Everything You Wanted to Know About Maoist China, But Were Too Unsure to Ask


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to the Wessex Scene as a whole.

Recently, the Naxalites, a Maoist insurrectionary force, made headlines after the Sukma and Maharashtra-Chattisgarh attack this year. As well as armed clashes in years gone by (two members were recently sentenced to death after killing a superintendent and 5 other policemen) the group have proved themselves a troublesome, yet effective force.

Originating from land disputes and exploitation between rural peasants, tribes, and landowners, the 1967 Naxalite Uprising saw adults and children the victims of police violence, and so violent responses were fostered in kind. After a split in the Communist Party of India, this faction (taking the name ‘Naxalite’) decided their aim was to establish a socialist/communist Indian state through insurrection, ‘the abolition of residual feudalism in the Indian countryside’ that recognises, according to John Maerhofer, ‘the necessity and inevitability of armed struggle’.

District in India affected by Naxalites Communist-Maoist Party in 2013 \ Credit: M Tracy Hunter [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Why then, when most of our minds are conditioned to irk when we hear “Mao” (or possibly even “China”) with thoughts of famine and repression, would anyone care enough about Mao to fight and die in his name?

Just like in 2016 when the majority of Russians said they regret the fall of the Soviet Union and would welcome its revival, understandable when Russian income inequality has increased back to Tsarist pre-1917 levels, is there more to the narrative of death and repression?

A reality that no matter the propaganda, can never be banished from past generation’s lived experience and the objectivity of the period? Focusing on the works of Chinese historians Mobo Gao and Dongping Han, I address aspects of the disavowed reality in Maoist China.

The Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) are dogmatically claimed to be a disaster, further “proof” of the failures of socialist societies. The former sought to advance China’s economy and agricultural production by socialist and collectivist methods, while the latter sought to reinvigorate Chinese communist ideology under Mao, and crackdown on opposition to such. Mobo Gao’s book The Battle for China’s Past in responding to Halliday and Chang’s Mao: The Unknown Story, demonstrates how this popular go-to book makes ‘flawed assertions’, ‘misread sources’, ‘use them selectively’ and ‘out of context’, of which Benton and Tsang repudiated ten major claims in the book (Gao, p. 91). Gao shows how ‘Some scholars have used a very dubious method of arriving at grossly unrealistic and inflated “famine deaths” ‘ (pp. 85-86). Even worse, such dubious claims after becoming consensus can be repeated without any understanding of Mao, his policies or socio-political thought.

For instance, Mao aimed at eradicating the rural-urban divide (Gao, p. 6) via rapid industrialization in the Great Leap Forward, a plan shelved due to famine, then resurrected through the Cultural Revolution where the development ‘provided the critical preconditions for the rapid growth of township and village enterprises in the post-Mao reform period’. An example of this divide is medical care, where:

The Mao Era witnessed China’s great success in improving its citizens’ health profile, though per capita income did not rise proportionally. Despite the disastrous Great Famine, between the 1950s and the 1980s, China experienced a dramatic decline in infant mortality and dramatic increases in life expectancy.

Centralised planning provided ‘a cost-effective measure to redistribute medical resources and organize nationwide campaigns’ against diseases, as well as the ‘creation of a rural commune economy’. This provided collective income to fund rural community health programs, engendering “barefoot doctors” who made significant contributions in rural areas at a time when medical care was largely confined to urban areas (Gao, p. 4).

In the early post-revolution 1950’s the commune-based Cooperative Medical Scheme (CMS) was initiated and by ‘the 1970s an estimated 90% of the rural population was covered by a CMS’. This reversed significantly after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms where ‘by 2003 80% of China’s rural population had no access to health insurance’ (p. 10). These former improvements were made despite the famine, yet after Mao we see the rural-urban, rich-poor divide resurfacing.

Similarly, with the dubious death tolls that haunt the 20th century communist movement, political thought is entrapped away from questions of armed or non-participatory tactics and directed instead towards party politics and liberal policies like increased diversity representation. These fail to challenge the basic scarcity-based power structure of capitalism and its state apparatuses which maintain these groups’ oppression. As Alain Badiou writes when calling for a renewed study on the Cultural Revolution vis-à-vis new archives:

…the great questions of politics and the State [are]today almost banned from thought; it is bathed in an aura of phantasmagoric horror and ultimately in an atmosphere of ignorance and superstition.

This “aura” of “horror” is precisely what Gao and Han’s works dispel with nuance, reminding us that ‘If Chang and Halliday’s 38 million toll is correct that means one in twenty Chinese died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward, something that could not be hidden away no matter how hard the authorities tried’. Further, ‘in the village case studies that I know of, no death toll due to famine during the Great Leap Forward is reported’, these studies including two of the worst hit provinces. (p. 86). Both Gao and Han grew up in rural villages during the Cultural Revolution and famine years, and in their studies of their hometowns (see Han 2000, Han 2001, Gao 1997) concluded the Mao era did more good than harm.

To conclude, we see that ‘The logic of burying the revolution requires a narrative that highlights the violent and destructive aspects’ (Gao, p. 96), that ‘There is plenty of evidence that supports the known story in which hundreds of millions of people were affected positively… [giving]an estimated 35 billion extra collective years of life to the Chinese people’. That, ‘by 1976 China had laid down a sound industrial and agricultural base for an economic take-off’ (p. 87). As with the Naxalites, it’s clear that old truism may have some truth: you can’t keep a good idea down.


Radical journalist interested in Art, Politics, and other creative disciplines.

Leave A Reply