Situated on China’s southern coast, the territory of Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, at which time it was given back to China under a “one country, two systems” policy that made Hong Kong part of China but allowed it to retain many liberties that are denied to citizens on the mainland, including freedoms of speech, assembly, and unrestricted Internet access. But many Hong Kongers today feel that Beijing has begun to chip away at their autonomy in various ways, hence the massive anti-China protests that recently prompted Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, to tweet: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
That little seven-word tweet by a lone individual living half-a-world away was too much for China’s repressive Communist government to accept, and the backlash from China was harsh and swift. The Chinese Basketball Association, for instance; announced that it was suspending all cooperation with the Rockets; CCTV 5, the sports channel of China’s top state broadcaster, announced that it would no longer broadcast Rockets’ games on television; Tencent Sports, the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China, said it would suspend not only the live streaming of Rockets’ games, but the reporting of any news about the team as well; and sponsors like the Li-Ning sportswear company and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank vowed to suspend cooperation with the team.
In light of the foregoing reactions, the possibility that Chinese revenues might suddenly stop flowing so rapidly into NBA coffers was enough to raise the ire of one LeBron James, who has a lucrative lifetime endorsement deal with the Nike Corporation—which in turn has enormous financial interests in China. Evoking memories of Laura Ingraham’s “Shut up and dribble” admonition to which LeBron took deep offense last year, the basketball star now says that Daryl Morey “wasn’t educated” on the Hong Kong matter and thus should have kept his thoughts to himself. “So many people could have been harmed not only financially but physically, emotionally and spiritually” by what Morey said, LeBron told reporters in Los Angeles. “So just be careful with what we tweet, and we say, and we do.” “Yes, we do have freedom of speech,” he added, “but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”
What LeBron himself may not be well-educated about is the fact that the entire world doesn’t revolve around his sneaker contract and the profits that flow from it. He may not understand that the People’s Republic of China today is a natural outgrowth of the China which was ruled by the late Mao Zedong; that the nation’s ruling party and its system of government remain largely unchanged since the days of Mao; and that the current Communist leadership proudly declares itself to be Mao’s heirs, maintains his Leninist dictatorship, continues his military build-up, and cherishes his grand ambitions. As one news report in the South China Morning Post puts it: “Today, reverence for [Mao] is on the rise. President Xi Jinping often pays tributes to Mao and looks to him for inspiration to manage the country. Ordinary people, especially from the bottom social strata who have not benefited from the country’s economic boom, miss his reign and some even set up shrines at home to worship him. Statues of the great leader continue to be erected across the country with fanfare.”
In light of these realities, it is well worth taking a closer look at exactly what Mao’s agendas and deeds were.
The Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from 1949 until his death in 1976, Mao Zedong was arguably the greatest mass murderer in history, eclipsing even Joseph Stalin in this regard. Some 70 million Chinese, along with countless Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchus, Koreans, Hmong, Uyghurs, and other nationalities, perished at his hands during his long and brutal reign.
As his early journals make clear, Mao admitted no duty towards, or responsibility for, anyone other than himself. Indeed, he described himself as wu fa wu tian, which literally means “without law and without heaven.” As he elaborated: “I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s actions has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others … People like me want to … satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me.… People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.”
Mao saw himself as superior in both ability and ruthlessness to the founders of China’s ancient dynasties. At the Second Plenum of the Eighth Party Congress in May 1958, for instance, Mao stated that the Third Century B.C. Emperor Qin Shihuang “was not that outstanding” because “he only buried alive 460 Confucian scholars,” whereas “we buried 460 thousand Confucian scholars.”
Mao’s ambition was to found a dynasty by naked force, to be a new Emperor Qin Shihuang, to rule all of China’s traditional domains through the same kind of totalitarian institutions. To successfully establish the “Qin order” in the modern age, however, he needed a replacement for Confucianism, a new legitimating ideology that the people could be taught. He needed to reconfigure imperial rule for modern times.
With the victory of the Communist revolution in Russia, Mao found an unlikely companion for his totalitarian ambitions: an imported Marxist ideology that was every bit as statist and elitist as traditional Chinese political culture, while at the same time claiming to be even more “modern” and “progressive” than its chief ideological opponent, liberal democracy.
From the beginning of his rule, Mao was no stranger to murder and mass executions, always in the pursuit of power. Given a heartfelt welcome by a local Red army in Yenan in October 1935, Mao had 200 of its officers shot for “rightwing deviations” and the popular base commander, Liu Chih-tan, assassinated. He destroyed rival Politburo member Chang Kuo-tao’s army in 1936 by sending it on a hopeless mission into the wastes of the Gobi desert, and then ordered that the survivors of this debacle be executed—after being forced to dig their own graves. In 1941 he had Politburo rival Wang Ming poisoned—twice—crippling his health and forcing him to seek medical treatment in Moscow. Many more examples of his utter ruthlessness could be cited.
