‘Bombard the Headquarters’ The twin pillars of Mao’s campaign were uprooting supposed reactionaries and the promotion of sycophancy.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

Looking back on the three years that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has been in power, it is tempting to say that his tenure has been leading, almost ineluctably, to revived memories of and comparisons to the moment 50 years ago when China embarked on the decade we remember as the Cultural Revolution.

Month after month has brought news from China of the unrelenting ways in which Mr. Xi has concentrated power in his own hands. This began early in his tenure, when state propagandists encouraged worshipful references to him as “Xi Dada,” or “grandpa Xi,” while elevating his glamorous wife, Peng Liyuan, to the status of national role model. In April, Mr. Xi, who was already president, chairman of the Communist Party and head of the country’s Central Military Commission, showed up in camouflage fatigues at a meeting with top military leaders, revealing yet another title: head of China’s Joint Battle Command Center.

Finally, just days before the anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, which fell on May 25, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was the scene of a theatrical extravaganza that combined revived radical rhetoric from that era with twinned images of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. Developments like these have made many Chinese and foreign observers ask whether China under Mr. Xi is edging toward a revival of Mao-like rule.

But to read Frank Dikötter’s “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976” is to understand how far Mr. Xi’s China—however worrisome recent trends—is from Mao’s radical, despotic regime.

Most accounts of this era begin in May 1966, when dissidents at Peking University displayed so-called big-character posters denouncing the university’s leadership as “Khrushchev-type revisionist elements.” Mao responded by urging the young radicals to “bombard the headquarters” of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, Mr. Dikötter commences his story four years earlier, when Mao began maneuvering to restore his prestige and power after the shattering failure of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, in which his plan to rapidly accelerate China’s economy ended in the starvation of tens of millions of his compatriots. Mao’s new campaign was built on two main pillars: the promotion of leftist ideas, which would require uprooting supposed reactionaries seeded throughout the party; and the promotion of sycophancy, which was ultimately fanned to a white heat.


By Frank Dikötter

Bloomsbury, 396 pages. $32

According to Mr. Dikötter, this two-pronged approach began with a 1962 speech by Lin Biao,a power-hungry military commander who would soon rise to become the chairman’s designated successor. (In 1971, Lin was himself destroyed amid vicious political infighting, dying in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia as he fled his country.) Lin set the standard for the deification of Mao, declaring him infallible: “The thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct. . . . He is never out of touch with reality.” Lin, who had the idea of printing millions of copies of a compendium of Mao’s thoughts, which became known as the “Little Red Book,” was only getting started.

As Mr. Dikötter’s subtitle implies, his history aims to give new emphasis to the voices and experiences of ordinary Chinese during this period in order to better understand a bewilderingly chaotic political era. What emerges most strongly from the book, however, is a deepened sense of the elite politics of the period, as the higher reaches of the Communist Party, senior military commanders and even provincial leaders were kept guessing about their obscurantist leader’s ever-changing whims, which Mao expressed with abstruse aphorisms and pseudo-Marxist gibberish. Throughout the book, especially its first half, what predominates is the ceaseless rise and fall of members of the nomenklatura as they parry charges of being closet rightists and seek to stay in Mao’s good graces. These figures include people at the very top of the hierarchy, such as Zhou Enlai, Mao’s longest-serving lieutenant; the twice-purged Deng Xiaoping; Liu Shaoqi, who was purged as president and died in prison; and Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who survived it all only to be arrested after the chairman’s death and imprisoned for her role as ringleader of the chaos.

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Will there be war?

At the heart of Cliff’s book is an assessment of who would win if a war broke out between the US and China in this region. The US has been a guarantor of Taiwan’s security for a long time, and has defence treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines that Washington has been working to strengthen, under what the Obama administration has called a ‘rebalance’ of American strength towards Asia. Beijing has denounced these efforts, claiming they are aimed at containment of China. Cliff assumes, as the European analyst Jonathan Holslag does in China’s Coming War with Asia, that as China’s strength continues to grow, so does the possibility of conflict with the US, the dominant power in the Western Pacific since the Second World War.

Copyright The London Review of Books

A review of the following titles:

  • China and Global Nuclear Order: From Estrangement to Active Engagement by Nicola Horsburgh
    Oxford, 256 pp, £55.00, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 870611 3
  • BUYChina’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities byRoger Cliff
    Cambridge, 378 pp, £21.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 107 50295 6
  • BUYChina’s Coming War with Asia by Jonathan Holslag
    Polity, 176 pp, £14.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 7456 8825 1

On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace to proclaim the victory of his revolution, and told the world that the long-suffering Chinese people had finally ‘stood up’. After decades of tremendous violence and turmoil, China was going to relaunch itself into the arduous and disorienting task of embracing modernity. This project had begun in the late 19th century, near the end of the thousands-year-long imperial era under the Qing dynasty, and continued at the start of the republican period in the early 20th century. But it was cut short by chaotic warlordism, followed by Japan’s vicious attempted conquest of China and finally by brutal infighting between Communists and Nationalists. It was Mao’s armies’ outmanoeuvring of the forces of his longtime rival, Chiang Kai-Shek, that landed him triumphantly in Tiananmen Square that day in 1949. What set China apart from almost every other people whose lands were subjugated by European imperialism, then thrown into chaos by the turmoil that followed its collapse, is that through all the violence the nation suffered, one ambition remained constant: to restore to China what those who aspired to lead it believed was its civilisational birthright and heritage – a position of pre-eminence in world affairs.

