an increase in quality of life, as the society’s essentially fixed resources were shared by fewer people. Conversely, charity lead to an increase in the population, leading to greater misery among more people.

In this pre-scientific, zero-sum world, people still competed for power — two stable solutions seem to have been found. The first involved monopolizing trade routes, allowing a small but technologically advanced population to live in significant comfort. The Mongol, Dutch, English, and Americans were examples of this strategy. The second involved monopolizing access to land, allowing an even smaller but powerful elite to live off the taxes extracted from a larger, and more miserable, population. The Habsburg dynasties of Europe, and the Han of China, tended toward this solution.

The Scientific management of the economy was a breakthrough, new way of organizing a country, in which a rational allocation of resources would lead to economic growth. Public education rapidly spread this method, and by the early twentieth centuries the bureaucratic power needed to fix this solution had become ingrained in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia, and (through educated and westernized bureaucratic elites) most countries in the world. New Deal Liberalism, Socialism, Fascism, Aryanism, and Communism were all modern ideologies that assumed a scientific approach toward growth.

The last significant attempt to turn back this tide began in 1966, during Mao’s launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR),  in which he purposefully destroyed the Party and State apparati which gave him scientific control over his country, and tried to turn back the hands of history.

The part of the CR that puzzled me when I called it “insane” was that nearly all obvious political objectives were achieved immediately. The President, the head of the military, the Party Chairman, the Mayor and Vice-Mayor of Beijing — the entire faction that had attempted to minimize Mao’s influence as a result of the Great Leap Forward were kicked out of power within a year.

If Mao had taken notes of Stalin’s purges, if he had instituted a scientific approach to terror, the history of the Cultural Revolution would have been radically better. Stalin went about rationally eliminating political groups he posed a threat to him — the Old Bolsheviks, the Trotskites, the Kulaks, the Generals, etc. By comparison, among Mao’s enemies were medicine, engineering, and Chinese characters.

While in Russian history Soviet Gigantism is a soulless epoch of architecture, in Chinese history it is a rare moment of sane civil planning. Gigantic public works assume that one is able to rationally control forces of nature through the application of mathematics.

The question is not one of power-maximization v. polity service. Indeed, I doubt Mao and Chiang Kaishek (CKS) would disagree with Louis XIV that “l’etat cest moi,” and see the dichotomy as an artificial one. Rather, Mao and CKS rejected rational planning, the strategic offense, the engaged executive, and other universal aspects of western management as foreign.

Mao and CKS only had exposure to Stalin as a source of funding, organizational support, and/or adversary. From 1921 to about 1945, the USSR was consistently more pro-KMT than the United States. It was the next generation of leadership — and in particular the Returned Students such as Deng Xiaoping and Chiang Chingkuo (CCK) — that actually were educated in a Stalinist system. Deng and CCK would exhibit a degree of rational inhumanity that was completely beyond Mao and CKS’s reach. A good example is political prisoners:

  1. Upon his accession to supreme power, Deng began a general amnesty that freed a variety of “class enemies,” including surviving officials of the pro-Japanese Collaborationist Government, KMT officials, East Turkestani officials, and Tibetan franc tirerus, but not supporters of Lin Biao. Thus, actual, unreformed enemies of the state were granted freedom, though heroes of the revolution whose only crime was to stop Mao at a time that Deng himself was in internal exile were kept in prison.
  2. Following (1), CCK denied applications for political asylum but active KMT members who were released from Custody by Deng, and censored an ailing CKS’s mails to prevent him from receiving petitions. However, CCK’s own protege Lee Tenghui had been a member of the Chinese Communist Party and had joined out of a “hatred of the KMT.” Thus, while the KMT hierarchy was composed of former Communist cell members, KMT political prisoners were forced to live either in China or in Hong Kong (if they could evade Crown border security).

I am not aware of CKS or Mao acting in such a Stalinist manner. Both men were stylized as Emperors — both were hailed with “Ten Thousand Years!” a public display of personal immortality that makes Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich seem humble by comparison. Stalin, Hitler, and for that matter Deng and CCK, shared an essentially mechanical and modern view of history. They are recognizably 20th century figures, and would be profoundly out of place in the 12 century. Mao and CKS both would have been happier in that world.

