Mao's record: the need for a critical but fair assessment

By David Bowler

ebruary 25, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In all wars the first casualty is truth. This equally applies to cold wars as to hot conventional wars. Often the truth is obscured by omission of relevant facts or by the repeating of historical propaganda footage from the archives as if it was empirical evidence. Often it is so-called public media such as the ABC or BBC that act more as channels for cold war propaganda than providing informed and balanced material.

A number of ABC, BBC and SBS programs on China of recent times have repeated, almost as a chant, that China economically regressed under Mao Zedong, and that he was directly responsible for the death of twenty million people. Then under Deng Xiaoping all progressed - until Xi Jinping arrived and China was thrust back into a Maoist-like era. Well, if you belong to some cult and believe Mao was some kind of God who could bring flood, drought and pestilence on the land, then you may perceive it to be true. But if you are a person who follows logic and reason it is not a bad idea to interrogate the historical evidence a little deeper.


In 1949 the Chinese Communist regime inherited a country that had been decimated by 37 years of non-stop war. First there was the warlord period 1912-27 when the country was fractured into small warring states. Then there was the Nationalist period 1927-36 where factions of the Nationalist Party, particularly the northern Beijing faction and south-eastern Nanjing faction, fought for supremacy, culminating in a battle in Henan where some 500,000 soldiers lost their lives. This self-destruction by the warring factions of the Nationalists provided the opportunity for the Japanese to strike south from Manchuria to capture as much of eastern China as they could. To halt the Japanese advance, the Nationalist government ordered the blowing up of the Yellow River weir to flood the loess plain, causing significant loss of life and agricultural crops. By the time the Japanese were forced out of China in 1945, depending on the sources, some 20-40 million Chinese people lost their lives from the Sino/Japanese war that started in Manchuria in 1931 and finished with their expulsion from that area by more than 1 million Russian troops in 1945. China then endured another four years of civil war as Communist peasant militias, who had become resurgent fighting the Japanese during the occupation, fought with discredited Nationalist forces for control of the country. While the elite of the Nationalist party retreated to Taiwan, sporadic fighting with rump Nationalist forces in the south and southwest continued for the next two years. Plus, there was the intervening Korean War where northeastern Chinese Communist militia, who had fought alongside Korean rebels resisting the Japanese from 1931 to 1945, now found they were called upon to join their old comrades in fighting a United States incursion.

Broken country

For a fair assessment of the Maoist era in China one must start from the year 1952. China, like post-war Germany, was starving and its infrastructure was smashed. India, while it had suffered the disruption of partition and intercultural strife and famines caused by British food appropriation, was infrastructure-wise in a comparatively better position after gaining independence. China was thus faced with the herculean task of replacing destroyed roads, rail, bridges, factories, schools and housing. Most of the people were illiterate peasants, some 83% were rural subsistence farm workers and very few of the new government functionaries had any administrative experience apart from their prior occupation as guerrilla fighters over the preceding years. In the early years (1951-58) China relied heavily on technical, engineering, and administrative advice from the Russians, as Britain and the United States had trade, technical and financial embargoes on the Chinese government (similar to the embargoes that now apply to Iran, Cuba and Venezuela). It was within this context that China received inappropriate advice on agricultural reforms, that while they may have been appropriate for the vast wheat growing plains of southern Russia, did not fit well with the mountainous small plot rice farmers of southern China. In summary, in the 1952-62 period you had a vast broken country administered by a group of people on their administrative learners’ plates. Yes, they were going to try and do too much too quickly, they were going to get incorrect advice and they were sure to make mistakes. It is however unfair and historically incorrect to attribute their mistakes to ill intent.

The famine

China has only endured one major famine in over seventy years since the Communist Party came to power; this occurred in the years 1960-62. In the preceding hundred years large famines had occurred every decade. One of the most thorough historical records of this famine was published in China by a Chinese citizen under the title “Tombstone”. In this very thorough record, the author Yang Jisheng documented countless instances of resistance to collectivisation, destruction of livestock, over-consumption in the early phase and petty local officials falsifying production records to please their party bosses. 

Let us put the famine into context. We had Provincial and County administrators, who lacked administrative experience. We had the establishment of large collective farms in a geography and agricultural system unsuited to broad acre farming methods. We had former farm landlords who would prefer to slaughter their chickens and pigs than hand them over to the collectives. We had farm workers moved to essential infrastructure projects, without the agricultural machinery to replace their farm labour input.

