Review of The Battle for China’s Past by Mobo Gao

Review of The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution by Mobo Gao

Comrade End Imperialism


Mobo Gao’s new book challenges mainstream establishment accounts of socialism in China under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The aim of the book is to present evidence – documentary, observational and anecdotal – to show how the analysis of Maoism as being genocidal and totally destructive of China’s economy is a self-serving myth perpetuated by the capitalist elite of China and the West. Gao shows how the pro-capitalist intelligentsia of China tend to discuss the Maoist period as though they were speaking for all Chinese people, rather than a section of Chinese people disadvantaged, actually and potentially, by socialist policies. He relates the repudiation of Chinese socialism to the acceptance of Western values, Western paths to modernisation and Western habits of living and thinking. The luxury consumption habits and lifestyles of the mainly comprador Chinese elite encourage identification with Western bourgeois values and ideologies. Gao’s major aim in the book is to carefully examine questions surrounding China’s socialist economy with a view to rehabilitating the Maoist line of march as one which had tremendously positive effects in terms of health, education, welfare, equality, democratic participation, and cultural improvement for the Chinese rural poor and urban working class. Gao asks: Who did it benefit? Why was it necessary?

Critics of socialist China under Mao Zedong’s leadership frequently suggest that the Cultural Revolution slogan po si jiu (break the four olds – old customs, old ideas, old culture, old habits) ensured that Chinese culture (and its historical and religious artifacts) was thoroughly denigrated. However, Gao notes that at the same time that revolutionary struggle was being waged against conservative and bourgeois ideology in China, necessitating an at times resolute and acute struggle against deeply entrenched habits of authoritarian deference and its theological and philosophical underpinnings, a great deal of care was taken to preserve the Chinese cultural heritage. Gao notes,

“For instance, on 14 May 1967, the CCP Central Committee issued a document entitled Guanyu zai wuchanjieji wenhua da geming zhong baohu wenwu tushu de jidian yijian (Several suggestions for the protection of cultural relics and books during the Cultural Revolution) to protect traditional cultural institutions and relics. It is noteworthy, as well, that archaeological discoveries of historical significance such as the Terracotta Army and Mawangdui tombs in Hunan province made during this period have been well-preserved. In fact the number of archaeological discoveries (including the Terracotta Army discovered in 1974) was very high and their preservation was swift and effective during the period.” (1)

Gao demonstrates that the destruction of Tibetan religious and cultural monuments, related as it was to the similar destruction of certain Chinese religious and cultural artifacts, was not principally carried out by Chinese Red Guards, since only a few of these actually reached remote Tibet. In fact, it was mainly Tibetans themselves who destroyed temples and other religious monuments during the Cultural Revolution. (2)

“The authorities in Tibet often tried to restrain radical actions, with the PLA for example consistently supporting the more conservative factions against the rebels. Temples and monasteries survived best in the central areas and cities where the authorities could still exercise some control. In contrast, the Gandan Monastery, some 60 kilometres outside Lhasa and one of the three major centres of the Yellow Hat sect, was reduced to ruins.” (3)

Gao reveals that a great many interviewees spoken to by Wei Se, a PRC citizen of Tibetan ethnic origin, whose works have been banned by the Chinese authorities, spoke positively of the Maoist policies in Tibet and were very enthusiastic about the Cultural Revolution. (4)

It was during the Cultural Revolution that many examples of “collective creativity” were realised. Gao is especially impressed by the Han-Ying cidian, the Chinese-English dictionary compiled over ten years by a group of academics at the Beijing Foreign language Institute. Gao writes, “First published in 1978, the dictionary, in my opinion, remains the best of its kind inside or outside China, past or present.” (5) Gao shows that medicine achieved very important and novel breakthroughs during the Cultural Revolution. For example, drawing on traditional techniques, artemisin was drawn from the qinghao plant, and has proved itself to be the drug now widely recognised as the world’s best hope for a malaria cure. (6) Gao lists a further series of impressive technological and economic achievements of China during the Cultural Revolution period. For example, the import of equipment for 8 giant chemical fertiliser and fabric factories, the invention of crystalline bovine insulin, the first Red Flag car, the atom bomb and hydrogen bomb, the first Chinese transistor computer and integrated circuit computer, the first Chinese automatic three-dimensional camera, the first 100,000 ton tanker, the invention of Qingda antibiotics, the development of Dagang and Shengli oilfields and the Beijing Yanshan Oil refinery, and others. (7)

