What’s really behind the sudden belligerence of the Chinese Communist Party? Why is it so intent on picking fights with countries that are neither a threat to it nor wish to be? Why would a country so dependent upon overseas markets for its cheap consumer goods seek to alienate many millions of customers and force those markets to look elsewhere for supplies? Similarly, why would it alienate nations that are its principal suppliers of essential raw materials, and force them to look for new markets? And why would it want to destroy economies in which it has a very substantial capital investment? What might explain this seemingly self-destructive change in behaviour?
One explanation is that the CCP genuinely believes America is now a ‘paper tiger’, that China is now in pole position to become Global Hegemon, and that it can finally throw its weight around. In Australia’s case, it may be that we are being made an example to test both our national resolve and that of the West more generally. Clearly, the CCP believes it now has us tightly in its grip, and that its control of much of the Left, especially in Daniel Andrews’ Victoria, as well as the allegiance owed to it by most of Australia’s academic elite (buttressed by 13 Confucius Centres), along with its many agents of influence in the corporate world, the media, and key bureaucracies, means that we’re impotent to resist its demands and will ultimately do as we are told.
However, this article suggests an alternative or additional explanation: that this bellicose shift reflects not some new found confidence in the historic destiny of the CCP as Global Hegemon, but quite the opposite – that it may in fact reflect the growing re-emergence of a long-standing intrinsic weakness in the Chinese regime, one that’s been there from the outset and that might soon become apparent.
The simple fact: China is ruled as a personal dictatorship by President Xi Jinping, supported by his inner circle, relying on the de facto control of the country enjoyed by the CCP, exploiting the absence of an effective constitution. Combined with the fluidity of power and authority in the highest levels of governance, the endless manoeuvrings of various elites and claimants to power, the demands of the 90 million-strong CCP membership, and the approaching succession crisis (Xi is 67), this ramshackle arrangement ensures that endemic power struggles within the CCP might easily and quickly engulf the regime. Indeed, this may already be happening. Historically, such events led to the greatest disaster in modern Chinese history.
This was China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR). This provides essential insights into the fundamental and ineradicable weaknesses of totalitarian states like China – where megalomania and succession ambitions, combined with chronic constitutional weaknesses, lead to power struggles, political adventurism, and in the case of the GPCR, absolute disaster.
The GPCR was initiated by CCP Chairman Mao Zedong in an attempt to re-assert his control over the Party and the global Communist movement. However, it snowballed at incredible speed into an avalanche of mass demonstrations, hysteria, paranoia, vicious torture, and mindless violence that cut a swathe through the CCP, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the state bureaucracy, the education system, and the administration of every level of government. It tore families, villages and communities apart; called forth innumerable atrocities (including cannibalism); invoked betrayals and false accusations at every level of Chinese society; destroyed much of the cultural heritage of one of the oldest and grandest civilizations in all human history; killed some 20 million people; wrecked the economy; and cost many trillions of dollars.
The origins of this catastrophe lay in Mao’s rage at the rejection of various ideological stances he had taken, and the failure of key initiatives he had commissioned. Ideologically, he had appalled even the international communist movement by his insistence in a Moscow speech in 1957 upon the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution that a nuclear war could be won by the Communist Bloc, even if it led to the deaths of half the population of the world: “Half dies, half lives — but imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist”. He insisted nuclear Armageddon would be an acceptable price to pay for a global communist victory. Other communist leaders, especially those from the vastly smaller states in the highly exposed region of Eastern Europe, were left aghast, as this meant they would be wiped out. Soviet Premier Khrushchev, who Mao was seeking to undermine, considered him a megalomaniac. Even Mao sensed he was seen as a blowhard or dangerous lunatic.
In practical terms, by far the most cataclysmic of his initiatives was the Great Leap Forward (1958-62). The objective was to massively increase agricultural productivity, tax revenue, and foreign trade, in order to finance an accelerated program of industrialization. This program was inspired by the notion of small collectivist communes that had fascinated the Left since the Paris experiment, except that the Chinese version was undertaken on an absolutely gigantic scale. In the first year alone, and under draconian pressure, some 25,000 communes with an average of 5,000 households each were established. These were then given impossibly demanding production targets, leading to fraud and starvation on a huge scale.
