The Mark of Cain


In Hong Kong’s China Club, fashionable people have lunch beneath pictures of Mao Zedong after a drink in the Long March Bar. Most of the members are refugees from Mao or the children of refugees. In Russia, or Germany, or Cambodia, there is surely no equally fashionable place which displays likenesses of Stalin, Hitler, or Pol Pot.

Not far from the China Club other images of Mao, similar to those by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, hang in art galleries, where well-off local people can buy them. In one painting, Consumer Icons 25 by Qi Zhilong, a pretty young woman in a swimsuit poses surrounded by Mao faces. The dealer says, “It’s like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. It’s been used so many times we have become used to it. Mao evolved from a political leader to a godlike figure to a religious icon. His image has lost its meaning, but it’s fun to use him in different contexts over time and place.”

This could not happen across the border, where Mao is more vividly remembered. His gigantic portrait hangs above the gate into Peking’s Forbidden City, in front of which, on the night of June 3-4, 1989, I saw many citizens being shot down. It is true that in 1981 an official resolution on Communist Party history stated that Mao was responsible for the Cultural Revolution, the worst tragedy to befall the country, its people, and the Party. The tragedy did not begin in 1966, however, and the resolution does not mention what happened a few years before. With their silver chopsticks, the members of Hong Kong’s China Club have dinner beneath portraits of the man whose policies caused what Roderick MacFarquhar calls “the worst man-made famine in history…a human catastrophe…. There were 30 million excess deaths between 1958 and 1961.”

The Party, despite its damning reference to Mao as “chiefly responsible for the grave ‘Left’ error of the ‘cultural revolution”’ in its 1981 “Resolution,” which was personally edited by Deng Xiaoping to keep the condemnation from being too strong, has never admitted explicitly and publicly Mao’s responsibility for the famine—although many Chinese alive today suffered during the “three terrible years.” Perhaps this is why in Hong Kong, where the proprietor of the China Club also sells wristwatches with a waving Mao on their faces, Mao can be a joke figure.

* * *

Mao is not a joke for Roderick MacFarquhar, Professor of Government and History at Harvard. Author of many books, a former Labour member of Parliament, and before that a journalist, he was for many years persona non grata in China. The editor (with the late John King Fairbank) of the final two volumes of The Cambridge History of China, his reputation as the leading Western scholar of modern Chinese politics rests on his trilogy The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, which the volume reviewed here concludes. A mighty and eloquent work, it demonstrates a grasp of the Chinese sources to which only someone working at Harvard could have such thorough access.

The three volumes cover the decade between 1956 and 1966. In Volume Three, Mr. MacFarquhar begins with a horrific and detailed description of the famine between 1959 and 1961 and ends with the purges which in 1966 began the Cultural Revolution. He portrays an increasingly paranoid and dangerous Chairman trying to demolish the revolutionary structure he had himself built, bringing about the “disaster which Mao and his colleagues had wrought in their hubris.” This is the period when Mao sought to be a godlike dictator who would be supported directly by the young people of China, with layer after layer of the Party bureaucracy stripped away. He “emerged,” Mr. MacFarquhar writes, “at the head of a wreckers’ crew, preaching ‘destruction before construction.”’ “Never before,” he concludes, “had a dictator unleashed the forces of society against the state which he himself had created.”

Mr. MacFarquhar’s earlier volumes begin in 1956, with the speed-up of collectivization. In them he describes the de-Stalinization in Moscow, which alarmed Mao, and the Hundred Flowers episode in 1957, when Mao asked intellectuals for their criticism and then smashed them for their frankness. He shows how in 1958 Mao launched the vainglorious Great Leap Forward, which, by rejecting modern technology and making impossible demands on the rural communes, crippled agriculture so thoroughly that there are still parts of China in which children are stunted from lack of food.1 He also created a thoroughly politicized army and deepened his quarrel with Moscow. For the first time the Chairman was perceived by his colleagues as wielding his power illegitimately. When a close comrade from the Long March, Marshal Peng Dehuai, told Mao to his face in 1959 that peasants were starving, he and a few other brave bearers of bad news were so brutally purged that everyone else around Mao fell silent, including Deng Xiaoping, who in 1957 as Party secretary general had overseen the crushing of intellectuals.