Gao notes that the capitalist rulers of China are very subservient to the Western propaganda system, dominated as it is by Western Multinational Corporations. Gao quotes Li Xiguang:

“24 hours, day and night, for 20 days a billion Chinese viewers sat glued to their television sets as soldiers fought in Iraq. They watched live coverage of government leaders’ speeches one after another, official slogans and national flags one after another. They were watching government and military-approved journalists travelling, eating, sleeping, chatting and laughing with soldiers. These journalists were broadcasting live with ‘their’ troops. You might have thought it was just the classic propaganda of the communists and the communist-controlled media. In actuality, the Chinese were watching CNN and Rupert Murdoch’s channels. From the first day of the war, the Chinese government handed over the country’s five most popular TV channels to CNN and Murdoch. All the images and messages the Chinese audience got from their TV sets were filtered by CNN and Murdoch’s people.” (8)

The “classic propaganda” of the Chinese communists would, of course, never have subjected the Chinese people, with such long and hard experience of imperialist cruelty, to the insulting propaganda fodder eaten up by the pro-imperialist Western “masses”.

Gao spends some time in his book on the typical biographical “great men” version of Chinese history to be found in the widely available (in both the West and China) memoirs by Nien Cheng and Jung Chang. Chang, reveals Gao, was the privileged daughter of China’s Communist elite. She was given a generous government scholarship to study in Britain. She grew up with a wet-nurse, nanny, maid, gardener, and chauffeur provided by the party. She was protected by a walled compound and educated in a special school for officials children. Gao writes:

“As a grade 10 official her father was among the 20,000 most senior people in a country of 1.25 billion, and it was in this period that children of high officials became almost a class of their own. Still, the enthusiastic western audience of wild swans found something to identify in Jung Chang’s perennial fear of being reduced to the level of the rest of the population, shuddering with her at the prospect that, ‘Mao intended me to live the rest of my life as a peasant’.” (9)

Clearly, a person used to this style of life and deeply committed to it ideologically, will not likely appreciate policies, laws and struggles designed to rein in her privileges. Gao quotes a review of Chang’s Wild Swans by Kong Shuyu, who writes that Chang’s memoirs are ”self invention”, ”idealized self justification”, and ”full of imaginative reconstruction of events, using hindsight to alter her recollections.” Chang ”has altered her story to suit the wishes of hindsight and her market audience, and… her memory has changed past events to make her behaviour seem more decisive and less shameful.” (10) Gao describes Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s book Mao: The Unknown Story, as an intellectual scandal. He shows that despite its soap opera style and utterly unconventional and unconvincing referencing system the book was hyper-promoted in Western media and corporate literary outlets. The interviewee lists in the book includes a Hungarian Prime Minister, a brother of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, a foreign minister of New Zealand, a former President of Poland and the Dalai Lama. The book also claims to have interviewed Mao’s daughter Li Na, Mao’s Grandson Mao Xinyu and Liu Shaoqi’s widow Wang Guangmei. But none of these people are quoted directly, nor are they precisely determined to have said anything relevant to the arguments made by Chang and Halliday. It is merely stated that they were interviewed. As Gao rightly suggests: ”If you do not want to tell the reader what an interviewee has said, you cannot include that interview as your source of evidence.” (11) Gao writes:

