Monday, December 26, 2011

On the birthday of Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong (12/26/1893-9/9/1976) is one of the few, most capable persons that ever lived.  Few people could be ranked among the most prominent thinkers, doers, or writers ever in the world, let alone in all three. 

One of the founding members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  MZD didn’t play a key role in the founding of the party, but he did attend the first National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1921.  Most of 13 delegates and the other, most eminent members dropped out or died early, so MZD turned out to be among the few left standing by 1949.  In MZD’s case, as in all others in the human history, credits and blame must be shared, and luck plays an important yet hard-to-quantify role. 

The most decisive founder of the PRC in 1949.  By leading the Autumn Harvest Uprising in 1927, MZD established one of the first armed forces controlled by CCP.  Even more importantly, he established a base(s) for the army and local government, which served as an example for others and later revolutionary efforts.  As an underdog he fought the warlords and Chinese Nationalists (KMT, 1927-1936), the Japanese (1937-1945), and KMT (1946-1949).  He took part in the legendary Long March (1934-1935) and gradually assumed the leadership of the party and army during that time.  In 1945, KMT outnumbered CCP by about 4:1, yet lost a civil war in less than four years. 

In addition to planning many of the fierce campaigns, MZD was also a theorist, philosopher, and strategist that guided the Revolution.  He was among the first to realize the importance of peasants and countryside in late 1920s, when most communists were looking at only cities.  He initiated reforms and mass organization in rural areas that strengthened the party and army.  He advocated the guerrilla warfare strategies to fight the better-equipped KMT forces and, in 1938, wrote the assay On Protracted War on how to fight and win the war against the Japanese aggression.  He wrote many other books and assays that dealt with the practical strategies of the revolution, the building of the party, army, and PRC.  Only through his deeds and words did MZD become the undisputed leader of CCP by late 1930s. 

One of the most influential literary figures.  MZD’s writing, even ignoring the political messages, is well versed, gripping to read, and easy to understand.  He coined many of phrases still commonly used in China and around the world nowadays.  Also likely the last traditional Chinese poet and one of the best ever.  It is not a stretch to say that he could rank among top 10 or top 5 in over 2000 years of Chinese history.

It is hard to find a comparable figure in China and outside.  In China, a close example is Cao Cao (~ 200 A.D.), who established a kingdom and was a great poet.  But he faced fewer challengers, was less successful, and was never a theorist.  For the rest of the world, George Washington’s men didn’t win any major battles by themselves, Thomas Jefferson was no general, Churchill, even with a Nobel??

MZD’s life is a subject of many studies.  Every single sentence above and below could be expanded into a one-million-word book and more.  Obviously, he has many political opponents and enemies.  Here are some of the most common criticisms, e.g., found in Wiki.

One is that during the anti-Japanese War (1937-1945), MZD advocated a strategy of avoiding open confrontations with the Japanese army and concentrate on guerrilla warfare, while leaving the KMT to take on the brunt of the fighting and suffered tremendous casualties.  This is pure red herring.  CCP forces at the time were few and poorly equipped, even near the end of the War.  Fighting the Japanese head on would have been suicidal and served no good purpose.  In 1937 KMT controlled most of China, most of the manpower and economies, of course they had to assume a bigger role.  Thus, MZD advocated the correct strategy, and there was no “leaving”.  In fact, KMT should have adopted a similar strategy early on, used the still mostly intact armies to attack the advanced Japanese in the countryside, instead of fighting them at the cities.  This would avoid many of the unnecessary casualties, and Japanese would have a hard time defending many cities as well.  Unfortunately, KMT fought hard, lost big, but had little to show for in 1937.  More than one million KMT armies and government officials also surrendered to the Japanese.  There was no major surrender from the CCP side throughout the war, as CCP expanded into many areas lost by KMT.  According to On Protracted War, this was exactly what CCP should be doing and surviving in formerly hostile territories, whose success was by no means guaranteed.  KMT fought many major campaigns and lost most of them and much of the country, right until the very end of the War.  CCP fought and sacrificed in many more, smaller battles and greatly expanded its influence by 1945.  Not discounting KMT’s contributions, anyone would prefer the second outcome.

Another is Great Leap Forward (1958-1961).  Since 1980s, once in a while someone would make a startling discovery, inevitably picked up by the  major news networks, that GLF caused a famine that 20, 30,  to 80 million Chinese starved to death.  This is based on flimsy evidence and politically slaned.  GLF was implemented to quickly industrialize China, and it did achieve some of the goals in many areas but cause food shortage in the countryside in several provinces.  There were many reasons for food shortage, but the headline has always been how many people starved to death or died unnaturally during the period most people look at, 1959-1961.  Most studies used the raw data from中国统计年鉴, published in 1983.  It gives the numbers of "registered" population, births, deaths, and other statistics from the 50s to 70s in China.  A few other studies considered the census results by 1982.  Unfortunately, the statistics did not exactly add up, not only within the same lines, also with later census.  For example, later statistics indicated that people born during 1959-1961 were under-counted.  Some of the startling discoverers then claimed that the 中国统计年鉴authors must have fabricated the numbers to minimize the deaths, so the actual deaths must be corrected further upwards.  The inconsistency, however, is most probably because there was simply no better statistics, and the available data were imprecise in 1983.  China was a vast, poor country with incomplete record or documentation and little experience in census in the 1950-60s, and there were 670 million Chinese, so even a 5% uncertainty could lead to a fluctuation of 33 million in statistics.  In a cold analysis, what likely happened is that GLF caused severe food shortage in some rural areas, which led to migration, reduced births, and unnatural deaths.  But the number of 20, 30, or 80 million, has never been supported by real facts.  One also needs to remember that famine had always been a norm from, e.g., 1900-1949, and the Chinese population and life expectancy increased significantly since 1949.  After GLF and industrialization, there hasn’t been any major famine in China.  And we are not even talking about MZD’s intentions or responsibilities yet.

The last one is Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).  MZD bore more, though not all, responsibility for CR than for GLF, but by all accounts many fewer people died unnaturally than during GLF.  Much of what happened during CR was negative, although CR is a complex issue that defies any simple characterization.  Again, major changes occurred inside China and in its relationship to other countries, and the Chinese population and life expectancy continued to improve, as did most people's life. 

MZD had a lot of power and did a lot of things in his life.  Depending on how one was affected or ideology, it is natural to have very different, even polarizing opinions.  An objective analysis must take into account of what he knew, what he had, what he did, what happened before and after he acted, and what other people did.  There is no denying of his ability, his being a towering figure.  In this sense, one is left agonizing over what might have happened had he not had initiated GLF or CR, especially regarding the negative aspects or consequences?  Here lies a lesson everybody understands but few practice: no matter the system constrains, a person with great ability or authority must always remember to use his power judiciously.