But what really distinguishes Mao as a leftwing monster is his use of terror to systematically destroy entire classes of people who might prove obstacles to his rule, deliberately striking fear—and instilling blind obedience—into the remainder of the population. Mao had written in the early twenties that China “must be destroyed and then re-formed.” Once in power, he began applying the Leninist principle of class struggle to the Chinese people under his control.
Mao launched his first terror campaign, called a zheng-feng in Chinese, from 1942-44. It was aimed at the tens of thousands of young volunteers who had come to Yenan and other base areas in response to Communist—and Western—propaganda. Expecting to enter into a patriotic, egalitarian paradise, they instead found themselves trapped in joyless, regimented hellholes from which escape was nearly impossible and even the attempt was punishable by death.
Mao needed to turn these increasingly disillusioned volunteers into obedient cogs for his machine. So, after torturing one of their number into confessing that he was a Nationalist spy, he had them all placed in detention for “screening.” Because their numbers were so great, most remained in their places of work, but were kept under watch, forbidden to leave of have visitors, and subjected to interrogations. The torture that followed produced hundreds of absurd confessions of spying. But its real purpose lay elsewhere. It was intended to break the will of these idealistic young people to resist until they, like Winston in George Orwell’s 1984, would swear that four fingers were actually five—or however many Chairman Mao wanted there to be. Mao’s reality was the only “reality” they were allowed to possess.
After winning the civil war, Mao launched one terror campaign after another, each aimed at neutralizing this or that class of enemies:
- The “campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries” in 1950, in which many of those in any way associated with the Nationalist regime were arrested and shot, terrorized the political class.
- The “land reform” of 1950-53, in which not just large landowners but smallholders were publicly condemned and tortured, often to death, terrorized the rural population.
- The “three-antis” campaign of 1951, referring to embezzlement, waste, and something called “bureaucratism,” succeeded in terrorizing the ranks of Communist government officials.
- The “five-antis” campaign of 1952, against bribery, tax evasion, pilfering state property, cheating, and stealing economic information, was aimed at terrorizing the China’s capitalist class.
- The “collectivization of agriculture,” from 1953 to 1958, forced the peasantry into ever-larger collective farms run by the state.
- The “anti-rightist” campaign of 1957 was aimed at all critics of the regime.
- The famous Great Leap Forward, from 1958-60, resulted in the creation of the People’s Communes—and the deliberate pauperization of the peasantry.
Each of these campaigns cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, and reduced another portion of the population to abject servility.
Mao intended his terrors to preempt opposition to his rule, of course, but he also had a greater purpose in mind: The Chairman wanted to put China on a war footing in preparation for the wars of conquest that he intended to launch. Before long, his spending on the military and its arms industries took up three-fifths of China’s budget, a ratio that even his chief arms supplier, Joseph Stalin, criticized as “very unbalanced.” Nuclear-tipped ICBMs were a particular priority. The end game was Chinese hegemony or, as Mao bluntly told his inner circle in 1956, “We must control the earth.”
The Great Leap Forward—in which the peasants were dragooned into large, state-controlled communes—must be understood as an outgrowth of Mao’s lust for ever-expanding power. The Chairman wanted steel not just “to overtake Great Britain in steel production in three years,” as the standard histories relate, but to build a blue water navy for conquest. “Now the Pacific Ocean is not peaceful,” he told his leading generals and admirals on June 28, 1958. “It can only be peaceful when we take it over.” Calling together his provincial chiefs later in 1958, Mao was even more expansive: “In the future we will set up the Earth Control Committee, and make a uniform plan for the Earth.”
Setting up large, centrally controlled people’s communes allowed Mao to more efficiently extract food and work from the peasantry. Loudspeakers were set up to urge the peasants to work longer and harder, and women were forced into the fields to work alongside the men for the first time. Most of the grain they produced was turned over by the Communist cadres in charge to local “state collection stations.” From there it was shipped to the cities—and to the Soviet Union.
As the Great Leap Forward picked up speed, senior officials kept increasing the quotas of grain to be delivered to the state collection stations. In response, commune-level cadres worked the peasants longer and longer hours on shorter and shorter rations. Mao, who saw people only as means to his ends, was unmoved by reports that millions of peasants were starving to death. Instead, this ruthless megalomaniac calmly declared that, to further his global ambitions, “half of China may well have to die.”
The people’s communes were arguably the greatest instrument of state exploitation ever devised. They proved so efficient at squeezing the peasantry that tens of millions of villagers starved to death from 1960-62 as a result. Mao’s efforts to build up his arsenal cost an estimated 42.5 million lives.
