Mao Zedong: Nationalist in Spite of Himself

Remarks to the SAIS China Forum

When Mike Lampton asked me to speak this evening, on the thirtieth anniversary of Chairman Mao’s demise, I was a bit nonplused. What, I asked myself, could I say about the famous peasant under glass in Tiananmen? Others, including some who are now ferocious critics of China, were quite taken with him once. I never was. But Mao is worth remembering. I am glad to see so many members of his cult present here tonight. Let me give you my thoughts on the man and his legacy.

Mao Zedong had a force and energy which none but men of equally great spiritual conviction could withstand. His animal appetites, we now know, matched his intellectual vigor. He was an object of adulation to his subjects and of mingled admiration and dread to his subordinates and intimates. While Mao lived, the brilliance of his personality illuminated the farthest corners of his country and inspired many would-be revolutionaries and romantics beyond it.

Few indeed loved Chairman Mao’s style of governance, but all but a few of those who despised it most loved the People’s Republic he had founded more and hated him less than they feared him. Had he been less insistent on grand and impractical visions, his ideas would not have convulsed his country as desperately as they did, nor would they have been as thoroughly discredited. Had he not driven his country mad with attempts at sudden, violent change, China would not, however, now be as devoted to domestic tranquility as it is, nor would it have so easily accepted the international order it once rejected but in which it now prospers. Had Mao died earlier, his ideas might have lived on in the new China. He would certainly be seen by history as a greater man.

As it is, Mao is likely to be remembered, unfondly, as a great military strategist and a good poet who was a colossal failure in the crafting of a sustainable order in the country he sought to liberate from its past as well as from its foreign and domestic oppressors. Had he succeeded in his multiple attempts to eliminate Deng Xiaoping’s political influence, the world might still worry about the consequences of China’s backwardness and disgruntlement about the international status quo, not its rapid advance as a leading participant in the quintessentially capitalist process of globalization. But Mao did not succeed in doing in Deng, and China and the world are greatly the better for that.

Mao was very Chinese, but he aspired to a role in human, not just Chinese history and philosophy. Generations of soldiers yet unborn will read his thoughts on asymmetric warfare. Only academics — no disparagement of this audience intended — and Communist Party ideologues will ponder his political philosophy or the values it espouses. Today, there are some in northeastern India and Nepal who invoke his name as they struggle for political power and economic leveling in their societies. But they mainly read his military manuals, not his philosophical tracts. There are also those in China for whom Mao remains a god, if now a blessedly undemanding middle class god, whose effigy can be mounted on a dashboard or hung above an altar table to be venerated along with one’s ancestors. The man’s charisma has transcended the man himself.

In the end, however, Mao Zedong is no more a universal figure than the emperor he most resembles. Qin Shihuang is remembered without reverence by Chinese as the ruthless unifier of China whose violence and oppressions paved the way for the peaceful and tolerant order and the wealth and power of the Han Dynasty. The First Emperor thus created the vessel in which a Chinese culture vastly different than the one that he had conceived could take China to greatness. He was the precursor, not the creator of that China. Still, some of his vision for China was realized in its continued unity of culture and institutions and the awe that the state he had created inspired among its neighbors. Like Qin, Mao was a philosopher king whose philosophy died as his kingdom endured and found its own, very different way forward.

That “kingdom” — the People’s Republic of China — is Mao Zedong’s true monument. And it is one whose achievements are congruent with the goals of the broad pantheon of Twentieth Century Chinese revolutionary and nationalist figures, not just Mao himself. Despite the erratic and brutal nature of his reign, both his revolution and its predecessor Nationalist revolution had in common four inextricably connected objectives:

• unifying China by eliminating warlords and erasing foreign spheres of influence,

• regaining China’s independence and deterring foreign invasion or bullying;

• establishing respect for China as a sovereign participant in international affairs, and

• restoring China to prosperity.

When Chairman Mao first proclaimed that China had “stood up” this was what he had in mind. It galled him then, when he wished to stand tall, to have to “lean to one side” to do so. In the end he could not sustain the posture. Thus, China’s dependence on the Soviet Union was soon set aside and, after a delay in which he experimented unsuccessfully with means of accelerating China’s economic development and used the Cultural Revolution to affirm the idiosyncratic nativism of his revolution, Mao sought to lean on a suddenly respectful United States to regain China’s international balance.

From Mao’s perspective, Chiang Kai-shek’s defeat and flight to Taiwan had reduced him and his “Republic of China” to the status of a warlord whose rump regime could not survive without foreign backing. Mao was determined to bring this vestige of China’s turbulent past to heel and to eliminate Taiwan as an American protectorate on Chinese soil. He did not believe in the possibility of peaceful reunification. He was prepared to be patient about reincorporating Taiwan but expected this to take place through the use of force. Mao lived to see his new Chinese state attain the international recognition as a sovereign great power that the United States had spent so much effort to deny it and to see Chiang’s regime reduced to commensurate diplomatic irrelevance. He did not live long enough to see the Taiwan issue placed on the path to peaceful reunification it is now treading.

