[Marxism] Chang and Halliday critique

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Nov 12 07:14:29 MST 2005

(Posted to pen-l by Walt Byars.)

"Mao: The Unknown Story" really is a terrible book. Too bad it will become
exceedingly popular. The following is a review of it which I wrote for
amazon.com in which I (attempt to) refute a number of its main arguments.


Jung chang and Jon Halliday's "Mao: the Unknown Story" contains a number
of interesting and enlightening quotations of Mao and other party
officials which are mostly unknown to the public.This is pretty much the
only valuable aspect of this book. Unfortunately, there are so many
outright distortions and factually untrue statements about every issue
discussed in this book that one must be wary of everything but direct
quotations (as well as they context these direct quotations are put in),
which are mainly printed in collections inaccessible to most (especially

My review will be primarily focused on the agricultural politics and
economic policies of the Mao era, which occupy a substantial amount of
space in this book. The general thrust of C&H's argument is that Mao
desired to procure and export agricultural products (as well as other
policies which sacrificed food consumption) in order to accumulate
industrial capital (as well as finished military products themselves),
which was to be used to produce military productts. A strong theme
throughout the book is that Mao's military policy did not have defense in
mind. Thus, we get a very coherent explanation of Maoist tyranny - people
starved so Mao could be the leader of a superpower, and eventually the
world. The picture of Mao as uncaring about (and even liking) death which
is painted supports this. Unfortunately, the argument utterly fails. My
review of agriculture and economic policies will not be exclusively
focused on those parts of the book with direct relevance to this thesis.

P.327 states "land redistribution was not the main aspect of Mao's land
reform. The part that really mattered was...'struggle against the
landlords,'.which in reality meant violence against the relatively better
off. (In China, unlike pre-communist Russia, there were very few large
landowners.)" This is a collection of absolutely ridiculous statements.
Landlords comprised 4% of the population and owned 39% of the land in
1949. This more recent western estimate of the extent of landlordism is
actually slightly larger than that of the party at the time (who did not
yet have the ability to collect adequate statistics). See Joseph
Esherick's (who has an unrelated article cited in this book) "Number
Games," Modern China, 7.4 (October 1981):387-411; Chris Bramall, "Living
standards in pre-war Japan and Maoist China" Cambridge Journal of
Economics, 21. (1997):551-570 and his "Chinese Land Reform in Long run
Perspective" Journal of agrarian Change, 4.1. (2004) 107-141. C&H give no
source for their claim of the low extent of landlordism.

Further, while the landlords had their holdings strongly reduced, a class
of "Rich Peasants" averaging nearly twice the income of "poor peasants" in
every locality remained. The income share of the richest tenth of peasants
was only reduced by 2.8% by the end of land reform in 1952(See Bramall
"Chinese Land Reform..." p.111). Mao himself in his 1950 speech "Fight for
a Fundamental Turn for the Better in the Nation's Financial and Economic
Situation" argued for lenience towards rich peasants in order to preserve
the economy and prevent them from siding with the landlords: "Accordingly,
there should be a change in our policy towards the rich peasants, a change
from the policy of requisitioning their surplus land and property to one
of maintaining the rich peasant economy in order to facilitate the early
rehabilitation of rural production and the better to isolate the landlords
and protect the middle peasants and lessors of small plots." The text of
this speech is available online (incidentally, the short section of C&H's
bibliography for online material lists two different databses in which
this speech is located).

Basically, the statement of C&H quoted above is wrong in every way.

Pgs. 396-7 state that Mao's plans for industrialization "focused
exclusively on building up arms industries...According to official
statistics, spending...on the military plus arms related industries took
up 61 per cent of the budget- although in reality the percentage was
higher, and would rise as the years progressed." The only citation is to
the official statistics themselves, missing is an explanation of why they
underestimate military related spending. And what is an "arms related
industry?" Practically any category of industry has relevance to arms.
Considering the fact that heavy industry only accounted for a 42% share of
all industry in the year in question (1952) which steadily increased to
65% by Mao's death (Chris Bramall "Sources of Chinese Economc Growth
1978-1996" pp.148-9), I expect that their definition of "arms related
industry" is quite loose. No more evidence is provided for the assertion
that the industrialization program was exclusively military oriented (no
one denies that it was heavily military oriented).