News of the famine was suppressed by the regime, and what were innocuously called “food shortages” were blamed on bad weather. American leftists and academics once again proved to be Mao’s willing collaborators, swallowing and regurgitating his lies. The journalist Edgar Snow came back from his 1960 trip to write that “One of the few things I can say with certainty is that mass starvation such as China knew almost annually under former regimes no longer occurs.” Harvard Professor John K. Fairbank’s introductory history of modern China, The United States and China, dismisses the worst famine in human history in a sentence: “Malnutrition was widespread and some starvation occurred.”
Mao believed that China’s greatness, Communism’s universalism, and his own destiny as a “Great Hero,” demanded empire-building. Lost territories must be recaptured, straying vassals must be recovered, and one-time tributary states must once again be forced to follow Beijing’s lead, Mao believed. Military action—engaging the Japanese invaders, defeating the Nationalists, and capturing the cities—had delivered China into his hands. Now military action would restore the empire. For these reasons Mao intervened in Korea in the early years of his rule, invaded Tibet, bombarded Quemoy, continued to bluster over Taiwan, attacked India over Tibetan border questions, confronted the Soviet Union, and gave massive amounts of military aid to Vietnam.
Maps were drawn up showing China’s borders extending far to the north, south and west of the area that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) actually controlled. Any territory that had been touched by China, however briefly, was regarded as rightfully Beijing’s.
The recovery of Taiwan remained a principal obsession for Mao. No sooner was the Korean armistice in place than the Great Helmsman ordered the PLA to begin preparing for the invasion of Taiwan that would mark the delayed final battle of the Chinese civil war. There was only one problem: the PLA invading force would have to cross the ninety-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, which was patrolled by the carriers and cruisers of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Moreover, the Nationalist army was growing more formidable, as a U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group helped to train and equip its expanding ranks.
The Chinese Communist press on August 14, 1954 issued a blistering denunciation of the “American imperialists” for their continued “occupation of Taiwan.” The island would be “liberated,” by force if necessary. Battle-hardened Communist divisions were moved to staging areas along the Fujian coast and MIGs appeared over the South China Sea.
General Chiang Kai-shek did not back down. He put the Nationalist army on alert and strengthened his garrisons on the offshore island groups his forces still controlled. Neither did the PRC’s bellicosity unnerve President Eisenhower. When the question of Communist China’s war preparations came up at a press conference on August 17, he replied that he had recently reaffirmed standing orders to the U.S. Seventh Fleet to defend Taiwan against any attack. “Any invasion of Formosa,” Chiang remarked, referring to the island by its Portuguese name, “would have to run over the Seventh Fleet.”
Deterred from launching a full-scale attack on Taiwan, Mao shifted his attention to the offshore islands, bombarding Jinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu (Matsu), and invading a small island chain to the north. The crisis speeded passage of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty through the U.S. Senate, in effect including the offshore islands within the defensive perimeter of the treaty.
The use of force had given Mao nothing except an insignificant chain of islands. Faced with a virtual promise of heavy U.S. retaliation in the event of any further attacks, Mao shifted course. The shelling of Jinmen and Mazu came to an abrupt halt, as did the feverish preparations for an assault on the islands. The ever-genial Zhou Enlai arrived at the Bandung Conference, held in Indonesia in April 1955, bearing an olive branch: the PRC was willing to sit down with the U.S. at the negotiating table to discuss ways to ease cross-strait tension. Talks between the U.S. and the PRC began in Geneva and dragged on for months, but no formal armistice was ever reached, nor did Mao agree—then or ever—to renounce the use of force. That was not his way.
Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution
The Great Leap Forward ended so disastrously that Mao’s closest colleagues decided to, as he later complained, “relegate him to the second line.” He remained the Chairman, but the day-to-day running of the government fell to the Liu Shao-qi and his pragmatic assistant, the tiny Deng Xiaoping. These two effectively downsized the communes, cut the state grain quotas, and reintroduced private plots, enabling China’s villagers to once again feed themselves. The Sino-Soviet split, which occurred at the same time, slowed down the insane shipment of vital foodstuffs out of the country. The mortality rate dropped to normal levels.
Mao, frustrated in his imperial ambitions, was furious about this turn of events. But rather than force a vote of the Central Committee—a vote that he was not sure he could win—he instead set out to destroy the Party elite itself. His chosen weapon was the young, energized by their personal allegiance to him and backed up by the armed might of the PLA.
Mao’s “personality cult” was already flourishing by April 1945, when the new Party constitution declared the “Thought of Mao Zedong” essential to “guide the entire work” of the Party. The chairman was praised as “not only the greatest revolutionary and statesman in Chinese history but also the greatest theoretician and scientist.” As always, much of this fulsome praise came from Mao’s own hand.