There were many other absurd initiatives. For example, villages were instructed to establish their own small-scale steel smelters in an attempt to ‘decentralize’ industrialization. Burning any fuel they could find (often denuding forest lands and using furniture and even coffins) these furnaces were used to melt down every sort of metal that the villagers could lay their hands on, from iron ore to kitchen utensils, tools, chairs, bicycles, and even farming equipment. The intended end products were steel ingots or girders, but the result was very low quality pig iron that was worth far less than the ingredients that had gone into its production.
Nobody was game to bring these problems to the attention of Mao or his inner circle, as such news would be treated as ‘counter-revolutionary defeatism’ or ‘right-wing deviationism’, either of which would entail imprisonment or execution. Consequently, by the time moderates in the CCP were able to gain some control over the situation, some 18 to 45 million people had perished in the largest man-made famine in history.
Mao found himself somewhat sidelined after this appalling debacle so he decided to re-establish himself as an international figure. His various initiatives included a futile attempt to have the CCP displace the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as the leader of the world Communist movement, implementing his theory that revolution would begin in the Third World periphery under CCP leadership and then advance into the core nations of the global economy for the final apocalyptic showdown with capitalist imperialism.
Mao’s most egregious failure in this foreign policy area was his promotion of revolution in Indonesia. The communist party there, the PKI, was the biggest in the world outside the Communist Bloc itself, with some three million members. Anxious to prove his theory of global revolution correct, Mao urged the PKI leadership to stage a coup, eliminating the Indonesian army’s top brass, seizing control of the military, and delivering total control into the hands of pro-Peking President Sukarno. Unfortunately for the PKI, one general, Suharto, was left off the list of targets. He waited until all the other generals were arrested or murdered, took control of the army, and then unleashed a massacre of the entire PKI leadership and much of its rank-and-file, eventually leaving around 500,000 dead (some estimates put the death toll as high as 2 million) in one of the biggest mass murders of the 20th century.
Out of touch with reality, Mao denounced the PKI for not “fighting it out”, ignoring the fact that “the slaughter unleashed by Suharto was so ferocious, and so instantaneous, that it had been impossible for the PKI to fight back”, and that it involved a level of violence that even Mao had never experienced. As biographers Jung Chang and Jon Hallidayobserve in Mao: The Unknown Story, “Mao was to blame, as he had started the action for his own self-centred reasons. He couldn’t wait to have a victory after his pipedream of Afro-Asian leadership collapsed.” Consequently, “by the end of 1965, Mao’s global schemes had suffered one setback after another. [Therefore] in a dark and vehement state of mind, he turned to deal with his foes inside China.”
On the domestic front, the Cultural Revolution Mao unleashed was a civilizational catastrophe that Mao explicitly intended to be “the greatest revolutionary transformation of society, unprecedented in the history of mankind”. (Instead, it was the greatest ‘democide’ (large-scale mass murder) in recorded history.) It was to be a direct attack on all educational, political, cultural and social institutions. These entities had begun to exercise a level of competence and autonomy that Mao saw as eroding his personal grip on absolute power. The cannon-fodder in this civil war were to be the young people of China, especially the increasingly frustrated masses in the universities and urban centres. As an example for them to follow, Mao invoked the apocalyptic Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) that killed some 20-30 million Chinese, and caused the forced internal emigration of another 30 million: “Like the foot-soldiers of such earlier mass movements as the Taiping, the ‘little devils’ of youth, as Mao called them, were recruited” to form the shock troops for this blitzkrieg on the fundamental structures of Chinese society. (Jonathon Fenby, China: the Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2008)
In the vanguard was Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, a frustrated ex-actress of doubtful reputation from Shanghai, and a fanatical leftist who was desperate to seize control of the cultural sphere and suppress all unapproved aspects of cultural activity throughout the country. Consequently, writers, artists, and independent thinkers were denounced by Mao as mud that sticks to the shoes of the Revolution, and were targeted from the outset. “Artistic works were subjected to Jiang Qing’s edicts, which reduced output to political correctness devoid of originality. Everything had to celebrate the revolution. Conformity killed creativity”. Consequently, only 124 novels were published during the decade of the GPCR in a country of 700-800 million people.