The authors go on to criticize Mao for allegedly exporting food in order
to build up military capacity. They claim that Mao knew his policies would
cause starvation and quote him saying that 10% of households face food
scarcity (p.400). However, It is well known that Mao exaggerated claims of
economic inequality (it was clear at the time that problems of nutrition
were a result of distribution and not aggregate food availability, and
later western studies such as Alan Piazza's book "Food Consumption and
Nutritional Status in the PRC" confirm that the average person in the PRC
had an adequate calorie intake in the early 1950s) during this time period
in order to justify the collectivization that would eventually take place
in the mid 1950s. Even if Mao's figure is right and even if he believed
it, he was still pushing programs which were intended to redistribute
agricultural produce in such a way as to relieve this problem.

The chapter on the Great Leap Forward is abysmal. The "real" goal of the
GLF was apparently to take over the pacific. They quote Mao around the
time of the leap implying that he would like to take over the pacific, but
provide no evidence that this was a goal of the leap (much less the
primary one). The authors rightly point out that ridiculous claims about
agricultural yields were pervasive in the late 1950s, and that Mao
encouraged these exaggerations. They wrongly conclude (without evidence)
that the goal was to use the inflated yield figures as a means to procure
a greater amount of produce. In relaity, there was a conflict over how
quickly the basic program of the Leap should be implemented. Mao felt it
should be implemented quickly, and all those who didn't paint a rosy
picture of the economy in the late 1950s were branded as "rightists"
attempting to discredit Mao's radical programs, and were severely
persecuted. It is likely that Mao himself believed this nonsense, as
agricultural inputs were reduced in accordance with the inflated claims of
increased productivity. This of course severely reduced output (as there
were no such productivity gains) and was a major cause of the famine
(Xizhe Peng "Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China's
Provinces" Population and Development Review,13.4.Dec 1987) C&H's evidence
that Mao couldn't have believed in August 1958 that China had a great
surplus of food is that in January he said there wasn't enough food. This
following a few pages discussing the claims of extravagant agricultural
output in the intervening months. No evidence is provided that Mao didn't
believe these claims.

A more Bizarre argument relates to the massive mobilization of labor
inputs during this period, which the authors regard as slavery. Mao did
this because he "wanted to raise output without spending any money, he
latched on to methods that depended on labour, not investment." (p.447) In
relaity, labor was mobilized very much, but so was investment! The Chinese
investment share was 24.9% in 1957, 33.9% in 1958, 43.8% in 1959, and
39.6% in 1960, followed by three years of less than 20% investment in the
aftermath of the famine. The rate of investment during the famine years
dwarfed the Maoist era average of 27.1% and in some years even the 36.7%
average of 1978-1996. The investment share in 1959 was the highest in
Chinese history. this was actually an obvious cause of the famine.

C&H (pp. 456-7) estimate 38 million famine deaths on the basis of a 4.34%
mortality rate in 1960 and a 2.83% rate in 1961. The 1960 figure is nearly
twice the level given in the data from the massive census in the early
1980s (the figure given by the 1980s census for 1961 is indeed more than
twice as small) but "the official statistics published in 1983 are
recognized as partly defective, because local policemen understated the
number of deaths in the years 1959-61 after some were purged for
over-reporting deaths." Partly defective? Their estimate requires the
census data to be so radically defective as to be useless. They cite a
Chinese study as their source, which contradicts basically every other
study on Chinese mortality ever written anywhere. They don't mention how
these precise figures were arrived at, and anyone familiar with the
enormity of the census from the early 1980s (which investigated
demographic trends in the past as well) must be skeptical of how anyone
could arrive at an estimate not heavily based on the census. Most Western
estimates say 30 million died in the famine. C&H's estimate is only 8
million above this, but such a comparison hides the radical nature ofthe
author's mortality estimate. Mortality had been rapidly decreasing in the
years leading up to the famine, and continued to decrease afterwards. Most
demographer's find around 30 million deaths in excess of what would be
predicted by the trends. If C&H applied their absurd mortality figures to
this more common method, they would probably get a figure of around 50
million. However, they simply calculate deaths in excess of those actually
realizeed in the years surrounding the leap.