Chairman Mao insisted on keeping China’s distance from the United States as he had not from the Soviet Union. He guarded China’s status as an equal and independent actor, standing apart from the sphere of influence that we Americans then, with shameless inaccuracy, called the “free world.” And while he was pragmatic in his actual approach, he insisted on a framework for relations with the United States that would realize the objective of a unified China.

Deng Xiaoping embraced this objective, like the other nationalist visions that had animated Mao. But his pragmatism led him both to reject Mao’s preferred methods and to risk a degree of intimacy with the United States that Mao would never have contemplated. Deng adopted peaceful reunification as a national objective. He used the cover of improved relations with the United States to force Vietnam to abandon its efforts to build a Soviet-style empire in Indochina. He extended vital assistance to the American-led effort to contain the Soviet Union, as one example, enlisting China as a full partner in the Saudi-financed, American and Pakistani-managed struggle to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. But most differently of all, Deng boldly initiated an across-the-board exposure of Chinese to American ways. His motive was precisely to overthrow the legacy of Maoism and to replace it with a fundamentally changed socioeconomic order in China.

In the late summer of 1981, Deng Xiaoping remarked in my presence that when the history of the Twentieth Century was written, Mao’s revolution would be described as the prelude to the real Chinese revolution, that which Deng himself had initiated in December 1978. But Deng made it clear that his was a revolution in methodology, not a change in national objectives. His opening of China, of course, was a defining event in the last fourth of the last century, not just for China but for a world in which China now plays an increasingly decisive role. It has greatly accelerated progress toward the objectives of Chinese nationalism — unification, credible deterrence of foreign meddling, international respect, and prosperity.

Last year’s establishment of party-to-party ties between Taiwan’s major opposition parties and the Chinese Communist Party and their inauguration of a partial cross-Strait political entente have reversed the trend toward war in the Taiwan Strait. Their interaction is replacing Taiwan separatism with a process of cross-Strait political integration that parallels the economic integration and cultural rapprochement that have been underway for more than a decade. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s political establishment, by repeatedly rejecting massive purchases of American weapons in favor of avoiding an arms race with Chinese across the Strait, has made it clear that the island’s elite do not believe their differences with the mainland can or should be addressed by military means.

The leadership in Beijing, for its part, now sees peaceful reunification as the likely result of trends that are increasingly well-established. Renewed confidence that time is on the side of this has restored these leaders’ willingness to be patient and forbearing. The last chapter in Taiwan’s excursion into an identity separate from the rest of China has, of course, yet to be written and Chinese leaders do not rule out the possibility that they might have to use force to deter efforts by the Taiwan authorities to alter the legal status quo. But, they see this as a diminishing possibility, and almost no one in Beijing now expects reunification itself to involve the use of force. In this context, frankly, American and Japanese concerns about Chinese aggressiveness in the Taiwan Strait seem increasingly delusional.

China does seem determined to invest in modernizing its still relatively backward armed forces to be able to deter others from attacking it as we and many of its neighbors have in the past. Speculation that China should and will aspire to be a “peer competitor” of the US military is, however, made in the USA, not made in China. Threat analysis is, of course, the mother of all defense spending, and Americans are really good at both. Having a potentially formidable high-tech enemy is a great fund-raiser for the hyper-expensive advanced weaponry our military-industrial complex prefers to make and our armed forces love to employ. And, in all fairness to purveyors of the China threat, China may yet emulate us by developing the means to invade faraway countries and use gunboat diplomacy against them, or actually do both. But back in the real world, so far, it hasn’t; and there is no hard evidence that it plans to.

The Lebanese militia’s recent frustration of Israel’s effort to bomb their country into peaceful coexistence has, meanwhile, provided a splendid example of how Mao’s concept of “people’s war” remains relevant. Remember “dig tunnels deep, store grain everywhere, and never seek hegemony?” Hezbollah demonstrated how this kind of preparation for defense could support people’s war combined with information warfare, including first-class signals intelligence and command and control, to defeat a high-tech invader. Israel, which had no desire or intention to mount a land invasion of Lebanon, was maneuvered by Hezbollah’s strategy into engaging it on the ground Hezbollah had chosen for battle, where Hezbollah could frustrate the invaders of Lebanon militarily and defeat them politically. This evolution should be a caution to anyone contemplating military coercion against a determinedly sovereign people like the Chinese — or, for that matter, the Persians. “People’s war,” updated to address the challenges posed by technological advance, remains the core of China’s defense strategy. It is inherently defensive, rather than offensive, but, as the example of Lebanon shows, it can be very punishing for those who take it on.

