China’s ‘Three Bitter Years’, 1959 to 1961

Ghost Scholarship

The defects of Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts : China’s Secret Famine, the standard Western work about China’ ‘Three Bitter Years’.

By Gwydion M. Williams

Up until 1949, the USA saw China as a vast mass of human raw material that could be educated, modernised, Christianised and turned into passable imitations of US citizens. There was a genuine fondness for Chinese, but this fondness assumed superiority. Chinese culture was ‘cute’ but it was Western values that mattered.

US citizens who got a good look at pre-Mao China knew it wasn’t that simple. The Kuomintang were called Nationalists, but if they were functional Nationalists then I’m an astronaut. Chiang Kai-Shek might have liked to have been China’s Ataturk, but he wasn’t up to it. His base was always weak and he owed a lot of his pChinese Life Expectency 1ower to the Shanghai Green Gang, vicious gangsters whose power overlapped with clandestine revolutionary circles.

To the USA, the 1949 revolution meant that the Chinks were getting uppity, even out-fighting the USA in the Korean War. Both the USA and China could count the Korean War as a kind of victory, since the US saved South Korea and China saved the North. But it was the first war since 1812 that the USA hadn’t decisively won. Britons mostly didn’t see it as anything special. The key disaster from Britons was losing Singapore to a much smaller Japanese army, when Singapore was supposed to have been impregnable. But Becker, though born in Britain, has been very much absorbed into the USA’s world view.

The USA was deeply offended by the existence and success of People China, keeping it out of the United Nations until the 1970s, when Nixon realised that US interests were served better by using China as a counter-weight to the Soviet Union. Before then, all sorts of bizarre stories circulated. Most of the stories were simply untrue and have been swept into the dustbin of history. Regarding the ‘Three Bitter Years’ – 1959 to 1961 – there was some relationship between US propaganda and reality. It was undoubtedly the worst crisis of Mao’s two-and-a-half decades of supreme power.

It was also a key political moment in Chinese Communist politics. Up to and including the Great Leap Forward, there was general agreement about mass campaigns as the best way forward. Indeed, there had been some astonishing advances. China had stagnated under the Western-style Republic that had been created by the Revolution of 1911. All through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, China was as big a mess as Africa now is. The Japanese were one cause, obviously. But the Kuomintang regime was at its worst in the period 1945-1949, after the USA had defeated Japan. Even Chang & Halliday, who distort very nearly all of the facts, concede that the Kuomintang government was dishonest and useless in its final period. [A]

Of dozens of books published about China since the 1980s, I’ve not seen one that makes a broad economic comparison between the Mao era and China as it was before and after. To get the facts, I had to seek out the books of Angus Maddison, a highly respected analyst who’s worked out details of population and GNP for every country in the world and going back centuries.[C] Not only did this confirm China’s fast advance under Mao: it showed the Kuomintang government to have been ineffective for its entire two decades, presiding over a decaying rural economy whose shrinkage outweighed a small amount of growth in China’s coastal cities.

Chinese Communist policies up till the Great Leap were typical early-Leninist, and highly successful. They did what the Kuomintang had never dared do, they removed a parasitic landlord class that ate up the rural surplus without contributing anything useful to a modern economy. Production shot up and the death rate declined drastically. Some landlords were killed, but only those judged guilty by their neighbours of specific crimes, including murdering rebellious peasants and excessive collaboration with the Japanese. Plenty of ex-landlords were to be found in Maoist China, and some of their children became entrepreneurs in post-Mao China. None have gone back to being landlords, because China still has no private property in land. It is worked by individual peasant farmers, in most cases, but is not owned and can not be sold.


Up to 1956, Chinese Communists generally saw themselves as the Chinese branch of a global movement that would in due course produce a world socialist state. In reaction to Khrushchev’s rejection of Stalin, Chinese Communism decided to go its own way. The Russian Revolution had been China’s inspiration: not just the Communists, the Kuomintang had been partly remodelled on Leninist lines. Chiang Kai-Shek had been the Comintern’s choice as military boss at the Whampoa Military Academy. They persuaded the small Chinese Communist Party to go on working with him after he moved against them. The Chinese knew that they’d been given a lot of bad advice, but were also sensible enough to realise that without Moscow they would not exist at all. There had been a quite substantial Chinese anarchist movement before 1917: many including Mao had been as much anarchist as socialist before the Comintern gave them guidance. Chinese anarchism was substantially absorbed into Chinese Leninism, with a marginalised remnant that in some cases followed the Kuomintang to Taiwan.[Q]