But there was also a series of well-documented adverse weather events that were the major cause of the famine. In mid-1959, the Yellow River flooded, causing thousands of drownings and the ruination of the season’s crops. The loess plain adjacent to the Yellow River in Henan Province is China’s principal wheat growing area and has one of China’s highest population densities. The floods of 1959 were followed by two years of drought. Then in the second half of 1961 China’s southern coastal provinces experienced 11 typhoons in succession, causing damage to the rice crops. In normal circumstances a country has sufficient grain reserves to cover one bad year, and so it was that the reserves covered the 1959 event. Then, however, when two more years of below par production hit there was simply no fat in the system.

There was a major famine and many millions died through food shortages despite large scale rationing and food redistribution. The primary cause was adverse weather events in a country ill prepared and lacking adequate food reserve capacity. The farm collectivisation in its early phase of implementation greatly exacerbated the famine. The movement of farm labour resources to infrastructure projects, often irrigation channels and flood mitigation works, also unfortunately coincided with the adverse weather. Mao deserves significant blame for pushing for the excessively rapid collectivisation of agriculture, and for setting unrealistic production targets. But to give the impression, as many do, that Mao was solely responsible for the famine and deaths is verging on pure propaganda.

Recovery after the famine

By 1963 the famine was over. It has not recurred. Despite some fluctuations in the economy since then, the general trend has been one of rapid growth in GDP. Social indicators have improved. By 1979 life expectancy had risen to 64 years, according to a World Bank estimate. This was a vast improvement from the pre-1949 period. One estimate for life expectancy before the revolution was 35 years. China's life expectancy in 1979 was much better than India's figure of 52 years in the same year.

The assertions made on ABC TV that China went backwards under Mao is just not supported by the evidence. The best way to look at things is via per capita GDP adjusted for inflation. Due to fluctuating currencies and varying exchange rates I have looked at GDP in both Chinese Yuan (CYN) and US dollars (USD) from 1952 to 2002 (See Appendix 1). The reason the year 1952 was chosen as the starting point, although the Communist government of China was declared in Beijing in October 1949, is that effective control over the whole country was not achieved until late 1952. There was also the Korean war in which China was involved that ran from June 1950 to July 1953.

Appendix 2 shows the cumulative increase in China's GDP in ten-year blocks.

Appendix 3 shows USD GDP comparisons between China and India, as two comparable nations, effective from 1962 as data on India prior to this time is difficult to source.

Looking at the USD figures in Appendix 1, we find that in 1952 China’s GDP was $30.55 billion, while in 1976 (the year of Mao's death) it was $153.94 billion. During that period per capita GDP tripled from $54 to $165. So, despite propaganda and revision of history by the ABC and the BBC, the reality is that China under Mao achieved significant growth in GDP.

On some six visits that I made to China from 2002 to 2019 the evidence of infrastructure from the Mao period was still apparent in rail lines, walk up five story apartment buildings and (most significantly) the Nanjing bridge.

There were fluctuations. This is not surprising in an agricultural society where climate has a major influence. Even in Australia, agricultural production fluctuates markedly from year to year. For example, Australia's wheat production in 2020 was down 38% on 2012.

When we look at GDP per capita from 1952 to 1959, when the major adverse weather events started, by all measures China’s GDP growth was healthy. If we take the ten-year block from 1952 to 1962 (a period which includes the famine) the per capita GDP growth was still 31.48% in inflation adjusted USD terms. Then in the next ten year block, GDP growth per capita was 85.92%. By comparison India’s per capita GDP from 1962 to 1972 in USD was 37.43%.

After 1978, when Deng commenced the opening up of the economy, things started to really accelerate. One however cannot ignore the fact that US president Richard Nixon's decision to lift trade and economic sanctions on China in the early 1970’s also contributed to the country's improved economic growth.

In the ten-year block from 1972 to 1982 China’s per capita GDP growth was 113.63% compared to India’s 122.76%, so in this period (which included the death of Mao and the early stages of Deng's reforms), India outperformed China. Then in the 1982 to 1992 period Chinese per capita GDP grew 50% compared to India’s 15.69%. India’s growth in that decade was lower than China in its famine period. China also had its slowest growth for over twenty years in this decade. So this period, while one of opening up and reform, was not one of spectacular economic transformation.

Then in the 1992-2002 period China’s per capita GDP grew by 171.39% as compared to India at 48.58%. During this period many transnational corporations shifted much of their production to China. This certainly boosted China's GDP, but it also involved the ruthless exploitation of Chinese workers.


In war truth is the first victim. What we have observed on the ABC in a recent series of programs on China is pure propaganda not worthy of our national broadcaster. Some SBS and BBC presentations over the last few months have been little better. The GDP evidence shows that while development was at times erratic there is little doubt the Chinese economic miracle has deep roots going way back to the time of Mao.