The cult of the Party chairman was seen as a continuation of the cult of the emperor. The Party went to extraordinary lengths to prey upon the superstitions of the people in this regard. During the days of the civil war, Mao was endlessly exalted as a larger-than-life figure, a kind of living god who would rescue the people from oppression. As soon as the Communists captured a village, its buildings would blossom with slogans like “Mao Zedong is the great savior of the Chinese people.”
As always, foreign admirers of the regime were ready to put the best face on Mao’s ugliness. Professor Michel Oksenberg, who was to become President Carter’s China adviser, advised that the Maoist personality cult was a necessary innovation: “While the new institutions [of state control] are taking root, resort to the unifying symbol of the ruler—in China’s case, Mao—may be an appropriate response.”
Mao began his counterattack by stoking the fires of his personality cult. It was Maoist acolyte Lin Biao, then in the control of the People’s Liberation Army, who came up with the idea of a book of quotations from Chairman Mao. Called the Little Red Book, both for its red plastic cover and for the ‘redness” of the idea contained therein, it became mandatory reading for all members of the military, then for schoolchildren, and then for the public at large. Then Biao put military factories to work churning out hundreds of millions of badges featuring the head of Chairman Mao, which young people were encouraged to wear to demonstrate their loyalty to the Great Helmsman. Seizing control of the People’s Daily from Liu Shao-qi’s supporters in May 1966, he turned it into his personal mouthpiece.
Slogans exalting Mao were splashed in bold red type across the top of the first page: Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in Our Hearts! Establish Chairman Mao’s Absolute Authority! We will destroy whomever Opposes Chairman Mao! The rest of the page was covered with long editorials exhorting the masses to join with Chairman Mao in launching a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and to “sweep away all ox devils and snake demons,” which is what Mao now called class enemies. Sometimes, instead of slogans, quotations, and editorials, Mao’s beaming portrait took up the entire front page.
Thus deified, the Chairman signaled the youth to organize themselves into Red Guard units and root out “revisionists” within the Party. Protected by the military, young people throughout China went on a rampage. There was open warfare in city after city as Red Guard factions, having destroyed the local educational and government structures, went on to fight among themselves, first with sticks and clubs, then with pistols and rifles.
Under the cover of this mass movement, and using special “Red Guard” units that he personally controlled, Mao moved against his chief enemies within the Party. By the time Mao had finished his purge, over half of the Central Committee had been purged—and the Chairman was firmly back in command.
As for the Red Guards, Mao was finished with them too. After two years of bloodly factional clashes throughout China, he ordered an army crackdown. “Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams” were sent into the universities to take control, and ordered many of the students to be “sent down” to the countryside, there to languish on army farms and communes.
The American left, led by China-infatuated academics, was once again unable to recognize a power struggle when it stared them in the face. They rhapsodized about the Cultural Revolution, enthusing over the “new Socialist men and women” the Cultural Revolution had created, and much more.
Michel Oksenberg, President Carter’s China expert, complained that “America [is] doomed to decay until radical, even revolutionary, change fundamentally alters the institutions and values,” urging us to “borrow ideas and solutions” from China. Why? Because, as he wrote, China “appears to have regenerated itself and to be making economic and social progress. Moreover, the Chinese have undertaken bold experiments in a number of areas that are of direct concern to us, such as bureaucratic practice, education, the patterns of urbanization, penology, public health, factory management, and civil-military relations…. Beyond this, the Chinese Revolution is an optimistic statement about the capacity of man to solve his problems.”
Even Harvard Professor John K. Fairbank, by no means the worst of this lot, believed that America could learn much from the Cultural Revolution: “Americans may find in China’s collective life today an ingredient of personal moral concern for one’s neighbor that has a lesson for us all.” This, he added admiringly, was the result of “a far-reaching moral crusade to changed the very human Chinese personality in the direction of self-sacrifice and serving others.” Elsewhere, he wrote that “The people seem healthy, well fed and articulate about their role as citizens of Chairman Mao’s New China … the change in the countryside is miraculous…. The Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing than happened to the Chinese people in centuries.”
There were many hundreds of millions of Chinese—those who suffered at the hands of the “Maoist revolution”—who would have disagreed with this analysis. But they weren’t talking, at least to visiting fellow travelers. The tens of millions of dead, of course, were beyond interlocution.
As Mao lay dying in 1976, he was consumed by self-pity for having failed to become the “master of the earth,” giving no thought for the enormous human and material losses that his destructive quest power had inflicted upon his people.
Mao Zedong is arguably the greatest mass murderer of the Twentieth Century, perhaps in history. He easily eclipses fellow left-wing monsters like Pol Pot, Hitler, and even Stalin in the sheer number of corpses he left in his wake.
In light of this, perhaps Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of those who have tried to stand up to the Communist heirs of Mao’s atrocities, wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Maybe there are in fact some things in this world that are more important than LeBron James missing out on some of his anticipated profits from Nike shoe sales in China.