There was also a small Trotskyist movement, never very important and fully deserving the sharp comments delivered in 1936 by Chinese left-wing writer Lu Xun:

“Your ‘theory’ is certainly much loftier than that of Mao Tsetung; yours is high in the sky, while his is down-to-earth. But admirable as is such loftiness, it will unfortunately be just the thing welcomed by the Japanese aggressors. Hence I fear that it will drop down from the sky, and when it does it may land on the filthiest place on earth. Since the Japanese welcome your lofty theories, I cannot help feeling concern for you when I see your well-printed publications.” [D]

Lu Xun, Lu Hsun in older transliterations, was best known for The True Story of Ah Q, the tale of a weak and silly man who lives through the 1911 revolution and who also reflects the weakness and failure of pre-Mao China. If you’re a westerner who’s not read The True Story of Ah Q, you have no hope of understanding what happened after 1949. (This could well have included the jailing of Lu Xun, had he still been alive. But that’s only part of the picture.)

It’s not common to think about China and Spain in parallel, but it may be productive. I started doing so quite accidentally: I had kept a close watch on China from the 1960s till the 1980s, when I assumed it had failed and was selling out. I’d been hopeful for the Tiananmen protestors of 1989 and had noted that they included people who cherished Mao’s memory as well as some who wanted to do what Russia and Eastern Europe went ahead and did. Events in the 1990s showed that a lot of what I though I knew was seriously wrong. Also that the road to truth was the direct opposite to what the triumphant New Right were now saying.Chinese life 2

I had nothing to apologise for in the 1990s. I’d been seeing Soviet behaviour as increasingly bad from their 1968 crushing of Democratic Socialism in Czechoslovakia. A Soviet collapse then or in the early 1970s would have left socialism as the common framework, and the Thatcher / Reagan option might never have been heard of. In the 1990s, I saw many of the people who had praised Brezhnev when he was riding high go realigning themselves with the surviving Superpower. Also many who might have rejected Brezhnev but were bitterly opposed to Workers Control and other proposed socialist reforms in the 1970s, arguing that this would get in the way of their future triumphs as Revolutionary Socialists. The people who had sabotaged a possible socialist advance in the 1970s now declared that socialism had always been an illusion, the USA was the hope of the whole world. They criticised themselves for the wrong things, for what they’d got right rather than their blunders. And it was another sinking ship that they were jumping onto. I was pretty sure of that even before the US got itself entangled in the Iraq/Afghan ‘tar-baby’.

I hadn’t meant to start studying Spain’s failed revolution. Most revolutions fail and there might be nothing much to learn from the predictable process of the weak being defeated by the strong. I no longer felt that revolution should be seen as the norm, so I was not going to go seeking the villains who ruined an ‘inevitable’ revolution. I was more concerned with trying to figure out what was the normal mode of development. I had been right through Adam Smith and learned that the New Right economic case rested on very weak foundations.[E] Its nominal rationalism is not based on any human reality: actual living people are neither entirely selfish nor entirely generous. They are conditionally nice and the New Right does not allow for this.

Having studied them, I was left with a deep contempt for the ‘philosophy’ of Libertarianism. It willingly bends itself into strange shapes when the logic of their ideas contradicted the needs of their masters, the rich business class whose patronage gave the New Right their significance. Hayek accepted military conscription as valid, just so long as there was a war, which technically there was not during the USA’s gigantic battles in South Vietnam. Inheritance of vast unearned wealth should be the last thing a libertarian would want, but it is a major concern of the paymasters, and so libertarians find a way to praise it. That was the sort of stuff I was following, noting incidentally that China was actually much less influenced by the New Right than the New Right was supposing.

All of this was sufficient work for one man who was also doing a full-time job. But then I learned that a loudmouth called Christopher Hitchens had published some highly dishonest comments on what my father Raymond Williams had said about Orwell and Spain. Surprisingly, the matter seemed to have been completely ignored by lots of people who were keen to get my father’s help for their own causes while he was still alive and famous. Still, the neglect was perhaps fortunate, creating a moral duty for me to gain a detailed knowledge of parts of history I would otherwise have known only vaguely. And it made me take a closer look at Orwell – I had already read most of his important works, but now I read them again with a different viewpoint and much more background knowledge.

