The People’s Republic of China is celebrating. The Chinese Communist Party officially turned 100. Seventy-two of those years have been in power. The other 28 years were spent attempting to seize power.
The CCP appears to have been quite successful. But that has been only through the help, intended or not, of others. On its own the movement almost certainly would have been crushed by the Nationalist Party’s Chiang Kai-shek. He, not Mao Zedong, would have led a united China forward, likely allied with the United States. Mao probably would have been dead or in exile. Across such a vast nation some communist activists would have survived, but without the civil war, Taiwan exodus, Korean War, and multiple self-inflicted slaughters, China’s economy likely would have taken off much sooner. Beijing’s future would not have been without challenges, but it likely would have been brighter earlier.
The CCP’s first outside beneficiary was the Soviet Union. Working with Joseph Stalin was not easy, and his government also maintained ties with Chiang’s Nationalists, creating a complicated geopolitical triangle. Over the years, however, Moscow’s assistance was important for the PRC’s success and helped give the communists a decisive advantage as World War II ended.
Much more important for Mao’s success, however, was Japan. Contrary to communist propaganda, Chiang’s forces did most of the fighting against the Japanese, and Chiang sacrificed his best troops in the process. In turn, Tokyo targeted the Nationalists. The CCP held itself mostly aloof from combat. Had Chiang been able to concentrate on Mao & Co., he likely would have been able to kill or disperse his communist opponents.
North Korea also gave an inadvertent boost to the CCP with the Korean War. North Korea’s Kim Il-sung wrongly assumed that the U.S. would not intervene to stop his invasion. When Washington’s counterattack looked to overrun the North, Mao insisted that the PRC intervene. War with America kept China on a war footing, intensified its hostility toward the U.S., and tied it more closely to the Soviet Union.
But the CCP’s most important battle was against its own people. That started with the civil war itself. Julia Lovell, at Birkbeck, University of London, wrote,
Far from reflecting a moral “mandate” to rule, the Communists’ victory against their Nationalist rivals was overwhelmingly military in nature. To conquer key cities in the industrial northeast, Communist commanders laid siege to civilian populations. “Turn Changchun into a city of death,” proclaimed Lin Biao, one of Mao’s most successful strategists, in 1948. By the time the metropolis fell five terrible months later, 160,000 non-combatants had died of starvation.
After the communist victory, the killing continued. It occurred in waves, dependent on the fickleness of one man who gained life-or-death control over an entire country: Mao Zedong. In reviewing Frank Dikötter’s The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945–57, Lovell wrote, “In Dikötter’s account of Chinese communism between 1945 and 1957, the devastating famine of 1958-62 and the vicious purges of the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 are cataclysms waiting to happen. The state-sanctioned savagery and fanatical meddling that would make both these later events possible are already clearly visible.”
Unsurprisingly, there was much injustice in China to remedy after centuries of emperors, decades of warlords, imperial rule, foreign invasion, internal conflict, and civil war. Chiang’s reign also was brutal, incompetent, and corrupt. But the Red Emperor, as Mao was known, transcended his forebears in ambition, determination, cruelty, and lethality. That combination had hideous consequences for the people he was supposed to be serving.
Mao’s mantra after taking power could have been “So many enemies, so little time.” He launched campaigns against “landlords” and other “counter-revolutionaries,” in which as many as five million — estimates vary widely — were murdered, and millions more were sent to labor camps. Mao’s intention was to destroy. Dikötter wrote that Mao targeted pre-revolutionary relationships “so that nothing would stand between the people and the party … Nobody was to stand on the sidelines. Everybody was to have blood on their hands.”
In 1956, Mao launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign or Movement. After years of brutal repression, he appeared to repent, offering the Chinese people an opportunity to speak freely: “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he said. Like all real emperors, however, he resented the ensuing criticism and initiated the Anti-Rightist Movement, which conveniently covered “the snakes” that, he explained, he had enticed “out of their caves.” Hundreds of thousands or even millions more Chinese were executed.
Two years later came the “Great Leap Forward.” Chinese communism, like that in the Soviet Union, was an endless succession of plans. Plans to reorder society. Plans to remake the human person. Plans to transform human relationships. Plans to advance the human utopias that exist in despotic imaginations.
Mao planned simultaneously to collectivize agriculture and industrialize China. The result would be a dual cornucopia, as the PRC overtook the industrial world in production of all that was good and necessary. Alas, agricultural collectivization and backyard steel mills, the latest panaceas to emerge from Mao’s fertile imagination, created catastrophe across China. Of course, Mao and the leadership ate well. So did local cadres. But with food taken to feed political elites and city dwellers and to export overseas, rural people starved to death en masse. Resistance was met with arrest, torture, and sometimes death. Such was Mao’s political authority that those around him, even when aware of the mass suffering caused by his policy delusions, were afraid to admit the truth. As many as 46 million Chinese died in Mao’s famine.
Even in revolutionary China, that kind of blithering, blundering failure had an impact, and Mao was pushed aside, relegated more to a symbolic role. He responded characteristically, pushing his country into the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a mad mix of party purge, civil war, ideological conflict, and social madness. It was characterized by frenzied “Red Guards” waving Mao’s Little Red Book as they beat and murdered people believed to be insufficiently faithful to the revolution. Also targeted was China’s vast cultural patrimony. Hundreds of thousands or millions were killed; many more were imprisoned. Mao formally halted the madness in 1969, but the horror continued until his death seven years later.