“Professor Frederick Teiwes is a well-known scholar on CCP elite politics and he is listed in the book’s acknowledgements. According to Teiwes, he had met Jung Chang a couple of times but could not say anything substantial about the subject on Mao because Chang would not listen unless what he had to say suited her predetermined ideas. An indication of what Teiwes thinks of the book is that he declined to participate in the special issue to review the book organized by The China Journal.” (12)

Further, it is standard practice in scholarly works to list a source only if a reference is directly cited. Gao shows how the referencing system of Chang and Halliday’s soap opera hatchet job is completely unconventional despite the apparently impressive and intellectually intimidating length of the book’s ”footnotes”. Gao writes:

“A common move employed by the authors is to cite a reference or even references to a trivial statement or piece of insignificant information, which is then followed immediately by a substantial or serious claim without reference.” (13)

The references at the back of the book are vague and do not point to any precise information contained in the particular supposed sources. Chang and Halliday proffer outlandish explanations in place of much more obvious and easily proven ones. Rather than admit his great abilities, Chang and Halliday argue, for example, that Mao was a terrible military strategist. They argue that despite his utter venality and incompetence in the military field, Stalin handed him control of the Red Army (!). But it is hard to see why Stalin would be so stupid to do so, given Mao’s alleged uselessness (never mind how Stalin, the bourgeoisie’s “evil puppet-master of international Bolshevism”, could have prevented him from doing so). They argue that Chiang Kai-Shek allowed Mao and the CCP to escape (!) on the Long March, because two of Chiang Kai-shek’s sons were in Moscow studying at the time when he could have finally routed them. Clearly, to Generalissimo Chiang, the fate of his two sons was more important, according to Chang and Halliday, than the fate of one billion Chinese people subjected to the authority of Maoist communism. Isn’t it more probable that the CCP had an able and intelligent commander and strategist?

The memoirs by veteran party leaders and various associates of such are styled, says Gao, like Peking Opera stories. All of these memoirs have the line of the Chinese government that Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated disaster since the Chinese government censors or bans any literature which departs from the official anti-Communist line. Gao writes:

“Another example of how the Chinese authorities work to make sure publications follow what is allowed officially is the inclusion or exclusion in selected volumes of important CCP leaders’ speeches. During the 1980s, speeches of Liu Shaoqi were collected into volumes for publication. None of Liu’s speeches made between June 1958 and the summer of 1960, a gap of two years, were included in this official publication compiled by the CCP Central Office of Documentary Research… The reason why those speeches are not collected seems to be that some of Liu’s speeches during this period were clearly advocating reckless policies and practices of the Great Leap Forward. The post-Mao official line is that the Great Leap Forward famine was all Mao’s fault.” (14)

Gao, indeed, tends to blame the failings of the Great Leap Forward on the unscientific enthusiasm of persons like Liu Shaoqi who was, between 1958 and 1962 and unlike Mao, neither cautious nor careful about the policies associated therewith.

Gao notes how the Great Leap Forward famine death toll is based on very dubious and incomplete demographic statistics and measurements. He quotes Patnaik:

“Some scholars have used a very dubious method of arriving at grossly unrealistic and inflated ‘famine deaths’ during this period (1959-1961) by taking account not only of the higher crude death rate (which is a legitimate measure) but also counting the ‘missing millions’ as a result of the lower birth rate, as part of the toll. There is a great deal of difference between people who are already there, dying prematurely due to a sharp decline in nutritional status, and people not being born at all. The former can enter the statistics of famine deaths according to any sensible definition of famine, but people who are not born at all are obviously in no position to die whether prematurely or otherwise.” (15)