What was wrong with Hitchens, I have detailed elsewhere.[F] What’s wrong with George Orwell is rather more important, but needs to be dealt with in its own right. What was really interesting was the stuff that Orwell was nominally giving ‘homage’ to in Homage To Catalonia. He was less than frank about the degree to which it was an anarcho-communist experiment, a possible alternative society that most of his readers would have found much more alien than Stalin’s Russia. I got details about the last flowering of European anarchism from various sources, and was struck by the similarities to some of the stuff Mao had done.

The elements of anarchism began with the Great Leap Forward. Though much less of an anarcho-communist experiment than the later Cultural Revolution, Mao had encouraged peasants to do their own inventing and create their own industries from scratch. I was not even slightly surprised to find Mao being condemned by Western commentators for allowing much the same things that the Spanish Republic was condemned for not allowing. I expected those people to oppose whatever version of radicalism seemed most likely to change the world, even if this required two or three sets of Eternal Truths to cover different cases. Mao had been cautious until China’s Civil War was solidly won: the experimenters in Catatonia were blandly overlooking that their own Civil War was being lost.

In 1940, Spanish leftism seemed hopelessly crushed. By 1982 there was a leftist government. The world is a process of constant change and one generation’s failures may be the victors a couple of generations on.

Whether Mao knew much about Spain, I’ve no idea. There might have been no closer connection than pre-1917 anarchism, which was part of Mao’s intellectual background.

So what went wrong in the Great Leap?


Back in the 1950s, the phenomenon now known as ‘El Nino’ was unknown and unsuspected. Its typical result in China would be drought in the north and floods in the south. But the connection was not simple, occurring after the main cycle and sometimes not at all.[G] There definitely was abnormal weather. In July of 1959, the Yellow River flooded in East China. According to the Disaster Center,[B] this killed about 2 million people. In 1960, at least some degree of drought and other bad weather affected 55 percent of cultivated land , while an estimated 60% of agricultural land received no rain at all.[K] The Encyclopædia Britannica yearbooks from 1958 to 1962 also reported abnormal weather, followed by droughts and floods. This included 30 inches of rain in Hong Kong across five days in June 1959, part of a pattern that hit all of Southern China.

If Chinese officials nowadays say that there was no bad weather in the ‘Three Bitter Years’, this shows only that Chinese officials nowadays are no more truthful than they were under Mao, or under the Kuomintang, or in the former Chinese Empire.

If we believe the figures released after Mao’s death, there was a sudden ‘spike’ in the death-rate, which had fallen from 21 per thousand per year when Mao took over to a low of 7 per thousand when he died. [H] The net effect of Mao’s rule was that hundreds of millions of people lived longer and had a much better life than they had had under Kuomintang rule. A somewhat better and longer life than was the norm over the same years in the Republic of India, the world’s biggest Western-style democracy and now recognised as an economic success story.

Interestingly, the Disaster Center’s list does not recognise a 1959-61 famine, just the 1959 flood that killed 2 million. In pre-Mao China, a 1928 drought killed 3.7 million and a 1931 flood that killed 3 million.[B] The 1928 drought is also sometimes recorded as a famine: droughts need not kill if the government looks after the victims. A very bad case of neglect was the Bengal famine of 1943, when Bengal had enough rice and other grains to feed itself, but millions of people were too poor to buy it.[L]Chinese Life Expectency

China in 1959-1961 had an efficient system of rationing. In a typical peasant society, famine visibly hits the poor, who waste away to ‘living skeletons’ and then die. This didn’t happen under Mao: everyone got enough food to survive, and observers who had seen conventional famines concluded that there was no famine. Hunger and stress will raise the death rate, obviously, but that will be much less obvious to an outsider. Whether you class this as a famine is a matter of definitions.

Beijing could have coped better, obviously. But this was a relatively new and inexperienced government. It also faced something outside of its previous experience: massive false reporting within its own power-structure. Local officials reported increased crops when in fact they had grown much less. Controls were bad and the central government thought it had much more grain than actually existed. Only gradually did they realise how bad the situation was.

China also exported rice, but this rice was used to purchase cheaper grain, meaning that China was a large net importer of food. The USA, still angry at those ‘uppity Chinks’, did its best to stop this. But Canada and Australia were more interested in looking after their own farmers than pleasing the USA.

So what does Becker say about all this?