The CCP chairman, whose mausoleum dominates Tiananmen Square and visage graces the PRC’s currency, ended up as the greatest mass killer in history. Alas, the exact number of dead is unknown. Unsurprisingly, the party did not keep a log of his victims. R. J. Rummel, author of Death by Government, estimated the toll at more than 35 million, an estimate that today is considered near the low end. Yang Jisheng, the Chinese journalist who wrote Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, figured that 36 million (including his father) died in the Great Leap Forward alone. The Black Book of Communism put Mao’s full toll at about 65 million. The highest estimate, probably an exaggeration — but who knows? — is 100 million.
Whatever the exact number, the mind boggles. Although Mao and the rest of the CCP did not intend to kill all these people, they intended to kill far too many. And their toxic mix of ideological fanaticism, political callousness, and personal indifference killed the rest.
Relief finally came, but only through Mao’s death. With him dead, the other party leaders moved swiftly and ruthlessly against his closest disciples, the so-called Gang of Four, who were quickly arrested and convicted. Deng Xiaoping famously ended up atop the CCP and dramatically took the party and country on a reform path. China’s economy opened, and people regained power over their own lives. The results were dramatic.
Strong support for political liberalization also emerged, including from CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. But ending the party’s political monopoly was a step too far for Deng, who forced the bloody 1989 crackdown on protests, which went far beyond Tiananmen Square. After that came a Maoist purge of liberals. The contest was a close-run affair that easily could have ended the CCP’s rule.
Although that was not to be, the China that emerged, though authoritarian, left space for dissent short of challenging the CCP’s control. There were contentious academics, independent journalists, human rights lawyers, foreign NGOs, underground churches, international travel, foreign education, and more. Scarred by the Mad Mao experience, the party provided for term limits and rotation in office. Although engagement with the West did not create a democratic China, it did encourage a freer China.
This gave hope for the future. But then came Xi Jinping. Tagged by some observers as a likely liberalizer, he turned out to be anything but. He has devoted his nearly decade in power — expected to continue indefinitely, since he eliminated presidential term limits — to strengthening his and the CCP’s power. Indeed, Xi has returned China to the politics if not all the policies of Mao Zedong. The economy remains much freer, though ultimately state-controlled. Personal autonomy is real, though it stops at the public square. There, only the party exists. Violations of human rights are the norm. Civil liberties, free speech, and political freedom do not exist.
The list of abuses is long. Hong Kong has lost its unique status as an oasis of freedom within the Chinese system. The PRC’s Uyghur population is subject to reeducation camps and forced labor. Tibetans have suffered similar collective punishment for opposing Chinese assimilation. More generally, the CCP has arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned, and tortured critics, constructed a surveillance state, wiped out independent journalists, destroyed the human rights bar, closed private NGOs, limited academic exchanges, intensified religious persecution, arrested foreigners to use as political hostages, targeted critics living abroad, and sought to impose its dictates on foreign nations.
Such is the record of the CCP.
Still, based on raw power, you can argue that the Chinese party is the most successful communist party in history. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Soviet Communist Party came up its own extensive gallery of murderers and brutes. It ruled over a major state for about 74 years (counting from the November revolution, which delivered the capital along with a multi-sided civil war, which took some time to win). During much of that time it controlled a superpower capable of destroying the world several times over. But the Soviet Union is gone, discarded in history’s trash can, a testament to man’s inhumanity to man.
Mao Zedong’s party seems destined to outlast the Soviet communists. Although the PRC is not yet a military superpower, it has vastly outstripped the USSR economically. Consequently, Beijing’s influence internationally runs deeper, and its long-term impact on the world is likely to be greater.
Yet China’s full potential is not likely to be fulfilled under the CCP. Beijing suffers from a gaggle of vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Among them are an aging and shrinking population, sharp political divisions, stultifying centralization of power in party and person, increased political interference in the economy, massive inequality in opportunity and income domestically, increasing international hostility, and persistent geographic vulnerability. It still is important not to underestimate the PRC’s potential. America’s remains greater, however: its problems are sadly evident, but those who bet against free societies do so at their peril.
Perhaps the greatest hope for the Chinese people is that they are not destined to live under tyranny. Today the man who determines the destiny of 1.4 billion people is 68 (Xi celebrated his birthday two weeks ago). Even if he thwarts the many enemies he has amassed, he will not rule forever. And after he goes his former colleagues may be as anxious to eliminate “Xi Jinping thought” as leading CCP members were to dispense with Maoism a half century ago. Although they could not easily “disappear” the Red Emperor who was so essential to the party and state he had proclaimed in Tiananmen Square, his policies, dictates, and musings all were dissipated like chaff in the wind. As for Xi, he is an apparatchik rather than a revolutionary, and he does not serve in a similar foundational role for the modern Chinese state. If the fates be favorable, on his ouster or death he will be almost instantly consigned to the contemptuous obscurity that he deserves.
The PRC is celebrating, but the Chinese people cannot. They might have “stood up,” as Mao claimed, after a century of humiliation. But they found themselves in a national prison that doubled as a madhouse, controlled by cruel ideologues for whom individuals were but the dispensable means to a collective end. The tragic results continue to play out in China today. Ultimately, the Chinese people will be free. Then they will control their own destiny and be free to fulfill the destiny of a great people and civilization.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.