Xi Jinping is bringing back some of Mao’s tendancies.
Next year marks the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Mao Zedong and his fellow revolutionaries made a new state, proud and independent. It was also authoritarian and murderous. That era seemed over, but oppression with totalitarian overtones has returned to the PRC. What should America do?
China’s history is long and tortured. Once a great empire that dominated its neighbors, it turned inward, falling behind both its neighbors and more distant Western powers. The dynasty stagnated and was humiliated by outsiders. The overthrow of the Manchus in 1911 and rise of Sun Yat-sen offered hope, but the nominal republic suffered through warlord conflicts, Japanese invasion and civil war. There was much to criticize in the rule of Chiang Kai-shek, but his flaws paled compared to those of Mao Zedong, the revolutionary who came to dominate life in the world’s most populous country.
In Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China: “We have stood up.” The Communists became the new elite, with the leadership taking up residence in Zhongnanhai, a well-guarded compound next to the ancient Forbidden City, home to the emperors.
Early during his reign, Mao orchestrated campaigns against “landlords” and other “counterrevolutionaries,” murdered as many as five million people—perhaps more—and sent millions more to labor camps. In 1956 Mao launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which offered Chinese an opportunity to speak freely: “let a hundred flowers bloom,” he said. However, Mao soon tired of criticism and began the repressive Anti-Rightist Movement, punctuated by widespread executions, perhaps reaching the millions.
Barely a year after the PRC’s formation, Mao pressed for Beijing’s intervention in the Korean War, which sacrificed perhaps 200,000 Chinese lives, including Mao’s son, to save the Kim dynasty.
In 1958 came the “Great Leap Forward,” intended to rapidly industrialize China. With food diverted to the cities and overseas for export, people in the provinces starved to death. Those who resisted were arrested, tortured and sometimes killed. After losing influence, in 1966 he launched the Proletarian Cultural Revolution against his enemies: the result was a xenophobic power struggle/civil war which consumed many of his old colleagues while leaving an entire generation without education or skills.