“On a tomb in the capital of the Shang dynasty … the first in Chinese history, is an inscription ‘Why are there disasters? It is because the Emperor wants to punish the people’. Historical records show that China has always been a land of famine and the Chinese a people who have prostrated themselves before the wayward power of the Emperor, the Son of Heaven….from the year 108 BC until AD 1911, China suffered no fewer than 1,828 major famines.” (Hungry Ghosts, page 9, Owl Books edition of 1998.)

1828 recorded famines. The Chinese had a continuous system of government across 2200 years, sometimes a fragmented government but always viewed as a single entity. Anyone who take an interest in astronomy will soon learn that there are Chinese records of astronomical events that are not recorded elsewhere. Not because there was more astronomy happening in the skies of China, but because there was a continuous tradition of scholarship and government records. Likewise with famines, there were a lot more outside of China, but with few surviving records. Visitors to China noted it as a land or riches, not a land of hunger.

It was also always a government that cared. The astronomical records had an astrological basis, an attempt to work out the Will of Heaven from irregular events like meteorites, comets and novas. One of China’s misfortunes was that their astrology paid attention to a collection of events that turned out to be unrelated to each other. Most of them are unpredictable even with modern science, whereas Western astrology was obsessed with the maddeningly complex motions of the planets. If you need to predict which part of the sky a planet will be found at any given date, you discover that Venus and Mercury are never far from the sun, while the other planets unexpectedly ‘loop the loop’. The logic of the maths points towards an unexpected sun-centred model.

Until the Opium Wars, China had not seen any reason to doubt a world-view that extended back into the Bronze Age. The Chinese world-view held that the Emperor was responsible for the weather and could be blamed if the weather was bad. Mencius formulated the notion of a ‘Mandate of Heaven’, which might be withdrawn from the ruling dynasty and pass to some upstart, perhaps a mere peasant. The Han and Ming dynasties were both founded by peasants with no lineage whatsoever, and all dynasties employed scholars who might have risen by cleverness from very ordinary beginnings.

Adam Smith in The Wealth Of Nations took the view that China in 1776 was richer than any part of Europe.[M] He also noted that it was static, not much different from what Marco Polo had reported centuries earlier. Still, this is a significant detail, and completely ignored by all the relevant experts, including Angus Maddison

Becker’s reference to an inscription about an angry ’emperor” is uncheckable, referenced to unpublished research. My guess would be that it was about an angry god, a heavenly power given an imperial term of respect, just as Jehovah is Lord and Christ is King.   Famines were not passively accepted: they were taken as a sign that the earthly Emperor had failed to do his job in pleasing heaven.

This isn’t all that Becker mixes up:

“By the end of the year [1958], Mao felt sufficiently confident of his success to relinquish his post as President of the Republic to Liu Shaoqi. Perhaps he felt he no longer needed such honours.” (Ibid, page 85).

On the Sino-Soviet split, he says:

“The final rupture between the two fraternal parties came in July 1960 when the 15,000 or so Soviet experts at work in China suddenly left. It is quite conceivable that Beijing wanted them to leave so that they could not report to Khrushchev that the entire country was starving.” (Ibid, page 95).

Everyone else, whatever their other views, accepts that it was Khrushchev thinking he could bring China back under control by tough action. Naturally the Chinese reacted against this. Soviet pressure may also have been a factor in the removal of defence minister Peng. Becker and some others make out that this was just about his criticisms of the Great Leap. Less partisan commentators note that Peng could be seen as leader of a pro-Moscow faction, even as a man planning a pro-Moscow coup. Indeed, if Mao was as bad as Becker makes out, why would it have been wrong for Peng to plot to remove him? In Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella was removed in 1965, despite having been seen by many as ‘Father of the Nation’.

What actually happened was that Mao got Peng replaced by Lin Biao, securing the army for future use. He also yielded a bit in the face of covert criticism, handing over the Presidency to Liu Shaoqi. Liu reversed most of the policies of the Great Leap Forward but also asserted China’s independence of Moscow. Liu stood for a continuation of the Stalin-era system, which has survived in North Korea, Vietnam and in part in Mongolia, but is not exactly flourishing.


Becker denounces anyone who presents facts that don’t suit him (Ibid, p 291-2). Such as Felix Green’s A Curtain of Ignorance, which correctly records a lot of US falsehoods, including some dead Vietcong soldiers re-labelled as victims of Mao. Regarding Green’s view of the Three Bitter Years, he says that there was hunger but not famine in the conventional sense of the term. Over the three years there were 30 million excess deaths in a population of 600 million, if you believe the post-Mao statistics. Vastly more would have died if things had been as bad as US authorities were claiming at the time, and the survivors would hardly have showed the enthusiasm for Mao that was actually shown in the Cultural Revolution.