* * *

In his first volume, MacFarquhar said he wanted to find the answer to a question about Mao: “Why…did he, who had done so much to make the Chinese regime what it was in the spring of 1966, decide to tear down and rebuild?” He poses the same question in Volume Two, and again in the third volume, where he has added a telling sentence: “I have been particularly interested in the human tragedy represented by Mao’s purge of his longtime comrades of the Long March and the base areas [and] his dissolution of the Yan’an ‘Round Table,”’ i.e., the inner circle of leaders at Mao’s guerrilla headquarters between 1936 and 1947. Mr. MacFarquhar says that his view of Mao has changed; he now sees him as “less the stern but unifying sovereign of the Round Table, more a suspicious Olympian Jove, ready to strike down with lightning bolts.” Indeed, in this volume he compares Mao to Stalin and Hitler (and occasionally to Margaret Thatcher), finding him most like Hitler, minus the homicidal racism.

When Mr. MacFarquhar was writing Volume One in the early Seventies very little was known about Mao as a man, or about his most lethal tendencies. The Chairman was still alive (he died in 1976). There were millions of refugees from China in Hong Kong, many of whom had been interviewed by American academics and the CIA and had terrible tales to tell; but Mao himself was still seen almost universally as a leader of great accomplishment. The word “famine” does not appear in the index to Volume One, although in Volume Three Mr. MacFarquhar writes that the worst famine in history had begun in 1959; by 1960 there were long queues outside the Hong Kong post offices of people sending food parcels across the border, and emaciated bodies were seen floating into the city’s harbor. A few journalists, such as Joseph Alsop, insisted there was starvation in China; they were derided as hysterical anti-Communists by Edgar Snow.

After Mao’s death the picture began to darken, although a small number of specialists, notably MIT’s Lucian Pye and Sydney University’s Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys), had already cast deep doubt on the regime’s claims. Peking started releasing documents, such as the “Resolution,” of 1981, which suggested that Mao was much feared for his brutal bungling. Very cautiously, the officials who had worked with the Chairman began to speak and write about him. The most devastating revelations came in 1994 from Mao’s doctor, Li Zhisui, in The Private Life of Chairman Mao.2

In 1974, unaware of what was to emerge, Mr. MacFarquhar, expressing the typical Western opinion of the time, referred to Mao’s

simplicity offset by shrewdness; earthiness in humour and habits; a preference for plain speaking and plain living. His political opponents testify to his charm…. His admirers admit he has a passionate temper when roused.

MacFarquhar also referred to Mao’s “democratic approach to leadership.” This is the picture of Mao his propagandists had been putting about, aided for years by Edgar Snow. Most Westerners who began going to China in 1972 (including myself) believed it.

Volume Two did not appear until 1983. There was a long interruption while Mr. MacFarquhar served as a member of Parliament between 1974 and 1979 and, following Mao’s death, as he says, much new information began coming out of China. His opinion of Mao changed. He now referred to the Chairman’s “demonic desire… his burning ambition…his butchery of [Marshal] Peng Dehuai.” And although the word “famine” is still absent from the index, it refers to “food shortage,” and the book concludes that “anywhere from 16.4 to 29.5 million extra people died during the leap, because of the leap.” Mr. MacFarquhar quoted a soldier in 1960: “At present what the peasants eat in the villages is even worse than what dogs ate in the past…. Commune members ask: ‘Is Chairman Mao going to allow us to starve to death?”’

The Hundred Flowers strategy having revealed the dissidence of the intellectuals, Mao turned to the peasants, whom he called “poor and blank,” urging them to perform promethean tasks in agriculture and industry. The result was the famine of 1959-1961 and the increasing tendency toward deception and corruption in Mao’s court that is described by Dr. Li Zhisui. Dr. Li tells of Zhou Enlai literally crawling at the Chairman’s feet, and in Volume Three MacFarquhar, too, shows Zhou’s spinelessness.