Gao also notes how many of these ‘missing millions’ had likely moved from areas hard hit by food shortages and turned up elsewhere. He describes how, during the Great Leap Forward, masses of rural persons would leave the countryside, with or without permission, to find alternative sources of income and thus ‘disappear’ from official records. Upon returning years later, these persons would be registered again, thus giving the statistical appearance that the Great Leap Forward years were worse than they actually were. Douglas Tottle (16) demonstrated how determining death tolls according to anticipated population growth (and bear in mind there was no proper and scientific system of demographic data collection available in China either before or after Communist victory until recently), can lead to absurd results. Tottle shows how class struggle, food shortage and attendant dislocation in the Saskatchewan region of Canada during the Great Depression of the 1930s led to a lower birth rate than in previous years. But nobody in their right minds would expostulate that because there was a far lower than anticipated population at the end of the period he examines there must have been hundreds of thousands dying through famine! Yet this is precisely what we are supposed to believe when it comes to ‘death toll’ figures for socialist China and the USSR. Yet even if we do take these very unscientific demographic methods as legitimate, Mao’s China still does not fare badly in comparison to Third World capitalist countries. Quoting Nobel Prize winner Amartaya Sen, Black writes:

“[India] had, in terms of morbidity, mortality and longevity, suffered an excess in mortality over China of close to 4 [million] a year during the same [Great Leap Forward] period… Thus, in this one geographical area alone, more deaths resulted from this ‘failed capitalist experiment’ (more than 100 million by 1980) than can be attributed to the ‘failed communist experiment’ all over the world since 1917.” (17)

Gao shows that there was very serious flooding and droughts during the worst years of the Great Leap Forward (he does not mention the deadly embargo placed on China by American imperialism and the massive disruption of industry caused by the sudden departure of thousands of “Soviet” technical personnel in 1960) and further notes how village case studies, of which there are many in the literature on China, show no death toll due to famine during the Great Leap Forward being reported. Gao argues that it was not Mao alone who was responsible for the policies and consequences of such in the Great Leap Forward, although he does write that Mao was mainly responsible for the quick and dramatic collectivisation of agriculture during 1957 and 1958. “The sudden change of organization from co-ops to big collective communes meant that no adequate supervision and monitoring system could be implemented to manage grain production. This organizational failure undoubtedly had detrimental consequences in grain production.” (18) But Gao fails to note that geopolitical conditions (the beginnings of the Sino-Soviet split, the abrupt and devastating withdrawal of Soviet industrial aid and the tightening of the American embargo) were forcing the CCP to take radical measures to boost industrial and agricultural production. The Great Leap Forward was a combined political and economic plan to avoid many of the problems associated with building industry and urban centres at the expense of agriculture and rural development. (19)

Nonetheless, Gao quotes statistics which show that death toll figures bandied about by anti-Mao partisans do not paint the picture which the latter claim they do. Firstly, famines causing tens of millions of Chinese deaths were frequent in the first half of the twentieth century (there were certainly none after the Great Leap Forward), so that claims of the unprecedented and paramount barbarity of the Mao-era economy must be questioned. Secondly,

“Jiang (19) also pointed out that, according to statistics compiled by the Information Service of the Reseearch Centre of China’s Population and Development, the population of 1958, 1959, 1960 and 1961 was respectively 653,460,000, 660,120,000, 662,070,000 and 664,570,000, with an increase of 11,100,000 people in three years. Though the population increases of these three years were lower than those during the years of 1956 to 1958, the increase was still on average 5.46 per cent, higher than the world average at that time, and much higher than pre-1949 years. Jiang further points out that the death rate of 1959, 1960 and 1961 was 14.59 per cent, 17.91 per cent and 14.24 per cent, an average of 15.58 per cent, which was about the same as the world average death rate at that time, and much lower than the death rates in pre-1949 years. During the three years of famine 30,952,300 people died [of all causes], and compared with the lower death rate of 11.40 per cent during 1956 to 1958, there were an extra 8.3 million deaths, not as many as the 30 to 40 million claimed by anti-communist literature such as Chang and Halliday.” (20)

Gao shows that, except for the Great Leap Forward years of 1959 and 1960 and the Cultural Revolution years of 1967 and 1968, Chinese economic growth outpaced most Third World and several imperialist countries. These facts are proven and accepted by both Chinese and Western scholars in their macro-studies. Here is what China achieved without genocidal military campaigns and without a colonial and neo-colonial empire to exploit:

