Henry C.K. Liu

Part I: Demon and deity

This article appeared in AToL on March 31, 2004


Chairman Mao Zedong, the greatest revolutionary in modern Chinese history, has been unfairly vilified by the neo-liberal West, but he set a decaying China on the path to renewed greatness and provided a vision for a new China that will survive for centuries to come. In fact, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, is deified, while Mao is demonized.

Lincoln's assault on due process was decidedly more violent than Mao's alleged autocratic leadership style. The difference between Lincoln and Mao is that Lincoln's high-minded quest for equality in practice allowed a few to monopolize the resultant national wealth, while Mao tried to distribute it to all equally.

A look at the two great leaders - one of them a great revolutionary - is instructive:

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPCCC) held a seminar at the Great Hall of the People on December 30, 2003, to mark the 110th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth. Hu Jintao, Chinese president and CPCCC general secretary, called for carrying on the great cause of the older generation of Chinese revolutionaries as the best way to commemorate Chairman Mao. The great cause is to build a socialist China that is prosperous, peaceful and strong, with equality for all its citizens, to carry on the grand tradition of Chinese civilization with friendship and goodwill toward all around the world.

The neo-liberal West goes so far as to accuse Mao of being a ruthless dictator, allegedly murdering 30 million of his fellow citizens with his radical programs, such as the controversial Great Leap Forward. Such propaganda bears little relation to the reality of Mao (as the greatest revolutionary in modern Chinese history who set a decaying China on the path to renewed greatness). Mao was neither perfect nor a superman. Like all humans, he made mistakes as a leader, but he provided a vision for a new China that will survive for centuries to come. Mao was demonized by the neo-liberal West simply because he was a communist. It is also a mistake for the Western left to interpret post-Mao China's strategic response to changing global geopolitical conditions as an ideological deviation from Mao's revolutionary vision for China.

Some libertarians vilify Lincoln

Lincoln, a great leader, is also vilified by his libertarian detractors as the US president who suspended civil liberty and destroyed free markets. While there is historical evidence of Lincoln being accountable for these partisan charges, there is also evidence that he did such with a higher purpose. Elected by narrow pluralities, Lincoln is known as the US president who preserved the Union. Under his leadership, and largely because of it, the United States moved closer to the full implementation of the promise that was contained in the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal; and toward fulfillment of the potential of the US constitution, which is the commitment to equality under the law.

Stopping in Philadelphia in 1861 on the way to his inauguration, Lincoln visited Independence Hall, where he said in a speech, "I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept this confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of colonies from the motherland, but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence." Lincoln aimed to give hope to the world for liberty by example, not by foreign wars.

Lincoln scholar Harry Jaffa argues in The Crisis of the House Divided that Lincoln was a model statesman who stuck by high-minded principles as he fought to promote liberty, even though he had to suspend liberty temporarily to achieve his higher purpose. Gore Vidal's Lincoln: A Novel views Lincoln as a heroic figure who moved to change the very nature of American government and society, aiming toward greatness against the tide of popular opinion in sympathy with the South. Preserving the Union was decidedly an undemocratic undertaking.

And there are more dissenting critical views. Lincoln critic Tom DiLorenzo argues in The Real Lincoln that Lincoln was a calculating politician who waged the bloodiest war in American history, not to free the slaves, but to build an empire of corporate welfare. DiLorenzo points out that there were incidents of war-waging on innocent civilians at the very beginning, in 1862-63. The town of Randolph, Tennessee, was burned to the ground because Confederate sharpshooters sniped at Union ships. Not being able to find the sharpshooters for punishment individually, Union troops retaliated by burning down the whole town.

This kind of wholesale atrocity also was perpetrated by the Nazis eight decades later, but only in occupied lands and not on fellow ethnic Germans, unless they were communists. And this sort of wholesale atrocity went on all through the American Civil War, because in a war between brothers, there is usually no honor code. It is a sad testimony to the ascendance of inhumanity that wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians continues to this day in the name of a holy war on terrorism. And although preemptive self-defense may be justifiable, it is hardly a high-minded principle.

Lincoln sacrificed individual freedoms

In another book, The Great Centralizer, DiLorenzo documented much centralization of power in the first 18 months of the Lincoln administration, at the expense of individual freedom and states' rights, the founding principles of the American republic.