* * *

In the final volume Mr. MacFarquhar’s view of Mao is plain: no longer a tragic figure, he is the architect of disaster. MacFarquhar starts by reconstructing what happened in a single county, Fengyang, in Anhui province, where in 1959 and 1960 60,245 people died, some 17.7 percent of the population. In some communes between 20 and 30 percent of the people died. In one region conditions were so grim that “a scholar of ancient Chinese history compared this village to a neolithic site….” During normal times 250,000 people died each year in Anhui. In 1960 alone, however, 2.2 million starved to death. During the “three terrible years,” as the Chinese still call them, 1959-1961, in Sichuan, China’s most populous province, the population sank from 70.8 million to 64.6 million. In at least thirteen provinces the population declined. In Peking the annual number of deaths rose from 320,000 in 1957 to 790,000 in 1961, the year when Edgar Snow, who was visiting China, dismissed those who claimed the Chinese were starving. Mr. MacFarquhar now concludes that thirty million died. The estimate of China’s leading journalist, Liu Binyan, is fifty million.

Some of Mao’s lieutenants, like Marshal Peng Dehuai in 1959, began to visit their native regions. President Liu Shaoqi returned to his native Hunan (also Mao’s home province) for forty-four days, where one day he “wandered behind a peasant house and inspected the dried human faeces piled there to confirm his view that the peasants were not getting enough to eat.” The peasants were reluctant to tell the truth to such a high official, but Liu found that they were willing to discuss the year 1957, the golden age before the establishment of the communes, when there had been plenty to eat. In a village he had known as a child, he apologized to the people. “I haven’t returned home for nearly forty years. I have disappointed you. I am guilty of bureaucratism. I heard only reports from below…. The Central Committee knew only how to procure more grain. The result was that people were starved and families torn apart.”

Liu also said something that would bring about his death during the Cultural Revolution, when his past words were held against him. “I must admit mistakes to you…. There’s no one who doesn’t make a mistake; in the whole world there is no man who doesn’t make mistakes.” This was an obvious—and for Liu, fatal—reference to Mao. Mao’s closest companions of the Yan’an Round Table had now seen how he could make a catastrophic and willful mistake. Mr. MacFarquhar observes that such doubts, although soon enough men like Liu and Zhou would crawl for having voiced them, “made Mao inordinately suspicious of their private perceptions of him as a post-revolutionary leader.”

In Anhui, where Mr. MacFarquhar believes some eight million people died of starvation, the Party First Secretary, Zeng Xisheng, bravely tried to introduce intelligent reforms in agricultural production. Mao turned on Zeng and the top leaders of the Yan’an Round Table failed to defend him. This episode demonstrated the Chairman’s power to escape condemnation for a catastrophe which he had brought about himself—and underlines one of Mr. MacFarquhar’s principal theses: “From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s…Mao was always in overall charge if not always in day-to-day command.”

Zeng was considered so capable that in 1960, in addition to Anhui, he was put in charge of Shandong—where in 1960 there had been 650,000 “extra deaths,” i.e., beyond the expected rate. In both provinces he began to experiment with a form of the “household responsibility system,” called baochan daohu, which meant that each peasant family could decide how much it would produce; if it produced more than the norm, it would receive bonuses. Zeng was careful to insist that this was not a retreat from socialism and that “the caps of individual operation, restoration, and retreat can’t be stuffed on our heads.” (“Wearing a cap” was a euphemism for disgrace for deviationism; those guilty of it, even some top leaders during the Cultural Revolution, were often forced to wear tall dunce’s caps.) Zeng reported what he intended to do to Mao, who replied that Zeng could experiment but that if it went wrong, “you’ll just have to make a self-criticism.”