Becker refers to Felix Green as the brother of Graham Green. Actually they were cousins: Becker never seems to bother to check the simplest fact. Graham Green was always hazy on the Cold War, but was understandably furious when the 1958 film of his book The Quiet American totally reversed the meaning and turned the CIA murder-broker into an innocent victim.[N] The film was also apparently dedicated to South Vietnam’s President Diem, murdered in 1963 in a US-backed coup. The USA told lies about Vietnam in 1958 and went on telling them until they ran away in 1975, leaving their allies to take the consequences. They had also meantime been reconciled with People’s China, which had grown vastly stronger under Mao.

Becker denounces those who visited China and found hunger but not famine: he shuts out the idea that it might have been exactly what was there to be seen. An extra five deaths per hundred per year would not be particularly visible, supposing that this were the correct figure. 25 per thousand, the peak official figure for China, was not much different from the norm in many parts of Asia at the time. Chinese, though poor, were visibly neat and enthusiastic and had a free system of basic education and health care. (Later abolished by Deng and being gradually re-introduced now that New Right ideas are losing favour all over the world.)

When someone says that a mighty river has dried up, then either the weather is highly abnormal or else they are telling barefaced lies. But a river is rather a visible thing and it is pretty bloody obvious whether it has dried up or not. Becker denounces Anna Louise Strong for reporting the drying-up of the Yellow River, without bothering to check whether in fact this occurred. He’s decided that there was no bad weather, so any contrary evidence must be ignorant or evil.


When it comes to Tibet, Becker tells only part of the story. In keeping with his normal carelessness, he says:

“Ironically, this remote region of grassland is where Mao and the Red Army would have perished on the Long March but for the food provided by the local Tibetans.” (Ibid, Page 170).

This is supposedly from Mao’s account to Snow, presumably Red Star Over China. But this is a complete misreading: Snow’s account explains how the Red Army won over most of the minority peoples along their route, but not the Tibetans of the grasslands who stayed hostile and gave no voluntary help at all. The Red Army did eat some of the more edible of the Tibetan’s religious offerings, which cannot have improved matters. (A bit like breaking into a Christian Church and eating the candles.)

“After the eleventh century, [the Tibetans’] conversion to Tantric Buddhism, imported from India, turned a warlike people into the most intensely religious society on earth. The focus of religious and economic life became the large monasteries subject to the rule of reincarnated lamas. This theocracy was little changed by the Mongols or Manchus who occupied China. When then British invaded Tibet in 1905, they found a medieval society cut off from the outside world.” (Ibid, Page 166 – 167).

Buddhism in Tibet was traditionally credited to a Tibetan king who had two wives, one Nepalese and the other Chinese, both devout Buddhists. That was in the seventh century of the Christian era, not the 11th. King Songtsan Gampo was based in the Lhasa Valley but expanded his rule over a vast territory. Buddhism had begun nearby in India about a thousand years before, but the local Bon religion seems to have kept it out until it received support from the Tibetan kings. But Songtsan Gampo’s support for Buddhism went alongside an aggressive military policy which involved the conquest of tribes subject to the Tang Emperors of China and the invasion of Chinese border provinces.

Tantric creeds from India came more than a hundred years later, near the end of the eighth century and under King Trisong Detsen. He tested this version of Buddhism against a Chinese school related to Japanese Zen Buddhism, and decided in favour of the Indian creed. He later sacked the Tang capital during a period of Chinese civil war. He made peace on his own terms, and also waged war with the Muslims who were expanding into Central Asia. Tibetan pressure had earlier helped defeat the Tang Dynasty’s attempts to defend the ancient Buddhist kingdoms of Central Asia.

Tantric Buddhism in Tibet incorporated elements of the local Bon creed and became Lamistic Buddhism. Spiritual values became grossly inflated, or rather devalued. The Theravada school of Buddhism says that there was only a single unique Buddha. The Mahayana school holds that there were many, but most traditions also make them very rare, separated by vast intervals of time. In the Lamistic school this ideas gets out of control, with dozens of ‘Living Buddhas’ around at the same time, much as if each European cathedral claimed to have a flesh-and-blood Jesus personally living among them. This superstitious creed became the dominant religion among the Mongols and eventually the Manchus, offering spiritual comfort to violent conquerors. Buddhism may be peaceful in principle, but in practice it has been just as variable as Christianity.