In higher education, the GPCR began with a ‘big-character’ wall poster put up in Beijing University in summer 1966, targeting the head of the university, and accusing him of failing to implement the orders of Chairman Mao. “Eliminate all demons and monsters, all counter-revolutionary revisionists, and carry the socialist revolution through to the end!” the poster declared. Word spread quickly amongst the student body that an opportunity had arisen – mandated by the highest office – to attack all authority figures and institutions that represented the grim grey world of their everyday lives. Paradoxically, this campaign was to be carried out in the name of the very communist ideal that had delivered the alienated young into the clutches of this totalitarian drabness. Thousands more denunciatory posters went up and students flocked in their hundreds of thousands to read them. A cultural and political holocaust unprecedented in history now began.
Taking a lead from Mao, the CCP decreed the suspension of school classes, releasing nearly 120 million students to join the campaign. In Shanghai alone, almost 3 million young people were quickly mobilized, generating 88,000 posters. A female student suicided from the strain of producing 20 posters a day through the early stages of the campaign. A group of middle-school students then came up with the name for their movement and soon the ‘Red Guards’ were running amok throughout the cities. Quickly, millions were pouring into Beijing and other major cities from the provinces, disrupting the rail system for months, while also spreading a meningitis outbreak that infected 3 million people and killed 160,000. Meanwhile, the younger academics and teachers flocked to join the revolution and get ‘on the correct side of history’, before they found themselves subject to ‘correction’ by their former students. As in the Sixties in the West, the elimination of senior academic colleagues opened up career pathways for the opportunist young.
This is not the place to detail the ubiquitous atrocities that then ensued and stretched on for years in the name of re-education, struggle, and self-criticism, but some mild indication must be provided of the extreme behaviour of Mao’s Red Guards. For example, the standard punishment for authority figures (‘the Blacks’) was to tear their clothes to pieces, parade them wearing dunces hats with self-denunciatory posters on their chests, then require them to knee for hours, leaning forward with their faces down, and their arms drawn back in an ‘airplane’ posture, after which they were routinely beaten with clubs and fists and kicked into unconsciousness, only to be roused with freezing water to be assaulted all over again.
Female victims were routinely sexually assaulted and raped. Innumerable other vile crimes were committed against millions of fellow Chinese in the name of ‘Mao Zedong Thought’. Soon, “a red terror spread over the campuses as the black gang trembled with fear and shook with fright”, as one poster gleefully recounted.
Mao was delighted. As he wrote to Jiang Qing, he looked to create “great disorder under the heavens”, as “great chaos will lead to great order”. He forbade any attempts by the authorities to restrain the students: “all restrictions must be smashed to pieces … we must not restrict the masses”. In December 1966 Mao declared “all-round civil war” against the status quo. Obediently, the Minister for Public Safety decreed that “bad persons are bad, so if they are beaten to death it is no big deal”. Jiang was given centre-stage at rallies that attracted 10 million people: “Her eyes shone and popped out as she exulted in the adulation of the biggest audiences any actor could hope for, her name emblazoned on the banners below the platform” (China: the Fall and Rise of a Great Power). Meanwhile, her agents ransacked the police files in Shanghai, finding and destroying all evidence of her suspect past, when it was widely rumoured she had consorted with the hated Nationalists
Pursuing her vendettas in the cultural sphere, Jiang demanded that two married opera stars stop performing and contemplate their ‘errors’. Subsequently, their home was ransacked and looted, and they were made to clean the toilets of the school where they taught. Continually tormented and driven to despair, the wife hanged herself. Even the author of the national anthem was denounced, tortured and left to die in prison. One elderly social historian was subjected to a prolonged ‘struggle’ session in which he was so badly beaten his blood-soaked clothes had to be cut off him when he finally reached his home. Facing more of the same he committed suicide. There were innumerable similar tragic tales.
Predictably after recent experience, many street names were regarded as suspect and changed to more suitable names like ‘Anti-Revisionism Road’ (by the hated Soviet embassy), while Hong Kong was tentatively renamed ‘Expel the Imperialists City’. In Shanghai the facades of colonial era buildings were stripped of all crests, carvings, and relief sculptures. In solidarity, Mao gave up the English lessons he had begun in 1963.
