[Review] “A Spectre Is Haunting Asia and Beyond: A Review of Julia Lovell’s Maoism” by Emma Zhang

{Written by Emma Zhang, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History, Bodley Head, 2019. 606 pgs.

Maoism A Global History

Professor Julia Lovell’s account of the spread of Maoism like a cancer across the globe, leaving slaughter, anarchy, war, and economic devastation in its wake, was a terrifying book to read. Mao, whose communist empire outlasted Stalin’s USSR, cast the longest shadow of his fellow 20th century dictators and is a spectre that still haunts the world today. Unlike previous historians and memoirists who treated Mao as a merciless tyrant that misshaped modern China (i.e. Li Zisui, The Private Life of Mao, 1994; Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong, 1999; Jon Halliday and Jung Chang, Mao: The Unknown Story, 2005), however, Lovell is the first sinologist who systematically examines the disastrous outcomes of Mao exporting his anarchist ideology beyond Chinese borders.

According to Lovell, the global epidemic of Maoism had more to do with the opportunist American reporter Edgar Snow than with Mao himself. Mao was a peasant from Hunan who could barely speak Putonghua, let alone English. Thanks to Snow, Mao’s lack of international sophistication did not stop him from realising his ambition of replacing Stalin and assuming leadership of the global communist movement in the 1960s. Since Snow was the only non-socialist Western intellectual in China in the 1930s, his propagandistic book Red Star Over China (1937) was widely accepted as reliable reportage. Written in English, Snow’s book played a key role in transporting Mao thoughts to the USSR, the United States, France, Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, and many countries in Africa. Lovell points out that many of Mao’s international followers read Red Star Over China in English instead of Mao’s Little Red Book, and most of Mao’s global fans did not read Chinese.

Lovell recounts that Mao’s idiosyncratic rhetoric and blatant self-promotion on the international stage did not initially fare well. His infamous speech “east wind wins over west wind” at the  1957 International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties, where leaders of 64 communist parties gathered in Moscow, was met with awkward silence due to his utter disregard for death and destruction. When addressing the imminent threat of nuclear war, Mao declared, “If the worst came to worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain, while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist” (p. 128). When Polish, Czech and Italian communist leaders expressed concerns about the survival of their own countries in the nuclear calamity, Mao’s response was unabashedly callous, “but who told you that Italy must survive? Three hundred million Chinese will be left and that will be enough for the human race to continue” (p.129).

During the Cold War, Mao did his best to increase tension between the US and USSR. These efforts included sending Chinese troops to fight the Korean war from 1950 to 1953, and his unprovoked bombardment in 1958 of Kinmen County, off the coast of Xiamen, which was under the jurisdiction of the Republic of China. (Mao had hoped the Americans would drop an atom bomb on Fujian in retaliation.) Instead of working towards peaceful solutions, Mao rejoiced in creating and intensifying both domestic and global conflicts, to give himself a strategic advantage in the international power struggle. Evidently, Mao’s insubordination toward Western imperialism was merely a façade, a fact that became apparent when he welcomed Richard Nixon to Beijing in 1972. Mao’s true legacy is his ruthless grab for power and reign of terror; he left behind no concrete ideas or ideals. European scholar Christophe Bourseiller is correct in claiming “Maoism doesn’t exist, it never has done” (quoted on p. 59).

Yet the bloodthirsty chaos that ensued from Mao’s empty ideology of contradictions eventually found crazed followers all over the globe. Lovell points out that the adaptation and development of Maoism differed from country to country. There is nonetheless an observable pattern. It was often first accepted by the educated yet socially marginalised elites, then these elites joined forces with the exploited grassroots to take down the establishment. Lovell wisely observed that intellectuals are too often unduly trusted by the public for their expertise, hence they have the power to sway public opinion. This trust is not fully deserved because intellectuals are individuals with desires and motivations of their own. Ambitious intellectuals often write to advance their own careers rather than proving informed reports or balanced critiques. Lovell emphasises Snow’s crucial role in promoting Maoism to highlight the devastating effect of intellectuals who serve their own interests rather than the public good. Apart from Snow, Lovell lists many others who were also instrumental. For example, in chapter 10, Joan Robinson, a Cambridge professor of economics, befriended by the CCP, effectively legitimised and promoted a Mao-style Cultural Revolution in India (pp. 363-365). These examples alert readers to the corrosive power of the CCP’s diplomatic tactics and remind them to be sceptical of the opinions of the educated elites.

In addition, the advancement of technology and state-controlled economy also served to expand Maoist influence around the world. According to Lovell, Mao provided numerous radio sets to his international followers and created an alternative universe by broadcasting propaganda in multiple languages. Those who never set foot on Chinese soil might be easily fooled by the radiant ruddy faces they saw in posters and the cheerful broadcasts of agricultural miracles that concealed the horrors of famine. State-controlled economy enabled Mao to promote his ideas internationally through generous financial aids given to third-world countries, while literally starving his own people to death. From 1958 to 1962, when an estimated 45 million Chinese died from starvation related causes (Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine, 2010), Mao increased foreign aid by 50 per cent.  For example, in 1960, aid for Algeria alone was “50.6 million yuan up from 6,000,000 the previous year” (Lovell, 2019, 134). Mao’s propaganda and open-handed international economic policy created the illusion of a powerful united socialist China among Third World leaders, though in reality policies like The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution led only to the devastation of the domestic economy and a colossal loss of human lives.