At first, Zeng had his supporters in the upper echelons of the Party. Deng Xiaoping, referring to the Anhui experiment, used an Anhui peasant expression which most people think is his own: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white; so long as it catches the mouse, it’s a good cat.” Zeng and his supporters were aware of the bitter complaints of peasants that, under the Maoist system, everyone, lazy or industrious, received basically the same rewards. “The political conundrum,” notes Mr. MacFarquhar, “was how to [remedy this]…without being accused of restoring family farming or even capitalist agriculture.” In addition, some of Mao’s colleagues were moving toward other policies that he didn’t like, including relaxing hostility toward intellectuals, the United States, the Soviet Union, and India. Mao, Mr. MacFarquhar writes, was in danger of becoming outflanked by his colleagues; “his policy preferences were being implicitly questioned as irrelevant at best and harmful at worst.3

But in 1962 Zeng was dismissed. This “rid Mao of a senior official whom he felt was flouting him on rural policy…. The Anhui party fell into line… and…issued an abject self-criticism.” Zeng’s high-ranking supporters, led by President Liu Shaoqi, soon turned against him. As Mr. MacFarquhar observes, “Ironically, Mao, who believed in unleashing people, shrank from freeing the peasantry.”


The Chairman’s doubts about the soundness of his closest comrades and hence about “revolutionary successors” were sharpened by memories of 1956 in the Soviet Union and Nikita Khrushchev’s onslaught on Stalin, and of the Hungarian revolt. These had caused Mao to wonder how to avert similar developments in China, and he toyed briefly with the old Communist stratagem of a United Front that would include a variety of different tendencies. But in 1957, when he asked for advice from intellectuals on how to remedy defects within his own party, Mao was astounded by the vehement criticism with which they responded once they believed (probably wrongly) that he genuinely wanted to hear what they thought. This led to the Hundred Flowers Campaign, followed by the Anti-Rightist Movement, in which hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were purged under the direction of Deng Xiaoping, who went to his grave almost forty years later insisting it had been necessary.

In late 1962, distrusting his old comrades despite their groveling, Mao “began to assemble an informal cabinet to assist him, an ad hoc coalition of trusted supporters…which would become a truly ‘anti-party group’ when the Cultural Revolution was launched” in 1966. “If revolution from above was now impossible, it would have to be revolution from below. If the party could not change society, then Mao would unleash society to change the party.”4

Thus it was that in 1966, Mao sacked Peng Zhen, Peking’s Party boss, Lu Dingyi, the propaganda chief, General Luo Ruiqing, who was in daily command of the army, and General Yang Shangkun, who ran the Party’s central office. (It is another irony of Chinese politics that on May 20, 1989, General Yang joined Premier Li Peng in declaring martial law in Tiananmen.) Soon he would rid himself of President Liu Shaoqi and Party Secretary Deng Xiaoping. As in 1959, when Mao purged Marshal Peng Dehuai, no one supported anyone else against Mao’s accusations. Instead, and of course vainly, each was willing to incriminate others to save himself. Was there no code of loyalty, Mr. MacFarquhar wonders? Or, in the case of Liu, who had been a Party leader longer than Mao, was it the situation of “a rabbit before a boa constrictor?”5

* * *

MacFarquhar says on the last page of his trilogy, “The Cultural Revolution bore the mark of Cain from birth.” In my judgment Mao’s mark of Cain was apparent to those about him long before he took power in Peking. For their study of Mao and the Party in Yan’an, where the Round Table which Mao would eventually shatter was formed, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (to which Mr. MacFarquhar refers),6 David Apter of Yale and Tony Saich, then at Leiden, interviewed 150 Yan’an veterans, including peasants, workers, soldiers, teachers, writers, underground workers, one of Mao’s secretaries, and his photographers. They also interviewed “some very angry widows, survivors of those whose faction, or unit, had been on the losing side in the internal struggles for power within the CCP.” What Professors Apter and Saich—who by and large are admiring of the Party’s record during the Yan’an years—say of their subjects helps us to understand why Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, and Deng Xiaoping were as servile as they were, no matter what Mao did.

