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The obvious obstacles to forming a resistance include the need to act in secret and the difficulty of obtaining weapons. A resistance also needs leaders, but since they emerged triumphant from civil war in 1949 the Communists had waged continual campaigns against real or imagined political opponents. A 1950-1951 campaign led to the arrest of 2.6 million people, of whom 712,000 got executed. Another anti-rightist campaign in 1956-57 purged 600,000 intellectuals. The Party thus eliminated most potential opposition leaders and punctured the will to resist throughout society.
To ensure the success of the Great Leap Forward, the Party made yet another attempt to stomp out any pockets of opposition. Every level of government was assigned arrest quotas to fill. Anhui Province’s 1958 arrest quota was 45,000. Over-achieving, the province rounded up 101,000. One in every three died in custody. Officials carried prepared forms so that if you disobeyed or griped or anything, they filled in the blanks and you were convicted on the spot.
It’s hard to decide which is more frightening — that an individual such as Mao or a Central Committee can generate so much oppression from the top of society, or that ordinary people are so readily sucked in.
As Yang points out, the promised communist-utopian "dictatorship of the proletariat" was ultimately being implemented by an emperor — for that was in effect the post Mao had acceded to. Since Mao alone held the Mandate of Heaven, then anyone who thought different from him at any given time was very liable to be a deviationist. Once Mao’s own view became known, there were always countless zealots ready to join in the mass psychosis of rooting out the enemies of Heaven.
Yang Jisheng, tho without over-emphasis, points a finger at the Chinese people for their long compliance with this monarchical system, which, true enough, had four thousand years of institutional development behind it.
Mao’s despotism was exacerbated by the Party’s control of communications. Every newspaper in the country conveyed the same story. Every school taught the Party line. Artistic and literary works sang the Chairman’s praises. Everybody rattled off the same political jargon and slogans.
“In trying to control the ears and eyes of the ordinary people, the supreme ruler ends up blocking his own ears and eyes,” says Yang. Altho Beijing is not very distant from the major famine zones, Mao and the Central Committee seem to have been as walled off from the reality on the ground as any emperor and his mandarins in the Forbidden City ever were. Buoyed by false news of stupendous crop yields in 1958 — news that confirmed the wisdom of his policies — Mao remained unconvinced by the reports of famine that arrived thereafter. Even after he did retreat on some policies and allowed practical-minded men to put matters right, within a few years his personal resentment took the form of a new and even more fanatical crackdown on right deviation: the notorious Cultural Revolution.
Altho the Chinese Communist Party since Mao’s death has thoroughly compromised its founding ideology, and in so doing has enabled China’s world-beating economic growth, China remains a one-party state. It’s no surprise that Yang wants it to be a democracy. “A system without a corrective mechanism is the most dangerous of all systems, and democracy is the best of all corrective mechanisms,” Yang writes. “Bad leaders in a good system can cause damage, but it’s easier to discover and correct, and the bad leaders will be ousted from power.”
This is the place to raise the fears we’ve been hearing for some time that democracy is on the wane in the West — for lack of voter participation, for example. Let’s hope that tales such as that of China’s Great Mao-made Famine help us focus on improving our own so-called democracies.