“[From] 1965 to 1985 the average annual GDP growth rate of the United States was 1.34 per cent, UK 1.6 per cent, West Germany 2.7 per cent, Japan, 4.7 per cent, Singapore 7.6 per cent, South Korea 6.6 per cent, Hong Kong 6.1 per cent, and India 1.7 per cent. (21) During the same period (the collective system was not totally dismantled until the mid-1980s) China’s growth rate was 7.49 per cent.” (22)

Contrary to anti-communist propaganda defaming the ten-year Cultural Revolution as an economic disaster, Forster writes:

“In 1966 the proportion of industrial output value from collective and commune/brigade run industrial enterprises to state enterprises was 17:83; in 1976 it was 37:63, with the output value of collective industry growing at the annual average rate of 15.8 per cent over the ten years.” (23)

It is commonly accepted by scholars, but not otherwise widely acclaimed, that the average life expectancy of most Chinese people rose from 35 in 1949 to 63 by 1975. (24) Gao writes that the Communist revolution in China was one which

“brought unity and stability to a country that had been plagued by civil wars and foreign invasions… It was a revolution that carried out land reform, promoted women’s status, improved popular literacy, and eventually transformed Chinese society beyond recognition.” (25)

The struggle to achieve these aims was thoroughly and necessarily revolutionary and democratic. The Chinese masses, the rural peasantry and the industrial working class guided by the theory and practice of Maoism, began to shape their own destiny. For the first time in China, after 1949 the Chinese people themselves democratically controlled all of society’s wealth (its land, its factories, its tools, its roads, its schools, its abundant human resources) and used it to improve all the people’s livelihood, and not just the rich, the clever, the male, and the powerful. Yet the bourgeoisie of China and the West seek, using venomous opprobrium, the complete discrediting of the Chinese people’s heroic and world-historical struggle to achieve liberty, equality and fraternity. Now, only the rich and powerful capitalist class is supposed, by all mainstream accounts, to decide the fate of the hungry, the unemployed, and the ordinary worker and family. What have been some of the consequences, however, of the reconstruction of capitalism in post-Maoist China?

Gao describes child slavery being practiced and going unpunished by the authorities (26); of 1.7 million ‘missing’ (in the same sense used to account for famine deaths during the Great leap Forward) Chinese girls being the result of a resolutely post-Mao population control effort by the CCP (27); of massive inequalities in elite and ordinary Chinese educational opportunities (28); of a healthcare system designed to cater for the rich and urban Chinese population (29); of mounting bureaucratic costs borne by the peasantry and working class (30); of massively increasing inequality (31); of superexploitation wages (32); and of a laissez faire approach to working conditions and basic safety regulations for workers (33). All of these things, certainly of the utmost significance for the majority of the Chinese people, were demonstrably and markedly better during the Mao era. Gao spends the last third of his book chronicling the miserable conditions, economic, political, legal and cultural facing the Chinese rural and urban working class, showing how the wholesale revisionist intellectual vandalism of the gains of socialist China for the masses are effectively denying a voice for the majority of the Chinese people.

Overall, Gao’s case for Mao is made very convincingly. Clear evidence and serious theoretical acumen have been mustered in the service of putting the record straight about the difference between socialism and capitalism for the working people of China. Reading Gao’s new book is not a substitute for reading the literature, scholarly and agitational, upholding the Mao era from the historical perspective of class struggle, and when reading it one sometimes gets the impression that socialism was something bestowed upon the Chinese people under Mao as opposed to something hard fought for and won by them under great Communist leadership. But that is an unfair impression: it was not Gao’s aim to write another history of the Maoist period as such. His aim was to criticise and open up to more critical scrutiny, the self-serving myths and outright lies of those who seek to uphold the current capitalist system of robbery, slaughter, war, racism, patriarchy and parasitism, to show that there is an alternative, and it is to the eternal credit of the Chinese people and their communist leaders to have forged its broad parameters through class struggle. Finally, Prof. Gao has done a remarkable service to the working class and the oppressed nations by opening up the serious debate going on within China to non-Chinese speakers. We should be grateful to him for doing so. I would recommend this book to comrades everywhere.