One of Mao’s most devastating exports was his strategy of mobilising the masses, which unleashed political violence with impunity on a global scale. Lovell argues convincingly that the Chinese influence on post-colonial Indonesia should not be overlooked as Mao had connections with both its president Sukarno and its communist party, the PKI. The PKI adopted the Maoist strategy of grassroots indoctrination and grew rapidly in power and influence in the 1950s. In an attempt to challenge and subdue Indonesia’s other major political power, the military, Mao likely radicalised PKI leader Aidit and encouraged him to kidnap seven military generals. However, the attempted coup on 1 October 1965 went wrong because of a lack of careful planning or proper training of key actors. The unintended death of the seven kidnapped generals gave rise to the militant dictator Suharto who ordered the 1965-66 massacre. Suharto mobilised civilian militia, and with spears and swords, they annihilated at least half a million people who were communists or alleged to be communists. Inong, a village headman who participated in the massacre, reported the necessity of drinking human blood in order to stay sane. Lovell regarded Indonesia as the first export of Maoism, as the Indonesian PKI inherited Mao’s semi-religious zeal, they relied solely on belief and blindly disregarded any words of caution. The result, predictably, was a catastrophic failure. Their opponent, the militant Suharto on the other hand, took on the much more sinister Mao legacy of enabling civilian violence with impunity. It took Indonesia more than 30 years to break free from its militant state, but those with blood-stained hands continue to roam free today.

Mao’s other terrifying export was his political purge against alleged “enemies of the State”. Strictly speaking, political purges are not Mao’s invention but Stalin’s. It has been widely adopted by dictators worldwide for its effectiveness in generating terror and enabling totalitarian control. Lovell accredits the genocidal political purges in Vietnam and Cambodia to Mao because of his direct involvement in them. The brutality of this tactic can be exemplified by the prosecution of the Vietnamese landlord Nguyen in the Chinese style land reform in North Vietnam in 1953. Nguyen Thi Nam, a patriotic plantation owner who protected Ho Chi Minh’s forces during World War II, and donated generously in support of his regime, was humiliated in front of 5000 people before being shot five times at her execution. “Enemies of the state” is a political category created by dictators for the purpose of getting rid of dissidents and generating terror. The worst aspect of this tactic is that people are punished according to who they are and not for their action. Though Ho Chi Minh knew full well of Nguyen’s unfailing support for his cause, he acquiesced to her execution simply because she fitted the social economic profile of a “landlord”, the imagined enemy of the land reform movement.

Lovell’s sprawling book begins in Yan’an, the first Chinese Communist capital, and tracks Maoist influences across nations and continents—Indonesia, Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, America, Europe, Peru, India, Nepal and back to contemporary China. Her research is fairly thorough. In chapter 12, “Mao-ish China”, apart from the obvious Maoist heritage Xi Jinping exhibits in his own personality cult, Lovell also writes about the complicated role played by neo-Maoist intellectuals in the state-run capitalist China. She includes even a little-known Maoist community farm in Hebei headed by Han Deqiang, a Utopian believer who claims Mao is a Buddha. However, as a Hong Kong-based reader, I found it disappointing that Lovell did not devote a single page in this 606-page book to the 1967 Maoist uprising that traumatised a whole generation of Hong Kong people and reshaped the political landscape of the territory.

Though I agree with Lovell in her emphasis on the power of self-serving intellectuals to mislead the public, I believe Mao’s global influence comes from a deeper source than Edgar Snow’s ambition driven selective reportage. The allure of Maoism across the globe rests in the fact that in any given society, there exists inherent inequality and exploitation. Maoist ideology offers a simple solution to this complicated problem that mankind continues to grapple with and is unlikely to solve. According to Mao, institutionalised exploitations are the root cause of social injustices, and the solution is simply the utter destruction of social institutions by the masses through continuous revolution. As a case in point, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao even turned against the CCP and enabled red guards to destroy the very institution that gave him power. Maoist ideology glorifies violence in the name of a utopian future. Yet utopia is forever deferred to an ever-receding time, while the communities that embraced Maoism convulse in endless, lawless chaos.

Maoism’s instant appeal to underprivileged groups lies in its capability of turning a society upside down. Mao was well schooled in Chinese classics. He rose to dictatorship by applying ancient legalist (Fajia, 法家) methods which helped establish the Qin Dynasty (arguably the first totalitarian state in Chinese history). In the legalist classic The Book of Lord Shang (Shang Jun Shu商君書, believed to be written by Shang Yang商鞅, is the Chinese equivalent of Machiavelli’s Il Principe), the ruler is advised that centralised control is strengthened by allowing the wicked to govern the virtuous (國以善民治姦民者,必亂至削;國以姦民治善民者,必治至強). Mao-style insurgencies and political purges exhibit this principle. By allowing the illiterate to dominate the educated, Mao unleashed mass usurpation of power, the order and civility of society crumble in chaos and the elites were effectively silenced or eliminated. The social outcasts with nothing to lose sent the whole society into an inferno of insurrection, without any plan to rebuild what was being destroyed. Lovell is right in saying that no society can sustain Maoist-style destruction for long, yet as long as there is inequality and exploitation, the spectre of Mao lurks in the forgotten and abandoned corners of society, ready to annihilate its fragile civility. Mao, the Hunanese peasant whose corpse rests in a crystal casket at the charnel house that is Tiananmen was, after all, a rebel with a cause.


Emma Zhang.jpg

Emma Zhang is a lecturer of English in the College of International Education in Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include comparative literature and comparative mythology. Her doctoral dissertation “Domination, Alienation and Freedom in Ha Jin’s Novels” (2015), analyses Ha Jin’s novels in connection with contemporary Chinese society. Her other works include “Father’s Journey into Night” (2013), “No End in Sight – the myth of Nezha and the ultra-stable authoritarian political order in China” (2018), and “The Taming of the White Snake – The oppression of female sexuality in the Legend of the White Snake”. She is currently working on translating ancient Chinese legends Nezha and The Legend of the White Snake.

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