Regarding internal development, Leonard Curry wrote in Blueprint for Modern America that constitutional scruples against government subsidy for private monopolies disappeared after Lincoln, ending seven decades of constitutional resistance against corporate welfare prior to Lincoln's presidency. And money was nationalized under Lincoln. Senator John Sherman said of the National Currency Acts and the Legal Tender Acts: "These will nationalize as much as possible, even the currency, so as to make men love their country before their states. All private interests, all local interests, all banking interests, the interest of individuals, everything should be subordinate now to the interest of the [central] government." The New York Times editorialized on March 9, 1863, that "the Legal Tender Act and the National Currency Bill crystallize a centralization of power such as [Alexander] Hamilton [the first US treasury secretary] might have eulogized as magnificent."

The tariff was tripled by Lincoln and remained at that high level for decades after the war ended. Harvard professor David Donald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln biographer, wrote: "Lincoln and the Republicans intended to enact the high protective tariff that mothered monopoly, to pass a homestead law that invited speculators to loot the public domain, and to subsidize a transcontinental railroad that afforded infinite opportunities for jobbery [political-patronage jobs]."

One not-so-high-minded reason Lincoln and the Republicans gave for their opposition to the extension of slavery was that they wanted to preserve the new territories for white labor, not opposition to an immoral institution. They said clearly that they wanted the political support of white laborers who did not want competition from black slave labor. In practice, democracy often thrives on the lowest instincts of impassioned voters while ignoring the rights of the disfranchised. Representative democracy, as practiced in the United States, is an electoral power game in which the rich and the powerful have an overwhelming advantage over the weak and the poor, which is objectionable enough by itself, and it becomes absolutely repugnant when vaunted as a universal standard for a global holy war.

Lincoln a dictator?

In many scholarly works, such as Constitutional Problems under Lincoln by James Randall, Freedom under Lincoln by Dean Sprague, The Fate of Liberty by Mark Neely and Constitutional Dictatorship by Clinton Rossiter, Lincoln is labeled a dictator because he launched a military invasion of the Southern states without consent of Congress and suspended habeas corpus, with the result that at least 13,000 Northern citizens were imprisoned without arrest warrants being issued. For that matter, the last war declared by Congress, constitutionally the sole authority for war declaration, was World War II, after which all wars had been executive wars. Lincoln censored all telegraph communication to control developing news on the Civil War; nationalized railroads for war transport and ordered federal troops to interfere in Northern elections. David Donald writes also that the Republican Party won New York state by 7,000 votes in 1864 "under the protection of Federal bayonets".

Clement Vallandigham, Ohio congressman and leader of the Copperheads, Northern sympathizers with the South, accused Lincoln of continuing the Civil War after the Union had already been saved militarily in the Battle of Bull Run, simply to enslave white labor by freeing black slaves to compete unfairly in tight labor markets in the North. Lincoln deported Vallandigham after General Ambrose E Burnside, then commanding the Department of the Ohio, accused Vallandigham of violating General Order No 38, which threatened punishment for those declaring sympathy for the "enemy". Vallandigham was arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to imprisonment for the rest of the war.

Lincoln also confiscated firearms from the public, depriving the American people of their constitutional right to bear arms. Ministers in the South were imprisoned for not praying for Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's secretary of state, William Seward, set up a secret police force, and famously boasted to Lord Lyons, the British ambassador, that he could ring a bell and have any man in America arrested without due process. The Journal of Commerce, early in the Lincoln administration, published a list of 100 newspapers in opposition to Lincoln's administration, and Lincoln ordered the postmaster general to stop delivering the mail for those papers, putting the government squarely in the business of violating freedom of the press. And these newspaper owners and editors were imprisoned for opposing Lincoln. All were justified as necessary to stop the secession.

Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address resolution of not letting "government of the people, by the people and for the people" perish from the Earth was not kept by actual events after the Civil War, nor the resultant United States that emerged. A 2004 poll conducted by a non-profit organization shows that only 20 percent of Americans believe that their government works for them, ie, for the people in general; 56 percent believe that it works for special-interest lobbyists; and 80 percent believe that it works for large corporations.

Unlike Lincoln, Mao was dedicated to equality

Yet unlike Lincoln, Mao is not given credit in the West as a revolutionary of high-minded principles who fought for equality with all necessary means. In the context of the strong US tradition of civil liberty, Lincoln's assault on due process was decidedly more violent than Mao's alleged autocratic leadership style, since such is natural in Chinese political tradition. The difference between Lincoln and Mao is that Lincoln's high-minded quest for equality in practice allowed a few to monopolize the resultant national wealth, while Mao tried to distribute it to all equally.