This brings me to China’s drive for a dignified position of leadership in the world order. In the global contest for political standing, the Chinese are — at present — clear winners. Outside of Germany and our own country, China is by far the most admired great power. This admiration derives from the weight China’s own experience has caused it to give to respect for sovereignty. China is popular in no small measure because it now stands against us in its opposition to coercive diplomacy directed at changing the domestic policies of other nations, rejection of the notion of humanitarian intervention, and insistence on adherence to the norms of international law.

There is, of course, a great irony in this. China, an Asian nation that long headed an explicitly hierarchical state system, is now the staunchest defender internationally of once purely European stipulations about the sovereign equality of states. The People’s Republic of China, a state created in explicit opposition to the norms on which we and other western nations built the world order we dominated, has emerged as a stalwart defender of that order against American and other western second thoughts about it. We have new ideas; China has taken up our old ones. As Beijing’s global influence continues to grow, I wouldn’t bet on Washington;’s current radicalism prevailing over China’s conservatism. The east wind may indeed prevail over the west, though with results opposite to those Chairman Mao imagined.

China still, however, presents a political model that is not in the least attractive internationally, even to those countries that have become dependent on the Chinese. This will be the case as long as China does not develop a system that gives its citizens a more direct, more visible, and more credible role in selecting their leaders and in formulating and overseeing the implementation of policy. The economic advances of recent years have laid the basis for a gradual political opening that is now overdue. In its absence, China will continue to experience levels of corruption and disrespect for human rights that constantly irk its people and intermittently bring disrepute upon it abroad. Aside from limiting China’s international and regional influence, such political backwardness poses a threat to the process of opening and reform that have been the keys to its stunning advances in recent decades. All things being equal, these advances should continue. But nowhere is it written that this must be so.

The greatest threat to China’s future global leadership is, I think, neither the deficiencies of its political system nor the risk of American resistance to its rise. It is the danger Mao cautioned against — domineering self-righteousness and overconfidence born of success, translated into hegemonism. China’s neighbors share Mao’s apprehensions that its return to wealth and power might inspire hegemonic behavior and are watching closely for signs of this. As recent American interaction with the outside world has convincingly demonstrated, a little bit of such behavior can alienate a lot of people very fast. Meanwhile, only the unobservant can fail to notice a rising measure of cocky self-assertiveness in today’s China. The American example attests that a country that “zi yiwei shi” — is “so full of itself that it has all the answers” — is one that many will wish ill and few wish to follow.

If China’s current, remarkably deft policy of deferential politeness to foreigners is succeeded by arrogance, it will be because of China’s extraordinary success in advancing the objectives of Chinese nationalism — including, finally, the achievement of levels of wealth that restore China to its historic status as the global economic center of gravity. Mao’s misguided efforts to find shortcuts to such economic success derived in large measure from the romantic delusions of Friedrich Engels’ ruminations on “The German Ideology.” They failed so badly that the Russians were able, with some justification, to charge him with pursuing “pantsless communism,” a philosophy only the North Koreans now practice. Deng’s inspired decision to launch China on a different course has put the pants back on China, along with a fine jacket and tie. The “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that his policies sponsored is derided by some as “bandit capitalism.” There may be something to this. But, whatever you call its system, China is now a huge success at business, lauded — and feared — here and elsewhere abroad as both the workshop and the potential leader of the capitalist world.

In my view, the challenges from China’s economic success lie less in its role as a producer of goods sold throughout the world than in the consequences of its eventual emergence as the world’s largest consumer market. These include the likelihood that the Renminbi yuan will join the euro as an alternative to the dollar as a reserve currency and, ultimately, as a unit of account for trade in energy and other commodities currently traded solely in dollars. And they include the possibility that — if China sustains its remarkable openness to the outside world as well as its commitment to market economics and does not backslide into bureaucratic control of its economy — its current drive to become an innovative society may work, displacing the United States from our long-accustomed role as the global scientific and technological leader. But these are other topics, best left for discussion at another time and place.

It is time for me to close.

Let me sum up the topic at hand as I see it. China has long strived to restore its unity, sovereign dignity, domestic tranquility, and wealth. These efforts, conducted unsuccessfully under Chairman Mao’s erratic baton, are attaining success under the steadier direction of his more pragmatic but equally nationalist successors. China is now not just transforming itself; it is transforming the world. Chairman Mao would have liked that, though he would have hated how it came about and despise how it is proceeding.

It has become a commonplace that the course of the Twenty-first Century will be determined by China. China’s continued success is far from inevitable, but the challenges we face from a successful China — as well as those that China itself faces — may be quite different than those of concern to us yesterday or today.

Thank you for your polite attention.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)

Washington, DC

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