Sept. 9, 1976—Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, who cultivated a cult of personality that led many to overlook the dismal economic record and millions of deaths under his leadership, died at 82.
The physical decline of Chairman Mao was, in its way, of a piece with his crimes: the evidence scattered, but lying about in such profusion that an unbiased, reasonably attentive person could have surmised that something was amiss. He had not been seen in public since 1971, and the consensus of China watchers was that he had suffered from a neuromuscular disease, probably Parkinson’s.
In fact, his deterioration had been even more rapid than supposed. China’s leader had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1974. His condition, dire enough with that diagnosis alone, was even worse because of a longtime addiction to cigarettes that left him vulnerable to bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema and congestive heart failure, his personal physician Li Zhi-Sui finally revealed in The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994).
Similarly, the strong-arm tactics of the Chinese leader were not impossible to divine, as in one of the principal maxims in Quotations from Chairman Mao (aka The Little Red Book): “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” But many in the West were so excited at the wholesale transformation of the world’s most populous country after the 1949 revolution that they paid little attention to the strong signals of human-rights abuses.
In 1955, to quell any notion of revolt against a regime still only in existence a half-dozen years, Communist China formed what were known euphemistically as “re-education through labor” camps meant to house “counter-revolutionaries.” In time, they would house not only dissidents but also petty criminals, drug addicts and prostitutes—about 400,000 people in more than 300 facilities by 2007, according to an NPR report. Only two years ago did the current post-Mao overlords close what had become symbols of detention without trial and other legal abuses.
Even that did not begin to describe the extent of human-rights violations under the Maoist regime. Before he even seized power from Chiang Kai-shek, Mao had indicated his general indifference to human life on his so-called “Long March,” the 368-day, 7,000-mile retreat of Chinese Communist forces away from Chiang in 1935. As I mentioned in a prior post, less than 5% of his original 86,000 men survived the trip. If he remained unmoved at the thought of losing so many supporters, is it any wonder that he would be less so by opponents?
The estimates may vary concerning those who lost their lives because of Mao’s rule, but the arithmetic is unswervingly grim. Hong Kong-based historian Frank Dikotter, when allowed access to government archives, estimated that at least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in the laughably named “Great Leap Forward,” the nation’s attempt to catch up with Western economies from 1958 to 1962 through collectivization. In the “Cultural Revolution” of 1966, another two million may have lost their lives at the hands of students mobilized into Red Guard units who attempted to purge China of institutions and individuals regarded as insufficiently revolutionary.
The new understanding about Mao may have been best expressed by Australian man of letters Clive James, who has written:
“In China Mao Zedong went to war against the evil landlords and the imperialist spies. Neither group actually existed. The death toll of his countrymen exceeded the totals achieved by Hitler and Stalin combined. They all died for nothing. Dying innocent, they have their eternal dignity, but there are no profundities to be plumbed in their collective extinction except the adamantine fact of human evil.”