Like Lincoln, Mao's tenure as leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People's Republic of China (PRC) was entirely under wartime conditions, first a civil war with the Nationalists and, after the founding of the PRC, with more than two decades of total embargo imposed by a hostile US with extreme prejudice. Garrison state was not merely a mentality during Mao's time, it was a reality. Most of his policies, like those of Lincoln, must be viewed in the context of wartime exigencies. Still, it was Mao who engineered the US-China rapprochement in 1972, and it was Mao who rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping to carry on socialist construction with Chinese characteristics.

In March 2004, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao vowed to live up to the people's expectations and commented on many issues related to China's political, economic and social development at a press conference shortly after the conclusion of the National People's Congress. The premier also highlighted the goal of maintaining a balanced and sustainable yet still relatively fast economic growth and he identified agriculture, rural areas and the welfare of farming peasants as the most pressing problems. He identified issues related to people as being those he cares about most. Wen pledged to continue reform, innovation and forging ahead with political courage, quoting verses from poems of Chairman Mao and the ancient Chinese patriotic poet Qu Yuan, the father of Chinese poetry and a national cultural hero, to express his determination to work harder for the people in spite recognized difficulties.

The premier identified as the first goal the establishment of a "scientific and democratic decision-making mechanism", including a group decision-making system based on the people's will and consultations with experts and professional people. The second goal is to administer the country according to law: "We must prompt the government to administer the country in line with law, build a clean and honest government, and pursue the combination of the government's power and responsibility." The third goal is to accept supervision from every corner of the society, including the supervision from the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and governments, both central and local, must solicit mass opinion and listen to diverse views from the people.

Party to lead the people in respecting law

Wen also urged leading officials of the CCP and all party members to abide by the constitution and the country's laws. The constitution and laws will not be changed according to changes of state leaders or changes in the leaders' attention. The premier also stressed two principles: that the party, as the people's vanguard, leads the people in making the constitution and laws, and leading party officials and all party members should play an exemplary role in implementing the constitution and laws.

The amendment to the constitution is of great significance for China's development, he said, adding that it had just been passed at the national legislature's annual session with overwhelming support, reflecting the will of the entire people. He highlighted the incorporation into the constitution the important thought of the "Three Represents" along with Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory as the guiding ideology for the party and the nation.

(The Three Represents, the CCP's modern mission statement, say that the party must always represent the development trend of China's advanced productive forces, the orientation of China's advanced culture and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people. It is now considered the distillation of the party's collective wisdom and is to be the party's guiding ideology for many years to come.)

These goals are not new in Chinese communist political culture. Mao, while always placing his faith in the power of the people, was also a vocal admirer of statesman Shang Yang (died 338 BC) of the Kingdom of Qin in the Warring States Period (408-221 BC). Shang Yang built the state's legal system upon the Book of Law, introduced a legalist government and propelled the Qin state to prosperity that enabled it to unite all of China, ushering in the Qin Dynasty. He introduced a new, standardized system of land allocation and reforms to taxation, he encouraged the cultivation of new frontiers and favored agriculture over commerce. Shang Yang burned books by Confucians in an effort to curb the philosophy's pervasive influence. Shang Yang was credited by Han Fei-zi with putting forth two precepts: Ding Fa (fixing the standards) and Yi Min (all people as one). Han Fei was a prince of the state of Han who joined the state of Qin, but eventually he ran afoul of Qin's chief minister, Li Si (died 208 BC), and was forced to commit suicide in 233 BC.

Legalism, Confucianism, Taoism

Legalism is one of the three main schools in Chinese philosophy, the other two being Confucianism and Taoism (also transliterated as Daoism). Legalists believed that a nation should be governed by law, which must be clearly written and made public. All are equal before the law. Under the previous Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC), laws had been loosely written and controlled by tradition based on social classes. Legalism advocates that laws should reward those who obey them and punish those who break them. In addition, the legal system rules the state, not the officials. It is only through the impartial administration of law that a ruler can rule the state effectively.

In contrast to Confucianism, Legalism restricts moral issues to the making of law, not the administering of the law. Strict enforcement of the law is the foundation of a stable society. Still, the term "rule of law" has distinctly different meanings in Chinese political culture than in the West. Critical theory views the Western concept of the rule of law as merely a method by which the ruling class can justify its rule, as it alone determines what laws get passed based on its own narrow interests.

Legalism places importance on three aspects. The first is shi (influence) or legitimacy, the legal basis of power based on the legitimacy of the sovereign and the doctrinal orthodoxy of his policies. In a socialist society, legal legitimacy is inseparably tied to the interests of the people as represented by the socialist party. The second is shu (skill) in manipulative exercise of power in order to respond to the highest aspirations of the masses. The third is fa (law) which, once publicly proclaimed, should govern universally without exceptions. These three aspects Legalists consider the three pillars of a well-governed society.