The Guards were a law unto themselves and pursued vendettas and campaigns against a vast number of people, whether ‘guilty’ or not. Murders and massacres became commonplace, as did suicides. All ‘Western clothing’ and hairstyles were condemned, while students drew up a list of one hundred instructions on how to “destroy the old and establish the new”. These included banning “the bastards of the bourgeoisie” from using restaurants and public laundries and requiring them to “collect their own faeces and deposit them with the night-soil collector carts themselves”. Magic shows, wrestling, card games, home shoe repairs (!) and the purchase of snacks were to be prohibited while “the family system shall be destroyed”. Children were routinely invited to denounce their parents: one Red Guard used her own blood to write a note to her imprisoned father declaring: “You must repay the blood of the Chinese people”. In the provinces, the reign of terror was particularly intense: a governor in Manchuria had his hair torn out for daring to wear it in a manner that resembled Mao’s. Churches and Buddhist temples were ransacked and the monks forced to hold up banners declaring: “To Hell with the scriptures: they are full of dog farts”.
Anything ‘old’ was fair game. In Beijing nearly 5000 out of some 7000 locations designated as places of historical interest were trashed (below). Elsewhere, at the birthplace of Confucius, the Red Guards destroyed over 6600 registered artefacts, including 2700 books and 2000 graves. Looters carried off 65 tons of gold from homes around the country, along with huge quantities of cash, silver, antiques, jewellery artworks, rare books and other valuables. Much of this was stolen to order for the CCP hierarchy: Mao himself received many rare books, which were sterilized and placed in his personal library.
As the years rolled by, the campaign reached into the highest levels of the CCP and government administration. The long-time chief of the PLA was denounced as a ‘black commander’ and an ‘old swine’; the CCP chief in Beijing was the subject of 53 denunciations; an ex-army chief of staff had to be carried into his ‘struggle’ sessions after his legs were mangled in a suicide attempt; meanwhile, the first secretary of the CCP in Beijing killed himself and Mao denounced his funeral, attended by 500,000 people, as revisionist: “using the dead to oppress the living”.
Even the Head of State was consumed in the fury. President Liu Shaoqi had long been the third-most powerful figure in the regime and Mao’s designated successor, but he nevertheless fell out of favour with Mao in the early 1960s and was targeted from then onwards. Liu was vilified and persecuted by the red Guards and labelled the “commander of China’s bourgeoisie headquarters”, China’s foremost ‘capitalist-roader’, and a traitor to the Revolution. He died in 1969 after years of torment and then months of harsh treatment and torture. His wife (who Jiang Qing hated) and their children were also persecuted and imprisoned.
A similar fate befell Lin Biao, an esteemed general who was prominent in creating Mao’s personality cult and formed a political alliance with Jiang Qing. He was made Vice Chairman of the CCP and was another of Mao’s designated successors. However, he too fell from favour and decided to stage a pre-emptive coup. This was disclosed and he died when the aircraft in which he was trying to escape crashed in Mongolia.
Many other high officials died or were imprisoned or banished during the GPCR as an increasingly demented and paranoid Mao thrashed about, eliminating everyone he felt be a threat. Ultimately, it only ended with his death in September 1976, which also signalled the end of the reign of the ‘Gang of Four’ led by Jiang Qing. This junta had sized effective control during Mao’s last years and became widely hated. Their immediate downfall after Mao’s death provoked major celebrations. Later, the Gang of Four (below) along with Lin Biao, were condemned as the primary ‘counter-revolutionary forces’ and made the (deserving) scapegoats for the appalling excesses of the GPCR.
All this happened only a half century ago in a country that now wants to treat Australia as a vassal state, beholden to the CCP, and dependent upon its economic largesse. It already has a major political and economic beach head in Victoria, relying on a supine Socialist Left government with historically deep-seated Maoist loyalties. And it has the allegiance of most of Australia’s academic elite, along with many prominent corporate, political, governmental, and cultural figures – all of whom act as eager agents of influence.
However, the CCP exhibits the worst characteristics of totalitarianism and represents the very antithesis of any form of civilization. Despite appearances, nothing much has changed in its system of governance since Mao, as Xi’s grip on power emphasizes. At its best, it is still just a gigantic kleptocracy, exploiting the Chinese masses and looting their country for personal gain; at its worst it is a monster of destruction, as revealed by the history of the GPCR recounted above. Australia cannot succumb to its pressures, however aggressive these may continue to be. Winston Churchill once spoke of the deep darkness that would engulf the world if the totalitarianism of his day was triumphant in its diabolical schemes. We face a similar challenge and must display the same resolve.