The authors argue that no one would have died if grain wasn't exported.
"During..1958-9, grain exports [of] 7m tons would have provided the
equivalent of over 840 calories per day for 38 million people - the
difference between life and death...Had this food not been exported (and
instead distributted according to humane criteria), very probably not a
single person in China would have had to die of hunger." As if its so easy
to identify exactly how many calories any person needs so as to only
distribute that food over a gigantic country of hundreds of millions of
people to only the 38 million who need it to survive, despite the fact
everyone is consuming dangerously low levels of food!

More distortions deserve mention. they quote Mao's hostile statements in
1959 about peasants who were alleged to be hiding grain. While they cite
Dali Yang's excellent "Calamity and Reform," they conveniently leave out
Mao's later statement, quoted in Yang's book, that "I certainly hope
[peasants are hiding grain], I'm afraid they have nothing to eat at all!"
This omission is especially surprising considering that on page 401 the
authors quote Liu Shaoqi statements in 1951 about the need of peasants to
have consumption goods, and comment that "This was the kind of language
Mao never used."

I will make one comment about their discussion of the Cultural Revolution:
They repeat the line established by the party in 1981 that the CR was a
struggle among the party elite. They say that Mao manipulated the Red
Guards into trying to destroy his political enemies (typically, the
authors don't distinguish between the Loyalist Red Guards and the Rebel
Red Guards, the two violently opposed factions whose battles accounted for
much of the chaos). In reality, the CR was a struggle which arose out of
the fact that a new priviledged "red" class had been created since the
establishment of the PRC, and that huge anatagonisms had built up. It was
this priviledged position that the rebles rebelled against. Mao gave
confused and contradictory support to both sides (although primarily the
rebels) while the rest of the party sided with the loyalists. The major
players in the CR were the people, not the party elite! (See Anita Chan
"dispelling Misconceptions about the Red Guard Movement" Journal of
Contemporary China" 1.1. Sep 1992)

The biggest problem with this book is that they ignore Mao achievements,
arguably as or more spectacular than his failures. They call most
irrigation programs a "stupendous waste" while giving an unbalanced review
of a small number of them. For a good discussion of their costs and
benefits, see Bramall "Sources..." pp. 140-7. While the problems of
flooding and drought weren't solved, they were reduced far below the scope
of the devastating natural disasters which killed millions upon millions
in the century prior to communist rule. Microlevel data show yields
pervasively increasing with irrigated area. Since "Stabilization" in 1952,
redistribution nearly halved the death rate by 1957. By thee end of the
Maoist era, the death rate was a third of its 1952 level. this was a
result of Maoist redistribution and health care. As Judith Banister
concludes in her classic study (other Banister work is cited by C&H)
"China's Changing Population": "Much of the improvement in China's health
and mortality conditions since about 1968 may be attributable to the
preventive and curative work of the barefoot doctors." Chang herself was a
barefoot doctor, according to the back flap, but does not discuss their
achievements. The legacy Maoist economic program is a major cause of
China's fast economic growth of the last quarter century, as Bramall's
book meticulously documents.

To the authors' credit, they make a convincing argument that Mao said alot
of really stupid stuff.


To this I sohuld add a few things. There are reputable scholars, such as
Judith Banister, who do get the high death rates C&H get for the GLF
years. However, all of them invariably estimate higher rates (than the
official data) for the previous and folowing years. C&H just use the lower
data but all for the famine years.

Also, 27 million of their figure for deaths caused by Mao comes from
deaths in prison and labor camps (p.338). They incorrectly state that the
"general estimate" of prison camp population each year under Mao was 10
million. They then argue there was a 10% death rate. Do they have any
statistics to justify this? No! They simply say "Descriptions of camp life
by inmates" suggest an annual death rate of 10%. This nonsense seems like
they got it from those cold war estimates which asserted that the
conditions in Chinese camps could be no better than in Soviet ones under
Stalin, in which there was a 10% death rate. OF ocurse, conditions were
better and we now know the death rate was lower than 10% in the Soviet
camps. The only real way to estimate a death rate, and not a very good one
at that, is by looking at the number of "rightists" imprisoned in the late
fifties, and looking at how many were released in 1978. Assuming that all
the ones released that year were the only ones who had survived, you can
get an annual death rate of no higher than around 5%. However, many were
released before, some after, and the mortality of this group was greater
than inmates over the whole period because they were imprisoned during the
famine (which hurt the prisons as hard as anywhere else). This is covered
well in Stephen Shalom's "Deaths in China Due to Communism."

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