It is true that in his private life Mao was ruthless. Although Party hagiography gives the impression that he remarried after his first wife, Yang Kai-hui, was strangled by Chiang Kai-shek’s agents, in fact he abandoned her for his next wife, He Zi-zhen, while Yang was still alive. He subsequently betrayed He, who had survived the Long March, for Jiang Qing, and packed He off to Moscow for medical treatment. (When Jiang became burdensome, she too was was sent to the Soviet doctors.) This cruelty within his own family, however, would not have terrified Mao’s inner circle; Deng had three wives, Liu Shaoqi six. Zhou Enlai is renowned for having had only one.

It was Mao’s penchant for violence that was frightening. According to Mr. Apter and Mr. Saich, “Very few of those interviewed had been exempt from physical abuse and verbal assault…. All had survived by learning how to keep their mouths shut, except to parrot the appropriate line and use the exact words, phrases, and expressions countenanced by the authorities.” The authors discuss four challenges to Mao’s power, each of which “ended in the death or exile of Mao’s designated opponent. In each case his victory was complete…. By demolishing anyone who dared to challenge him…Mao was able to position himself not only as a locus of power within the party, but also as a source of power in and of himself….”

Mao’s taste for killing enemies emerged years before he arrived in Yan’an at the end of the Long March. Between 1930 and 1934—before the Long March began—he was involved in a bitter civil war in Jiangxi province. Although his main enemy was the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek, he contended, too, with shadowy provincial adversaries, referred to in documents at the time as the “AB Corps,” some of whose members were said to have infiltrated the Party. Mao directed a purge against these so-called counterrevolutionaries which resulted, Apter and Saich write, in “thousands of arrests and executions within the Red Army itself.” In December 1930 there was an “incident” in the town of Futian allegedly involving the AB Corps. The main specialist on the “Futian Incident” is Stephen Averill of Michigan State University, who is also a guest editor of the latest volume of Mao’s Road to Power, a project based at Harvard and directed by Stuart Schram, the West’s leading Mao specialist, whose aim is to collect, retranslate, and annotate every available piece of writing by Mao between 1912 and 1949.

The Futian Incident remains so controversial that the authorities in Peking still have not made public Mao’s basic document on the subject (which Mr. Schram says exists). But the Chairman mentions the problem of dealing with the AB Corps in documents included in Mr. Schram’s new volume. Mao says the AB Corps were “liquidationists” and that

although we have wiped out a large number of AB Corps members…, yet there still must be many of them hiding in our ranks, working as spies for the White army, creating rumors, sabotaging and disrupting the revolutionary forces. Right now, we have ferreted out some more AB Corps members who escaped our scrutiny last time.

In his introduction Mr. Averill seems to support this judgment, describing the AB Corps as “disgruntled, desperate, and quite possibly counterrevolutionary local cadres…[who] threatened to increase rather than reduce internal dissension.”

* * *

In another book, however, Mr. Averill exposes what seems to have been an early Maoist fiction about the Corps, a fiction that was used to justify great violence. “There is no reason whatsoever to think there were ever elaborate, multitiered secret AB Corps networks plotting the destruction of the revolution….”7He describes the struggle as arising from “the complex society of the Jiangxi hill country, the local revolutionary movement it had nurtured, and the actions of the movement’s opponents….” On the subject of the purges, he says,

Many campaigns to suppress counterrevolutionaries were conducted within the Red Army, campaigns whose scale and organised quality leave little doubt that they were approved or directed by high leaders such as Mao…. It is impossible to say precisely how many thousands of people died in the purges, but they included virtually all the regions’ early revolutionary leaders and a large percentage of even low-ranking cadres.

Mr. Averill quotes Xiao Ke, one of the Party’s military leaders at the time of the AB Corps allegations, in 1982: “We comrades who participated in this movement, regardless of whether we were executers or victims, all remember that…aside from oral confessions there was really no evidence to prove the existence of [the AB Corps]…. Today, fifty years later… we still cannot find any concrete evidence proving the existence of [the AB Corps] in the Soviet areas at that time.”