Self-belief of this sort has always been a feature of Chinese thinking. But during Mao’s early years in power, the notion that China could make progress only by adopting imported ideas was still a relatively new and radical concept. As recently as the late 18th century, China was still displaying utter disdain for the ideas and innovations coming from Europe. When George Macartney, Britain’s first envoy to China, arrived at the head of a delegation in 1793, the Qing Emperor Qianlong refused his request to establish a permanent embassy in Beijing. Qianlong also spurned Macartney’s gifts, which had been carefully selected to demonstrate British progress and greatness. ‘Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders,’ Qianlong wrote. ‘Therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.’ There are few better examples of how pride precedes a fall. Among Macartney’s gifts were several brass cannons capable of firing seven shots a minute – an astounding feat at that time. Britain even proposed to export them to China, but the Qing declined. A half-century later, Britain would return to the country with cannons blazing, humiliating China and its technologically backward armies in the first Opium War.

The country that Mao inherited was poor and economically devastated. Its situation compared to the major powers was arguably worse than it had been when the Europeans made their scramble for China a hundred years earlier. Mao knew this and had no intention of repeating the errors of Qianlong – this was no time for false pride. Beijing aligned itself closely with the USSR, believing that Marxism-Leninism offered the best chance of reordering Chinese society and allowing it rapidly to make up lost ground in economic and geopolitical power. Barely two months after taking power he made a pilgrimage by train to Moscow, spending two months holed up in a dacha awaiting infrequent audiences with Stalin in order to plead his case for assistance on an unheard-of scale. Mao asked for factories of all sorts to be dismantled and shipped off to China; he wanted the Soviets to accept huge numbers of Chinese students into their universities and technical institutes; and he requested that the Soviets send thousands of advisers to China to help oversee the country’s economic take-off.

From the outset, however, Mao had something more ambitious in mind than creating modern industries and generating economic growth. Having ‘liberated’ China at the beginning of the nuclear age, there was one Western gadget he coveted more than any other: the bomb. Though it conspicuously lacked this ultimate symbol of great power status, China fought the US to a standstill on the Korean peninsula and began to project its ambitions into other parts of the world. During this period, Mao publicly affected disdain for weapons of mass destruction, arguing that against the immensity of China they counted for little. ‘The atom bomb is a paper tiger … it looks terrible but in fact it is not … the outcome of war is decided by the people, not … weapons,’ he said in the late 1940s, as Nicola Horsburgh recounts in China and Global Nuclear Order. Privately, though, atomic weapons were an early obsession of his, so much so that his eagerness to acquire an arsenal of his own drove a wedge between Beijing and Moscow and was one of the factors that led to the termination of their alliance in the early 1960s. In 1949, Liu Shaoqi was sent to Moscow, where he sought and was denied access to Soviet nuclear facilities. By 1954, however, Moscow had acquiesced, enabling China rapidly to master the nuclear fuel cycle. The following year, the two countries signed the Sino-Soviet Atomic Co-operation Treaty, which led to the creation of 39 atomic research centres in China. But by 1957, there were signs of trouble in the relationship. A new technical accord signed that year seemed to promise that the USSR would supply China with a blueprint for an atomic weapon, or even a prototype – but in the end no device was provided. Horsburgh says that Moscow had demanded joint military control, a loss of sovereignty that Mao rejected as intolerable.

By the late 1950s, after several years of an unrestrained arms race, Moscow and Washington had begun to take their nuclear competition seriously. The US had installed tactical atomic weapons at bases in Taiwan, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii, and had hinted at the possibility of their use during crises in Indochina in 1954 and over Taiwan in 1955. When Mao confronted Taiwan over the small, Taiwanese-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu in 1958, risking war with the US, Moscow got spooked by its ally’s seeming recklessness – some in Moscow began asking whether Mao was crazy. Unlike the USSR, China also insisted on supporting wars of national liberation in other parts of the world – a principle that Mao regarded as sacrosanct.

China’s frustration at the Soviets’ foot-dragging over the sharing of atomic weapons technology, combined with Mao’s disapproval of Khrushchev’s posthumous attack on Stalin and his cult of personality in the secret speech of 1956, destroyed any remaining allegiance to the USSR. In Mao’s view, Khrushchev was legitimising challengers to his own rule. The Soviets were denounced as ‘revisionists’, which in this instance meant that they were willing to make accommodations with the US in order to avoid war. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which Beijing read as Soviet capitulation, this had become the mainstream view in China.

In June 1959, Khrushchev abrogated the USSR’s two-year-old treaty with Beijing, declaring that no nuclear weapon prototype would be provided to China after all because of his country’s commitment to the recently negotiated Partial Test Ban Treaty with the US. A year later, Moscow withdrew all of its nearly three thousand technical advisers from China. Until this point, Beijing had stuck closely to Moscow’s line on atomic weapons, endorsing Soviet calls for arms control, even disarmament. Speaking in Geneva in 1954, for example, Mao’s number two, Zhou Enlai, said: ‘The arms race must be halted, universal disarmament be carried out and atomic and hydrogen weapons and weapons of mass destruction be prohibited.’

When Soviet assistance was cut off, and the relationship between the two communist powers became increasingly hostile, China’s position on nuclear weapons changed. Mao’s administration took to arguing that arms control was a scam designed to perpetuate the global hegemony of the two rival superpowers, the US and the USSR. It also began to claim that the spread of nuclear weapons beyond this cartel could have a stabilising influence, and for a time promoted what it called ‘socialist proliferation’. Horsburgh quotes Zhou Enlai: ‘If all countries have nuclear weapons,’ he said in 1961, ‘the possibility of nuclear wars would decrease.’

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