In the 9th century of the Christian era, the final Tibetan king was murdered by Buddhist monk and central rule collapsed. It was restored in a novel manner by the dynasty of Genghis Khan. Kublai Khan set up the Sakya lamas as viceroys of Tibet on behalf of the Mongol emperors. Though he claimed the title of Grand Khan, he was functionally a Chinese Emperor and used Chinese imperial forms. He also imposed a racial hierarchy, with Mongols first, Central Asians including Tibetans second, North Chinese third and South Chinese lowest.

When the Han-Chinese Ming dynasty overthrew the Mongol Yuan dynasty, they conquered most of Eastern Tibet, but not the Lhasa Valley or Tibetan Plateau, the broad area that is now the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Anyone talking about Tibet must be aware of the difference between these two regions, identified as Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet by the British but better referred to as Western Tibet and Eastern Tibet. Western Tibet / Outer Tibet is the Lhasa Valley and the Tibetan Plateau, and it was functionally independent (though unrecognised internationally) during the years of the weak Western-orientated Chinese Republic. Eastern Tibet was mixed but much of it was ruled by warlords who did recognise the Chinese Republic as the legal authority. This was true of the ethnically-mixed area where the current Dalai Lama was born – or chose to be reincarnated, on the Tibetan view of things. A claim for independence for Western Tibet would have been more plausible than the ‘Greater Tibet’ that the Dalai Lama in fact claims – but then he and his family were part of the local elite in Eastern Tibet. To have cut ties and settle for a separate Western Tibet would have needed a leader with rare skills and determination. I’d read our current Dalai Lama as having been a weak fool for the whole of his life.

The Dalai Lama system is anyway an oddity, and something very much tied to the Chinese Empire. It was in part a local unification, but was aided by some Mongols who also had their eyes on the declining Ming Dynasty. In the event it was the Manchus who got the big prize, adopting Chinese ways but also setting up a racial hierarchy like the Mongols had, with themselves on top and South Chinese at the bottom, with Tibetans well placed. Both Mongols and Manchus were strong believers in Lamistic Buddhism, and it maybe suited them to have the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama as the highest lamas and comfortably distant from the core of power. That’s the real situation, which Becker summarises as “this theocracy was little changed by the Mongols or Manchus who occupied China”.

When the British invaded Tibet in 1904, they did not dispute that Tibet was subordinate to the Emperor of China. It’s generally agreed by historians that they did scheme to add Western Tibet to their Indian Empire, but they never claimed it was an independent entity. Thus matters stood during the time of the Republic, where there was no real unity even in the Han core. Chiang Kai-Shek was kidnapped and was lucky to escape with his life when he ventures to Xian (Sian), power-base of some subordinate warlords who were disgusted with his policy of giving into the Japanese and concentrating his hostility on the Chinese Communists.

Mao’s new government gave China its first functional unity since the overthrow of the Manchu Emperors. This was assumed to include both Eastern Tibet and Western Tibet, but Western Tibet they were prepared to treat as different, a ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’. Initially the Dalai Lama fled, but then came back and accepted the ‘Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’, which accepted that the Lhasa government he had headed was just the “Local Government of Tibet”. Indeed, it was exactly the same system of government that had existed when China fragmented, whereas Outer Mongolia / the Mongolian Republic had had its own revolution and its own modernisation, and was recognised as independent by the Kuomintang government as one of its last acts.

There was a brief time in which the Dalai Lama showed an enthusiasm for Mao, but this faded when it became clear that China was intent on gradually replacing the privilagess of Tibet’s ruling class, his own class and a class of feudal slave-owners. After he fled, the ‘International Commission of Jurists’ declared that that the agreement was no longer valid, a point that some people seem to see as significant. In fact the ‘International Commission of Jurists’ has no authority in the matter, nor any other matter, it is self-appointing. Had they called themselves ‘Lawyers Without Borders’ that would have been honest. Being lawyers, they unsurprisingly prefer to use a highfaluting and empty title for themselves.

If someone wanted to give autonomy to all of the world’s upland minority peoples, I’d say fine. The US has no intention of doing this, of course. A pro-US regime can do as it pleases – it was well known at the time that Saddam Hussein was gassing the Kurds, George Galloway campaigned against it and was ignored by almost all of the people who later used it as an excuse for their invasion. The US has intermittently considered using Tibet to get at China, in the same way they used Kosovo to break Serbia. For now, the scheme has stalled in Iraq.