This concept of the rule of law is different from that used in the US legal system, in which laws are made by lobbyists, manipulated to serve special interests and applied by courts dominated by high-priced lawyers. The US legal system is blatantly undemocratic, with its courts packed with politically appointed judges and a legal-fee structure unaffordable by the average citizen.

The so-called Gang of Four distorted Legalist politics in China toward the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. For their power-usurping game, they used as shi (influence) for legitimacy; rote resuscitation of Marxist orthodox doctrine, reinforced by a co-opted Maoist personality cult that negates the very nature of Mao; party factionalism as shu (skill) for exercising power; and dictatorial rule as fa (laws) to be obeyed with no exceptions allowed for tradition, ancient customs or special relationships and with little regard for human conditions. These self-styled Legalists yearned for a perfectly administered state, even if the price was the unhappiness of its citizens. They sought an inviolable system of impartial justice, without extenuating circumstances, even at the expense of the innocent or the wrongly accused. Worst of all, they put themselves above the law.

Feudalism with fascist, socialistic, democratic characteristics

Feudalism in China has concurrent aspects of what modern political science would label as fascist, socialist and democratic. As a socio-political system, feudalism is inherently authoritarian and totalitarian. However, since feudal cultural ideals have always been meticulously nurtured by Confucianism to be congruent with the political regime, social control, while pervasive, is seldom consciously felt as oppressive by the contented public. Or more accurately, social oppression, both vertical, such as sovereign to subject, and horizontal, such as gender prejudice, is considered civilized self-restraint and natural for lack of a socially acceptable alternative vision. Concepts such as equality, individuality, privacy, personal freedom and democracy, are deemed antisocial, and only longed for by the mentally deranged, such as radical Taoists.

This would be true in large measure up to modern times when radical Taoists would be replaced by other radical political and cultural dissidents. A distinction needs to be made between genuine indigenous dissent and dissent from those merely playing opportunistically for foreign imperialist favor. Dissidents who hide under foreign imperialist patronage and protection, conveniently enjoying bogus martyr status without the inconvenience of martyrs' fates, will pay for such free rides with loss of credibility. Economic self-interest, the foundation of market fundamentalism, is viewed in Chinese culture as a character flaw. Until modern times, merchants were ranked in social status below prostitutes in feudal society.

The imperial system in China took the form of a centralized federalism of autonomous local lords in which the authority of the sovereign was symbiotically bound to, but clearly separated from, the authority of the local lords. Unless the local lords abused their local authority, the emperor's authority over them, while all inclusive in theory, would not extend beyond national matters in practice, particularly if the sovereign's rule was to remain moral within its ritual bounds. This tradition continues to the modern time. This condition is easily understood by Americans, whose federal government is relatively progressive on certain issues of national standards with regard to community standards in backward sections of the union.

Confucianism (Ru Jia), through the code of rites (li), seeks to govern the behavior and obligation of each person, each social class and each socio-political unit in society through self-constraint. Its purpose is to facilitate the smooth functioning and the perpetuation of the feudal system. Therefore, the power of the sovereign, though politically absolute, is not free from the constraints of behavior deemed proper by Confucian values for a moral sovereign, just as the authority of the local lords is similarly constrained.

Issues of constitutionality in the US political milieu become issues of proper rites and befitting morality in Chinese dynastic politics. To a large extent, this approach continues to apply to the modern Chinese polity. The legitimacy of the dictatorship of the proletariat (defined in Chinese political nomenclature as the property-less class) lies in its intrinsic moral validity, upon which the CCP assumes its leadership role in government. Criticizing the CCP for not subjecting itself to election challenge is a debate that lies outside the range of its discourse. Morality is not an elective issue.

The party must lead the people

The Three Represents is a newly adopted theory put forward by former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. The official formal statement of the theory is as follows: "Reviewing the course of struggle and the basic experience over the past 80 years and looking ahead to the arduous tasks and bright future in the new century, our party should continue to stand in the forefront of the times and lead the people in marching toward victory. In a word, the party must always represent the requirements of the development of China's advanced productive forces, the orientation of the development of China's advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China."

The correct interpretation of the theory is still under study. Logic dictates that the "Three Represents" must be of equal priority. The ultimate test is "the fundamental interest of the overwhelming majority of the people" without which the first two "Represents" would be irrelevant. And the overwhelming majority in China is the Chinese peasant. The inclusion of capitalists and entrepreneurs in the party and the legitimization of private property in the constitution remain ideologically problematic in a political party of the proletariat.