A last comment on purges: Mao’s purges differed greatly from Stalin’s in that (a) they were completed almost immediately, (b) outside the judicial system, (c) without blood. Removing any official was easy — Mao would ‘suggest’ they issue a self-criticism outlining their ‘mistakes’ (not crimes, mistakes), at which time the party would issue a censor, either a temporary reassignment or (at an extreme) stripping of party membership. Stalin’s victims would have greatly preferred this treatment!

The “craziness,” — that is the rational anti-modernism — of the CR was the targeted destruction on modern tools of state power. The Communist Party and People’s Republic were abolished as administrative entities, and the resulting ad hoc Red Guard committees were themselves banished to the countryside. One cannot imagine Hitler simultaneously destroying both the Reich and the Nazi Party, as we would expect him to somehow be acting in a modernist fashion, executing a rational plan with the expectation that his power would be greater at the end. Mao did not believe in western notions of planning or control, and attempted to eradicate the means of doing either. This is not unique to him — the Empress Dowager launched an almost identical campaign against her government that was known to the world as the Boxer Rebellion.

Taiwan, in contrast, benefited from the filial piety of the Chiang family. It was expected that CCK would be loyal to his father, and that CKS would transfer his power to his son as part of his inheritance. Thus, as conditions changed between generations, CCK was able to harness elements of power that CKS would not have had patience for (that is, planning and control).

An almost identical transition occurred between the Kangxi Emperor and his father, the Shunzhi Emperor, in the 17th century. In that case, filial piety allowed the Manchus to transition from a kinship-based tribal kingdom to a national-based Imperial elite. Similarly, the Chiang’s filial piety allowed the KMT to transition from a national-level government of warlords to an island-level Leninist state.

Stalinism killed ten million people in the Soviet Union. It may have been marginally worse than Nazi rule of eastern Europe. However, as a scientific ideology, it was infinitely better than the dead and violent end of Mao Zedong Thought.

Review of “The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan” by Jay Taylor

In The Microsoft Way, historian Randall Stross argues that the market for IBM-compatible PC software in the 1980s and 1990s was contested by two competent companies, Microsoft and Inuit, and a train load of incompetent competitors. While most entrants to that market got lucky once or twice, and rode that cash cow as long as it could, Microsoft and Intuit were able to execute short-term tactics and long-term strategies. If such a view can be transplated to Chinese history, the Chinese Civil War was a multi-way battle with a large number of incompetent, violent and lucky competitors, and three factions actually capable of both winning and ruling

The Returned Students

The Whampoa Clique

The Youth Corps

In this view of history, the fight for China was not between Chiang Kaishek and Mao Zedong, two lucky competitors, but by these three interlocking factions which used allegience to Chiang or Mao as a way of deflecting charges of ambition. The first of these three factions, the Returned Students, were those who had earned a Continental education in the west, either from a study-abroad program in France or from Sun Yatsen University in Moscow. The second of these factions, the Whampoa Clique, where those who were faculty or students at the “West Point of China,” the Whampoa Military Academy in Canton City. The third of these factions, the Youth Corp, established as a cannibalizing agent, “in but not of” the KMT.

These three factions overlapped. Zhou Enlai, Mao’s second-in-command, was a Returned Student who taught at Whampoa. Chiang Chingkuo, Chiang’s second-in-command after the relocation to Taiwan, was a Returned student who was the Vice Chairman of the Youth Corps.  These factions even overlap with my own life — my wife’s grandfather studied at Whampoa.

These three factions, like Microsoft and Intuit, shared a focus on a high-quality work force. The active members of these three organizations during their youth were young men who wanted to make a difference and despised corruption. It is easy to forget that Zhou Enlai was only 30 when he met a much younger Chiang Chingkuo in Moscow, and told him to tone down his criticizing   father, because it was unbecoming of a son. It is easy to forget that Lin Biao was only 27 during the Long March. It is even easier not to know that Ching Chungkuo, as director of Taiwan’s security services, warned Zhou Enlai of an upcoming attempt on his life — and that Zhou Enlai seemingly did not inform Mao of this. While most factions in the civil war — the Kwantung Army, the Left KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Army, and others were to varying extents patriots of their cause, only these three were able to generate the high internal cohesion among young men required to revolutionary China.