Mao’s rule should be compared to the likely alternatives, not to some splendid New Right ideal that has so far failed to materialise in any place where the New Right had had power. Obviously Mao was ruthless and devious. He had to be that, and also a political genius, in order to save a gigantic nation that had been stagnant for centuries. How else to transform people who had showed much more talent for learning Western vices than Western virtues? As I said earlier, read Ah Q to get some idea of what he was up against.

My considered opinion – which I’ll argue in detail in a future article – is that Mao understood the core of Western values much better than any Chinese before him. (Also better than any Chinese since, in as far as I can judge these matters.) Mao’s brief account of his life is much the most interesting human document I’ve seen from any Chinese, and in many ways the closest to the core of Western thinking. Lots of other Chinese imitated Western ways, of course, even to the extent of taking part-Western names and dressing in Western cloths. But to imitate is to miss the point. The thing China needed to learn was how to do what the West itself had earlier done: go your own way without reference to past human experience. Obviously this has a cost, but much less than not doing it.

The ‘ideal methods’ of the New Right have been a dismal flop wherever they have been tried. Crudely copying methods that had worked in Europe would have been likely to fail. Forcing foreigners to copy a false notion of Western Europe’s own modernisation was much less likely to work. Every single established European nation transformed itself first and only then gave itself some sort of parliamentary democracy. European settlements could democratise more quickly, since they had no solid traditions and were dominated by people looking for a new life, not a continuation of the old ways. Despite which, the USA wasn’t solidly democratic until the 1830s. Democracy for white men combined very nicely with slavery, which down to the 1860s was expanding vigorously in every newly-settled state that hadn’t made it illegal. The Yankee alternative was in some ways a purer version of White Racism than the US South: most non-slave states denied the vote to blacks. The Oregon Territories had laws against free blacks settling as well as laws against slavery.

Britain’s first democratic election was 1885, and that was men-only and just the richest three-fifths. Britain during its Industrial Revolution had been run by a few hundred rich families who controlled a majority of House of Commons seats. It’s not so much the New Right urging people to follow an unfamiliar model; they are asking people to copy something that has never existed outside of the New Right imagination. Certainly they believe they are offering a better model, with burdensome extras removed. Someone who knows what they are doing can indeed do this: the first railways were built in Britain but much better railways were built by countries that could learn from British experience. But you have to draw the right lessons, and this the New Right have failed to do. They are good at operating within well-established systems of Western culture. But what they think they know about extending those values is worse than useless.

Peoples China initially copied Soviet methods, which were the first set of modernising methods that actually worked in China. There is good reason to doubt that anything else would have worked in China as it then was. Modernisation build around the emperor’s traditional authority had worked in Japan, where the dynasty was genuinely as old as the political nation. It failed hopelessly in China, where the Manchu Emperors had maintained a racial hierarchy and were resented as outsiders by many Chinese.

Modernisation with a mix of authoritarianism and social-democracy has been moderately successful in the Republic of India, very successful in Singapore and Hong Kong, but this has been based on societies previously changed massively by British rule. No one bothered with even the forms of parliamentary democracy in Hong Kong until just before the hand-over, when it was tried as a provocation. Britain also made it clear that extremely few Hong Kong Chinese would have been given refuge in Britain had things gone wrong, so Hong Kong citizens have behaved sensibly, keeping arguments to an acceptable level.

Mao’s rejection of Khrushchev’s ‘reforms’ has been justified by history: Khrushchev’s hodgepodge of ideas left the Soviet Union much weaker and less respected. While Mao’s Great Leap Forward failed, he learned from his mistakes and had created a flourishing alternative system during the Cultural Revolution years, 1965 to 1976. After brief dislocation this was a strong and fast-growing system, one that might have continued indefinitely. It was exceeded only by Deng’s post-Mao alternative, which has also had many drawbacks, as I will detail in a future article.

The post-Mao leadership has in practice been the same mix of authoritarianism and social-democracy that worked in Singapore and other places. Not having started with a multi-party system, they see no need to set it going. In practice, Western social-democrats try to herd people into taking the correct choices, or into accepting the decisions of technocrats, often taken behind closed doors. Why have two antagonistic political parties if they are not supposed to do anything differently? The same attitude comes across in the inner workings of the New Right, that portion of it which is not burdened by the need to get a load of fools voting for them. But Social Democracy genuinely does give people a better life, whereas the New Right only manages to panic them into thinking that something much worse might happen without New Right policies. China and the Republic of India continue to make fast economic advance, suffering perhaps from social confusion but no longer impressed by the New Right.