1. Mobo Gao, The Battle For China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London, Pluto Press, 2008), p. 21.

2. See ‘The Leading Light Communist Approach to the Free Tibet Movement’ by End Imperialism.

3. Wang Lixiong, ‘Reflections on Tibet’, New Left Review, no. 14, 2002, pp. 79-111.

4. Wei Se (Woeser), ‘Xizang jiyi: ershisan wei qilao koushu Xizang wenge‘ (Tibetan Memories: 23 venerated old people talk about the Cultural Revolution in Tibet), Taipei: dakui wenhua.

5. Gao, p. 29.

6. Gao, p. 22.

7. Gao, p. 144.

8. Li Xiguang, ‘Live coverage of lies or truth?’, Retrieved from:

9. Gao, p. 43, quoting James Heartfield, ‘Mao: The end of the affair’, Retreived from: CAC41.htm

10. Kong Shuyu, ‘Swan and spider eater in problematic memoirs of cultural revolution’, Position, vol. 7, no. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 241-52.

11. Gao, p. 67.

12. Gao, p. 67. The following references are, though mostly anti-communist, extremely critical of Chang and Halliday’s “scholarly” work. Hamish McDonald, ‘Throwing the book at Mao’, Retrieved from:; Professor Joesph W. Esherick, Tony Wan, Tom Worger, Stacy Jer, ‘A critical assessment of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography Mao: The Unknown Story’, Retrieved from:; Andrew Nathan, ‘Jade and Plastic’ a review of Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, London Review of Books, 17 November 2005, Retrieved from:; John Dolan , ‘Mao meets the Addams Family’, Retrieved from:

13. Gao, p. 70.

14. Gao, p. 54.

15. Utsa Patnaik, ‘Republic hunger’, Retrieved from:

16. Douglas Tottle, Fraud, ‘Famine and Fascism: The Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard‘ (Canada, 1987), Retrieved from:

17. Black, Anthony C., ‘Black propaganda’ in Guardian Weekly, 24 February, 2000.

18. Gao, p. 86.

19. Jiang Chuangang, ‘Mao Zedong shidai shi ruhe jiejue renmin de chifan wenti de’ (How the problem of feeding the Chinese was solved during the era of Mao), San nong Zhongguo, Retrieved from:

20. Gao, p. 141.

21. Han Deqiang, ‘Wushi nian, sanshi nian he ershi nian’, (50 years, 30 years and 20 years), Wuyou zhixiang, Retrieved from:

22. Gao, p. 138.

23. Keith Forster, ‘The Cultural Revolution in Zhejiang revisited: The paradox of rebellion and factionalism, and violence and social conflict amidst economic growth’ in Law Kam-Yee, ed., The Chinese Cultural Revolution Reconsidered: Beyond Purge and Holocaust (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 148.

24. Maristella Bergaglio, ‘Population growth in China: The basic characteristics of China’s demographic transition’, 2006, Retrieved from:

25. Gao, p. 81. Gao references Mark Selden, The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1971); Mark Selden, The Political Economy of Chinese Socialism (New York, M.E. Sharpe, 1988); Mark Selden and Patti Eggleston, eds., The People’s Republic of China: A Documentary History of Revolutionary Change (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1979); and Mark Selden, Edqaed Friedman, and Paul Pickowcz, Chinese Village, Socialist State (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1991).

26. Gao, p. 119.

27. Gao, p. 121.

28. Gao, p. 123.

29. Gao, pp. 124, 152.

30. Gao, p. 126.

31. Gao, p. 175.

32. Gao, p. 179.

33. Gao, p. 126.

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