My first reaction on reading The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan was that the 20th century was simply one long tragedy. So easily, so many things could have gone so much better. What if Chiang had given Zhou Enlai the freedom at Whampoa that he later gave that other Communist, Chiang Ching-kuo? What if General Stillwell, who despised Chiang and helped lead American public opinion against the KMT, and met the up-and-coming Chingkuo (who substantively agreed with him on every important issue)? What if, what if?

But to do so, I think, ignores the utter chaos that befell China twice: after the fall of the Benedict Arnold of China, and after the Japanese Invasion.While a unified front would have been better, the emergence of three competent factions (composing a total of, say 100 able individuals) was a miracle in itself. That the old men of the east were stuck in the poetic worlds of Confucius and the Water Margin, and thus their attempts to modernize China were poisoned by a lethal dose of corruption and internal violence, is perhaps not as notable as the men they had around them.

The difference between Kaishek and Zedong was not their military strategy (both were adherents of the Strategic Retreat), their cosmology (Mao famously scored Zero Points on the mathematics portion of his college entrance exam; Chiang Kaishek famously expressed astonishment that Burma had a rainy season that would interfer with military operations), their management style (“working toward the Chairman,” allowing them to capture all glory and escape all blame), or their willingness to betray their followers. Rather, the difference was this: Chiang was capable of trust, Mao was not. As they reached the age when succession planning became increasingly important: Chiang turned Taiwan over to the men of the Youth Corps.  Mao turned on the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique in a holocaust of violence.

Sun Yatsen, the (theoretically) Hawaiian-born first President of China, had this has his political motto: That a government of the people, by the people, and for the people should be established in China. Through this Youth Corps, Taiwan finally realized these Three People’s Principles through the integration of the Mainland and Taiwanese political elites, economic development, and last through democracy. A government “by the people” was established on Taiwan in stages, from the lifting of Martial Law in 1987, the legalization of a free press in 1988, the first fair elections to the Legislative Yuan in 1992, the first direct Presidential election in 1996, the first election of an opposition President in 2000, and the democratic return to power of the previously ruling party in 2008. Perhaps China, now firmly ruled by those given positions by the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique, will soon begin on this last, trickiest path.

Jay Taylor’s The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan is an excellent book, and a worthy “prequel” to Taylor’s more recent book, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China. But just as that book does not stand alone, this does not either. Taylor’s biography of Kaishek should be read with Tuchman’s biography of General Stillwell, as otherwise the public declarations of America’s general in China that, if he were a young man, he would grab a gun and fight for Mao is inexplicable. In the same way, Taylor’s biography of Chingkuo must be read with Gao’s Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary to understand that the Youth Corps’ true competitors were not the incompetent and lucky, like the Soong Dynasty and the C-C Clique, but those on the other side of the Straits — the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique.

The Microsoft-Intuit battle very nearly ended in 1995, after the leadership of the Microsoft and Intuit cliques agreed to a cash-and-stock buyout of Intuit by Microsoft. This was only averted through direct U.S. Government actions. The parallels to the possible near future are striking.

China: Past, Present, and Future

Until Deng Xiaoping, there had been no wise Chinese leaders in the 20th century… only misguided idealists.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair sums it up well (h/t Tom Barnett)

Prior to 1949, China was a deeply riven and unequal society. There was a reason for the civil war and the multiple invasions of foreign powers. There was a reason for the upheaval of 1949. In the first 30 years came the completion of the revolution and the establishment of the People’s Republic

When you read about the Army-Parties in Iraq, and satirical pieces about “Afghan Presidential Election A Celebration of All Forms of Government,” one reads headlines that could have come from China in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, or 1940s.