Western media have been making a big noise about inequalities of income in China. Much more of a noise than about inequalities that have grown in Europe and the USA in the same period, and without the same accelerated growth that China has achieved. Besides, inequalities of income are a less deep-rooted problem than inequalities of wealth. Measure wealth rather than income and China is still quite equal. China also looks after its population rather better than most poor countries:

“‘Expected deaths’ are the number of people who would be expected to die in each country if the only determinants of death were someone’s sex and age. In reality, many other factors affect when we will die – the place in which we live, poverty levels and education being some examples…

“The difference between numbers of expected and actual deaths can indicate the level of inequality in life expectancies. In India there are fewer expected deaths than actual deaths; 8 million are expected, 10 million occur. This is because in India people’s lives are shorter than the world average. In the United Kingdom 1 million people would be expected to die if world average rates prevailed, whereas only 600,000 do. The United Kingdom has longer life expectancies than the world average. China also has a larger expected than actual death toll: 11.4 million deaths are expected, 8.8 million happen each year.” [P]

India has a passably good system, but still an excess of 2 million annually compared to the world average. China saves 2.6 million lives annually from the expected death rate, despite the decay of free health-care after Mao’s death. This 4.6-million-per-year saving is the long-term result of Mao and Chinese Communism.

The assumption nowadays is that China could have gone straight to Deng’s system from the system of the 1950s and early 1960s. I rather doubt this: no other Leninist state managed it. The West and China both had anarchic youth-led outbreaks in the 1960s, an odd synchronicity that everyone ignores. Contrary to standard opinion, I’d hold that both waves of protest had a large measure of success. Imperfect success and combined with a lot of foolishness, obviously. But compare this with the fate of the Soviet bloc, where ‘sensible’ values dominated to the very end. I note also that the ‘rational economics’ of the New Right seem rather wobbly at the moment.

The USA’s blunders from 1991 onwards has cost them the chance of China accepting Western political values. For the moment, China has economic dynamism and social peace. But I doubt the dynamic of China has ceased, and Mao’s legacy very much remains part of it.




[A] – See Chapter 29 of Mao, The Unknown Story, especially the last section. Like most of their work, it is muddle of contradictory ideas. Chiang was unfit to rule, and those who abandoned this useless leader were either Communist moles or else subtly manipulated. They have the mentality of secret police – which is hardly surprising if you are aware that some of Jiang Chiang’s relatives were exactly that, in the service of various warlords and the Kuomintang.

I don’t suppose that a German writer with so many relatives in the Gestapo would be willingly taken up by the West. But the Gestapo hurt people valued in Anglo circles. The Kuomintang secret police specialised in live burials, but they only mistreated Chinese and were normally polite to foreigners.

[B] – [], The Most Deadly 100 Natural Disasters of the 20th Century

[C] – The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (2001). Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-economic History (2007).

[D] – Lu Xun replies to a Letter from Chinese Trotskyites, []. This is a Trotskyist site, but helpfully provides a nice range of interesting documents.

[E] – Wealth Without Nations, by Gwydion M. Williams, still available from Athol Books.

[F] – Problems Of Capitalism & Socialism, No. 78-80, Summer 2005

[G] – Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, by Mike Davis

[H] – []. Population growth, crude birth and death rates, 1949 – 1996

[J] – []. Reduction in the Crude Birth and Death Rates of Selected Countries in the World

[K] – []

[L] – Bengal famine of 1943 (Wikipedia as at 26th October 2007)

[M] – “China is a much richer country than any part of Europe, and the difference between the price of subsistence in China and in Europe is very great. Rice in China is much cheaper than wheat is any where in Europe.” (The Wealth Of Nations, I.xi.e.24, page 208 of the 1976 Glasgow editions.) Also I.xi.n, page 255; I.XI.g, pages 223-4 and I.viii.24, page 89.

[N] – [] – see ‘Trivia’ for the 1958 film. There is also a 2002 version which sticks to the original plot and is worth seeing. The Wikipedia gives a fuller account of the 1958 absurdities, including the dedication to Diem.

[P] – []. Worldmapper – Expected Deaths

[Q] Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution by Arif Dirlik


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review in 2007.


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