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From Mao to Now: A Reevaluation

How did Mao’s legacy pave the way for Chinese nationalism and globalization?

August 28, 2008

How did Mao's legacy pave the way for Chinese nationalism and globalization?

Mao had a force and energy which none but men of equally great spiritual conviction could withstand. His animal appetites, we now know, matched his intellectual vigor.

Mao was an object of adulation to his subjects — and of mingled admiration and dread to his subordinates and intimates. While he lived, the brilliance of his personality illuminated the farthest corners of his country and inspired many would-be revolutionaries and romantics beyond it.

Few of his countrymen loved Chairman Mao’s style of governance. However, almost all loved the People’s Republic that he had founded — and did not hate him so much as they feared him.

Had Mao been less insistent on grand and impractical visions, his ideas would not have convulsed his country as desperately as they did — nor would they have been as thoroughly discredited.

Had Mao not driven his country mad with attempts at sudden, violent change, China would not, however, now be as devoted to domestic tranquility as it is. Nor would it have so easily accepted the international order it once rejected, but in which it now prospers.

Had Mao died earlier, his ideas might have lived on in the new China. He would certainly have been seen by history as a greater man.

As it is, Mao is likely to be remembered, unfondly, as a great military strategist and a good poet who was a colossal failure in the crafting of a sustainable order in the country he sought to liberate from its past as well as from its foreign and domestic oppressors.

If he had succeeded in his multiple attempts to eliminate Deng Xiaoping’s political influence, the world might still worry about the consequences of China’s backwardness and disgruntlement about the international status quo today.

Indeed, we now worry about its rapid advance as a leading participant in the quintessentially capitalist process of globalization. But Mao did not succeed in doing away with Deng, for which China and the world should be grateful.

Mao was very Chinese, but he aspired to a role in humanity, not just Chinese history and philosophy. Generations of soldiers yet unborn will read Mao’s thoughts on asymmetric warfare. Only academics and communist party ideologues will ponder his political philosophy — or the values it espouses.

Today, there are some in northeastern India and Nepal who invoke his name — as they struggle for political power and economic leveling in their societies. But they mainly read his military manuals, not his philosophical tracts.

There are also those in China for whom Mao remains a god, if now a blessedly undemanding middle-class god, whose effigy can be mounted on a dashboard or hung above an altar table to be venerated along with one’s ancestors.

The man’s charisma has transcended the man himself. In the end, however, Mao Zedong is no more a universal figure than the emperor he most resembles.

Qin Shihuang is remembered without reverence by the Chinese as the ruthless unifier of China whose violence and oppressions paved the way for the peaceful and tolerant order, and the wealth and power of the Han Dynasty.

The First Emperor thus created the vessel in which a Chinese culture vastly different than the one that he had conceived could take China to greatness. Like Mao, he was the precursor, not the creator of that China.

Still, some of his vision for China was realized in its continued unity of culture and institutions and the awe that the state he had created inspired among its neighbors.

Like Qin, Mao was a philosopher king whose philosophy died as his kingdom endured and found its own, very different way forward.

That “kingdom” — the People’s Republic of China — is Mao Zedong’s true monument. And it is one whose achievements are congruent with the goals of the broad pantheon of 20th century Chinese revolutionary and nationalist figures, not just Mao himself.

Despite the erratic and brutal nature of his reign, both his revolution and its predecessor nationalist revolution had in common four inextricably connected objectives: unification by eliminating warlords and foreign spheres of influence, regaining independence and deterring foreign invasion, establishing respect as a sovereign participant in international affairs — and restoring prosperity.

When Chairman Mao first proclaimed that China had “stood up,” this was what he had in mind. It galled him then, when he wished to stand tall, to have to “lean to one side” to do so. In the end, he could not sustain the posture. Thus, China’s dependence on the Soviet Union was soon set aside.

After a delay in which he experimented unsuccessfully with means of accelerating China’s economic development and used the Cultural Revolution to affirm the idiosyncratic nativism of his revolution, Mao sought to lean on a suddenly respectful United States to regain China’s international balance.

Mao insisted on keeping China’s distance from the United States — as he had not from the Soviet Union. He guarded China’s status as an equal and independent actor, standing apart from the sphere of influence that Americans — with shameless inaccuracy — called the “free world.”

While he was pragmatic in his actual approach, he insisted on a framework for relations with the United States that would realize the objective of a unified China.

Deng Xiaoping embraced this objective, like the other nationalist visions that had animated Mao. But his pragmatism led him both to reject Mao’s preferred methods and to risk a degree of intimacy with the United States that Mao would never have contemplated. Deng adopted peaceful reunification as a national objective.

Deng used the cover of improved relations with the United States to force Vietnam to abandon its efforts to build a Soviet-style empire in Indochina. He extended vital assistance to the U.S.-led effort to contain the Soviet Union, as one example, enlisting China as a full partner in the Saudi-financed, American and Pakistani-managed struggle to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan.

But most different of all, Deng boldly initiated an across-the-board exposure of Chinese to American ways. His motive was precisely to overthrow the legacy of Maoism — and to replace it with a fundamentally changed socioeconomic order in China.

In the late summer of 1981, Deng Xiaoping remarked that when the history of the 20th century was written, Mao’s revolution would be described as the prelude to the real Chinese revolution, which Deng himself had initiated in December 1978.

But Deng made it clear that his was a revolution in methodology — not a change in national objectives. His opening of China, of course, was a defining event in the last fourth of the 20th century, not just for China but for a world in which it now plays an increasingly decisive role.

The greatest threat to China’s future global leadership is neither the deficiencies of its political system nor the risk of American resistance to its rise. It is the danger Mao cautioned against — domineering self-righteousness and overconfidence born of success, translated into hegemonism.

China’s neighbors share Mao’s apprehensions that its return to wealth and power might inspire hegemonic behavior and are watching closely for signs of this. As recent U.S. interaction with the outside world has convincingly demonstrated, a little bit of such behavior can alienate a lot of people very quickly.

Meanwhile, only the unobservant can fail to notice a rising measure of cocky self-assertiveness in today’s China. The American example attests that a country that “zi yiwei shi” — is “so full of itself that it has all the answers” — is one that many will wish ill and few will wish to follow.

If China’s current, remarkably deft policy of deferential politeness to foreigners is succeeded by arrogance, it will be because of China’s extraordinary success in advancing the objectives of Chinese nationalism — including, finally, the achievement of levels of wealth that restore China to its historic status as the global economic center of gravity. China has long strived to restore its unity, sovereign dignity, domestic tranquility and wealth.

These efforts, conducted unsuccessfully under Chairman Mao’s erratic baton, are attaining success under the steadier direction of his more pragmatic, but equally nationalist successors. Now, China is not just transforming itself, it is transforming the world. Chairman Mao would have liked that — though he would have hated how it came about and despised how it is proceeding.


Generations of soldiers will read Mao's thoughts on asymmetric warfare. Only academics and ideologues will ponder his political philosophy.

Mao insisted on keeping China's distance from the United States and a framework for relations that would realize the objective of a unified China.

Deng boldly initiated an across-the-board exposure of Chinese to American ways. His motive was precisely to overthrow the legacy of Maoism.

Deng Xiaoping remarked that Mao's revolution would be described as the prelude to the real Chinese revolution, which Deng himself had initiated.

Now, China is not just transforming itself, it is transforming the world. Chairman Mao would have liked that.