The ideal Confucian state rests on a stable society over which a virtuous and benevolent emperor rules by moral persuasion based on a Code of Rites, rather than on law. Justice would emerge from a timeless morality that governs social behavior. Man would be orderly out of self-respect for his own moral character, rather than from fear of punishment prescribed by law. A competent and loyal literati-bureaucracy faithful to a just political order would run the government according to moral principles rather than following rigid legalistic rules devoid of moral content. The interest of the masses is the highest morality in politics.

Confucian values, because they were designed to preserve the then-existing feudal system, unavoidably ran into conflict with contemporary ideas reflective of new emerging social conditions. It is in the context of its inherent hostility toward progress and its penchant for obsolete nostalgia that Confucian values, rather than feudalism itself, become culturally oppressive and socially damaging. When Chinese revolutionaries throughout history, and particularly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, rebelled against the cultural oppression of reactionary Confucianism, they simplistically and conveniently linked it synonymously with political feudalism.

Mao aimed to smash Confucian dominance

These revolutionaries succeeded in dismantling the formal governmental structure of political feudalism because it was the more visible target. Their success was due also to the terminal decadence of the decrepit governmental machinery of dying dynasties, such as the ruling house of the three-century-old, dying Qing Dynasty (1583-1911). Unfortunately, these triumphant revolutionaries remained largely ineffective in remolding Confucian dominance in feudal culture, even among the progressive intelligentsia. Mao understood this reactionary aspect of Confucian culture. He aimed to reform not only the polity of the Chinese state but also the culture of Chinese society.

Almost a century after the fall of the feudal Qing dynastic house in 1911, after countless movements of socio-political reform and revolution, ranging from moderate democratic liberalism to extremist Bolshevik radicalism, China has yet to find a workable alternative to the feudal political culture that would be intrinsically sympathetic to its aspirational social tradition of populist government. Chinese revolutions, including the modern revolution that began in 1911, through its various metamorphoses over the span of almost four millennia in overthrowing successive political regimes of transplanted feudalism, repeatedly killed successive infected patients - in the form of virulent governments.

But these revolutions failed repeatedly to sterilize the infectious virus of Confucianism in its feudal political culture. The modern destruction of political feudalism produced administrative chaos and social instability in China until the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. That is the undeniable contribution of Mao Zedong to Chinese political history.

But Confucianism still appeared alive and well as cultural feudalism, even under communist rule, and within the CCP. It continued to instill in its victims an instinctive hostility toward new ideas, especially if they were of foreign origin. Confucianism adhered to an ideological rigidity that amounted to blindness to objective problem-solving. Almost a century of recurring cycles of modernization movements, nationalist or communist, liberal or Marxist, did not manage to make even a slight dent in the all-controlling precepts of Confucianism in the Chinese mind. In fact, in 1928, when the CCP attempted to introduce a soviet system of government by elected councils in areas of northern China under its control, many peasants earnestly thought a new "Soviet" dynasty was being founded by a new emperor by the name of "So Viet". Mao Zedong recognized this feudal mentality as the central obstacle to China's revitalization.

Confucianism considered Legalism an aberration

During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, the debate between Confucianism (Ru Jia) and Legalism (Fa Jia) was resurrected as allegorical dialogue for contemporary power struggle. Legalist concepts such as equal justice under law for all and none being above the law are considered by Confucians aberrations of social morals and corruption of moral governance. At the dawn the 21st century, Confucianism remained alive and well in Chinese politics regardless of ideology in political economy. Modern China was still a society in search of an emperor figure and a country governed by feudal relationships, but devoid of a compatible political vehicle that would turn these tenacious, traditional social instincts toward constructive purposes, instead of allowing them to manifest themselves as rationalization for corruption.

Of the three great revolutions in modern history - the French (1789), the Chinese (1911) and the Russian (1917) - each overthrew feudal monarchial systems to introduce idealized democratic alternatives that had difficulty holding the country together without periods of terror. The French and Russian revolutions both made the fundamental and tragic error of revolutionary regicide and suffered decades of social and political dislocation as a result, with little if any socio-political benefit in return.

In France, regicide did not even prevent eventual restoration of monarchy imposed externally by foreign victors. The Chinese revolution in 1911 was not plagued by regicide, but it prematurely dismantled political feudalism before it had a chance to develop a workable alternative, plunging the country into decades of warlordism. Worse still, it left largely undisturbed a Confucian culture while it demolished its political vehicle. The result was that almost a century after the fall of the last dynastic house, the culture-bound nation was still groping for an appropriate and workable political system, regardless of economic ideology.

Next: Mao's glory will outshine neo-liberals