A Third and Ideal Version of Post-WWII China
August 15, 1945. It was a long-awaited glorious day for Chinese people. Japan surrendered in World War II. The 8-year long Sino-Japanese War ended at last, along with China’s century of humiliation, which had seen two Opium Wars, the Invasion of the Eight-Power Allied Forces, two Sino-Japanese Wars, and incessant fighting among warlords. The nation was covered with cuts and bruises through endless wars over 100 years. It was time to start healing the wounds and building a future.
Except that it was not yet peace time for two men named Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, the leaders of the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party, respectively. They dragged the nation back into a civil war one year after the Japanese troops withdrew. Chiang was rigid, meticulous and serious. Mao was passionate, easy going and liked to laugh. The Nationalist Party was the dominant force, but it was disintegrating and corrupt to the bones. The Communist Party was the insurgent; it had high morale; its land reform program confiscated properties from landlords and distributed them to peasants and the poor.
Mao and the Communist Party won the hearts and minds of the masses, as well as the war, by a landslide. Chiang Kai-shek and his army fled to Taiwan. On October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was founded, and it was another glorious day for Chinese people. Mao Zedong became a national hero. He achieved what many revolutionary pioneers and warlords had tried but failed in the past four decades – the unification of China. He was the beacon of hope. No more wars. No more suffering. Only the “great rejuvenation of China”.
But history took a wild turn. By the time Mao died in 1976, he had inflicted more death and suffering on the people than any other period since the Opium Wars. His Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, a deranged economic plan to catch up with the rich West, caused a famine that killed 30 to 40 million people. His Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s was a period of murderous insanity, during which millions more were killed, persecuted, or driven to suicide. He was “both a demigod and a demon.”
The paradox of Mao’s personality was heartbreaking. Why did the beloved Chairman Mao, the national hero who inspired hundreds of millions of people, who brought hope and life to a devastated nation, and who unified China against all odds turn out to be one of the 20th century’s worst despots? Did the Chinese people make a gigantic mistake? Should we have chosen Chiang Kai-shek?
Before answering these questions, one need to look deeper into why Chiang lost the civil war, an outcome that was years in the making. Before the war, the Nationalist Party was the governing party founded by Sun Yat-sen, the foremost pioneer of the 1911 revolution that overthrew China’s 2000-year-long feudal autocracy. Chiang was Sun’s protégé. After Sun’s death, Chiang appeared to be interested only in consolidating his power instead of the livelihood of people. He acted against the Party’s founding principles thereby antagonizing a group of prominent party officials, including Sun’s widow, Soong Ching-ling, a highly-regarded political figure. The group became increasingly opposed to the corrupt government under Chiang’s rule and later sided with the Communist Party during the civil war.
Chiang’s greatest sin was killing Chinese while tolerating rampaging Japanese. For six years he ordered troops not to fight the Japanese invasion, but concentrated forces to crack down relentlessly on the burgeoning Communist Party. His action provoked public indignation, which culminated in a coup by two of his top lieutenants (whom he later killed or arrested) that forced him to concede. By the time the civil war broke out, Chiang had already lost the people and could not unify his own political party.
Mao and the Communist Party at that time, by contrast, promised a future with no “exploitation and oppression”, a vision that inspired visceral passion in millions of young patriots who devoted themselves and their lives to the cause. The sad thing is, the social equality in Mao’s world, the cause for which millions had died, turned out to be that everyone was equal in the sense that everyone was poor. For Mao and his fanatical followers, winning the civil war did not mark the end of the proletarian revolution. The “class war” had to be ongoing to eliminate every remnant of the bourgeoisie.
And somewhere along the road, Mao fell into the same trap that caused Chiang’s defeat – when tempted with absolute power, everything else was secondary. He started the Cultural Revolution with the sole purpose to bring down Liu Shaoqi, his hand-picked successor and an economic reformer, whom he felt was a threat to his authority. The fear of losing power overwhelmed his love for the country. The hero became the author of chaos. The patriot became indifferent to the death and suffering of his own people.
On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, the picture was not rosy either. After Chiang’s army retreated to Taiwan, he imposed martial law and persecuted thousands of people critical of his rule in a period known as the “White Terror”, which lasted for 38 years. Chiang ruled Taiwan as his kingdom and named his son as successor, a retrogressive step back to the feudal hereditary system that had been overthrown by his mentor.
Freedom and democracy did not happen in Taiwan until the collapse of the “Chiang Dynasty”. The consensus is that although Chiang would have remained in charge of a corrupt, autocratic government with a brutal secret police, his brand of authoritarianism may have proved a softer one than Mao’s. However, this gives a chilling answer to our previous question – no matter which leader the Chinese people chose, the best outcome would be the lesser of two evils.
But it should not have to be this way. Both Mao and Chiang were prominent politicians and strategists. It is not right that only their evil side would be at work when they control China’s destiny. The root of all evil is absolute power, or the system that allows absolute power. Although China’s feudal monarchy ended with the 1911 revolution, the 2000-year history of new dynasties built upon the collapse of old ones had resulted in a mindset of “overthrowing the king to become the king” so ingrained that after the revolution warlords across the country were still fighting to become the next (or the last) emperor of China. Chiang and Mao, despite what they claimed or believed in the beginning, were no exception. Had the lure of absolute power been taken out of the equation, China would not be today’s China.
In a parallel universe, let’s assume Mao and Chiang agreed to a popular vote and none of the bloodshed happened. Not only were the famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the White Terror never seen, the whole civil war never occurred. Mao would win the first election due to his popularity among a greater portion of the electorate. He would remain a spiritual leader and inspire the nation to unite as one and concentrate efforts on building a new China. After one or two terms, Chiang would be elected because of his competence to develop the nation’s economy. And after that, the baton would be passed on to other capable leaders – from both parties.
Too naïve? Maybe at that time. But after 70 years, democracy in China is long overdue.