The great men in China before Deng Xiaoping accomplished a lot, but may have destroyed even more

Sun Yatsen smashed the apartheid Qing dynasty, and replaced a slowly modernizing force for peace with political chaos and famine. Sun was never able to hold power, due to…

Yuan Shikai, who may have been the most able leader of the century. Originally the Imperial Governor of the capital district, Yuan negotiated the transition from the Empire of the Great Qing to the Republic of China. Using the Vatican City-State as a model, the Imperial Household obtained foreign head-of-state status in Beijing, with the Forbidden City and Summer Palace as sovereign territory. Yuan proceeded to throw all his contributions away by declaring himself emperor. The national ourage replaced revolutionary chaos with warlord barbarism. This was ended by…


Chiang Kaishek, who abolished the warlords system, largely at the price of redefining “loyal” warlords as general. Throughout World War II he acted as he was — the most powerful warlord among many — and kept of a de jure resistance against Japan while primarily struggling against the Communist insurgents and his generals (neither an exhaustive or a discrete set of adversaries). Chiang’s misrule lead to the collapse of his armies and the success of…

Mao Zedong, who lead three popular revolutions, only the first of which was good for China. In the Democratic Revolution (began in 1949), the one-party dictatorship of the KMT was replaced by “New Democracy,” in which a multiparty, corporate system of government would exist under the hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party. Using loyal subordinates, Mao pacified the countryside and brought the first peace China had known since Sun Yatsen. Mao immediately threw this way, first in 1950 with the Korean War (which singlehandidly sunk hopes for an early reunification with Taiwan), then with the Socialist Revolution in 1952 (in which “New Democracy” gave way to a clone of Sovietism), and then the Cultural Revolution (when Mao wisely recognized the unpopularity with Sovietism, and replaced it with “great chaos under heaven.”)

Following all these men, Deng Xiaoping took power, and introduced market reforms along with law and order.

Market reforms and the rule of law brought China to greatness.

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 “Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World” by Margaret MacMillan

Yesterday I finished Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan. As is obvious from the title, it concerns the Nixon-Mao visit of 1972 and the drafting of the Shanghai Communique, which famously includes the cryptic line

The US side declared: The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position

MacMillian emphasizes the unlikely nature of the meeting. It did not have to happen. Less time paced from the closing of US mission in Red China in 1950 and Nixon’s visit in 1971 than has elapsed since the Communist Revolution in Cuba or the Islamic Revolution in Iran. However, because of Nixon, we had relations with China after only 21 years, while much longer than that has past in the cases of Cuba and Iran. Indeed, if the author had access to more recent sources, such as Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary (tdaxp review), her case would be even more reinforced. Mao began retaliating against those who carried out his orders to make the opening for Nixon almost immediately after Nixon left.

The book is strongest when it focuses on the events surrounding the talks, such as Al Haig‘s preperatory trip to China and the surprisingly prominent role of Chas Freeman (called by his given name of Charles in the book. While Nixon and Mao was written during the recent Bush administration, an updating volume is already desirable. Chas later sold out to the Saudis and Chinese, was railroaded by Nancy Pelosi for his remarks on the Tiananmen Massacre, and subsequently blamed the Jews.

Nixon and Mao contains numerous, if generally small, errors of fact. These rarely impact the main narrative, and are only annoying or noticeable if you know the situation better than MacMillian. As an example of Mao’s “dig deep” campaign, she says that the Communists built massive tunnels from the Great Hall of the People to Zhongnanhai. As these two locations are catty-corner from each other, both the epic nature and timing of this feat are dubious. Some are more serious (generally, anythign concerning Lin Biao), but the most recent information was not available to her at the time, and Lin was dead during the Nixon-Mao talks, anyway.

Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World reads like two books stapled onto each other. The second half of the book feels more like an original text. It is fast-paced, cleanly structured, informative, and valuable. The second half is boring, meandering, full of psychological theorizing, and occasionally duplicitive of the second half. My assumption is that the second half was submitted to the publisher, rejected because it would have been too much of a scholarly book, and a general interest first half was added. I felt liked giving up on the book a number of times during the first half. Knowing what I know now, I would have just read the second half.

After reading the book, I was struck by the genius of Richard Nixon, and the small-mindedness of the Congress during his administration. While any number of his policies are open to criticism, it is striking that America’s best foreign policy President was paired with the first actively traitorous Congress in American history. No one can take seriously the empty, mind-dead rhetoric of “a nation of laws, not of men” when in our own time few Democrats support impeaching Tim Geithner, or enforcing the same level of openness on Ben Bernanke.

I highly recommend the second half of Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World.