After he settled down in Yan’an and for almost thirty years thereafter, Mao was aided in eliminating his enemies by Kang Sheng, who eventually rose to the Politburo. Mr. MacFarquhar has much to say about Kang, “a sinister and shadowy figure even to his colleagues, sinister because of his activities in the Soviet Union and Yan’an prior to 1949.” (He also introduced Mao to Jiang Qing, who may have been Kang’s lover.)

In Yan’an, Kang, who claimed that 80 percent of the youth and cadres there were politically undependable, was known as “Mao’s pistol.” Trained in Moscow by the NKVD, Kang is remembered by the Yan’an survivors as dressing in black leather, riding a black horse, and leading a black police dog. David Apter describes the 1942 campaign which Kang directed—to “rescue” people from their “anti-Party thoughts” by questioning and then accusing them of error, and in some cases killing them. Although it lasted only three months, the campaign “forever changed the character of Maoism. In time, it would prove a precursor to the Cultural Revolution, in which Kang Sheng played the same role.”8

The Futian Incident shows how Mao and his comrades took to killing their adversaries very early, justifying their acts with high-sounding Leninist language. Futian foreshadowed the Yan’an “rescue” movement, which in turn underpinned the purges of the Fifties, which led to the Cultural Revolution. And on June 9, 1989, when Deng Xiaoping congratulated his army commanders, whom he praised as “the Great Wall of Steel,” for having killed over a thousand people in Tiananmen (also called “a revolutionary uprising”), he assured them, “This had to happen.”

Nonetheless, it is a mark of the Deng period that high-level inner-party conflicts no longer end in bloodshed. Deng removed Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, so gently that he remains—although in total obscurity—on the Central Committee. Deng’s two protégés, Party General Secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were plainly sacked, and Zhao was placed under the house arrest in which he still languishes. Neither was “smashed” in the traditional Party manner. Still, in Tiananmen Square Deng had no difficulty using terror, and the Party still uses violence to compel obedience from Tibetans and Muslims. What Roderick MacFarquhar makes chillingly plain in the final volume of his great trilogy is that “the mark of Cain” has always stained China’s Communist Party and stains it still.

  1. The most complete survey of this famine and its consequences is Jasper Becker's Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine (London: John Murray, 1966).
  2. The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao's Personal Physician, Dr. Li Zhisul, translated by Tai Hung-chao (Random House, 1994).
  3. It is an irony, pointed out by Mr. MacFarquhar, that Mao's potential difficulties with international affairs were alleviated by his victory in the 1962 Indian border war, in which the Russians supported China, and by assurances from Washington that it would not back a Taiwanese invasion of the mainland and had no intention of crushing North Vietnam—to which China had supplied weapons and tens of thousands of soldiers.
  4. In one of his pithy footnotes, Mr. MacFarquhar quotes Alan Bullock's observation in his Hitler and Stalin, that Stalin needed "to win the recognition of those he had defeated, that he was the successor and equal of Lenin." To this Mr. MacFarquhar adds "Mao's need was to prove to himself and his colleagues that his concept of the revolution was right."
  5. Mr. MacFarquhar recalls "Molotov's devotion to Stalin and his continuing praise of him after his death despite the latter's imprisonment of his wife."
  6. Harvard University Press, 1994.
  7. Stephen C. Averill, "The Origins of the Futian Incident," in Tony Saich and Han van de Ven, editors, New Perspectives on the Chinese Communist Revolution (M.E. Sharpe, 1995), pp. 79-115.
  8. David Apter, "Discourse as Power," in Saich and van de Ven, editors, New Perspectives on the Chinese Communist Revolution, pp. 211-212. In her book Wang Shiwei and 'Wild Lilies' (M.E. Sharpe, 1994), a specialist in China of the Yan'an purges, the scientist and journalist Dai Qing, conducts an interview with a survivor of the Yan'an—and later the Cultural Revolution—purges. He says that in 1942 "the whole thing destroyed me physically and psychologically." He told Ms. Dai, "The judgment of my innocence was not issued until ten years later. I was tortured a great deal while my family was destroyed. I am the only one left alive."