Philosophy Football have often gone with the quirky; producing T-shirts emblazoned with comments from famous philosophers and thinkers about the noble past-time of association football. They have now uncovered a 1917 article by Mao Zedong on the need to encourage physical fitness .
It is actually an interesting article, where Mao criticises the prevailing Chinese student culture of anaemic academicism; and stresses the need for physcal education as well as mental health, not only for personal development; but also in order to recover a martial capability for the Chinese nation to throw off the yoke of foreign domination.
It is impossible to overstress the degree to which the Chinese Communist Party’s victory over the forces of imperialism, colonialism and warlordism, and to reunite the nation was a progressive achievement. It was the precondition for all the social and economic progress which has subsequently been made.
Political critics often assume that liberal parliamentary democracy was a viable alternative to the form of government established by the Chinese Communist Party. This is not true: parliamentary democracy requires a culture of respect for the rule of law, and economic and social stablity. These were not the conditions in China, emerging out of a nightmare of grinding poverty, illiteracy, and disease; the dismemberment of the nation by colonialism and warlordism; and they faced alternative military and political force of the Goumindang, with its powerful foreign support.
Mao has become an increasingly controversial figure, partly due to the character assassination and appalling misrepresentation in the trashy “Mao, the Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, A book which has been regarded as a disastrous set-back for serious scholarship about China’s history by academic specialists, but which has been lapped up and popularised by journalists and shallow columnists.
Mobo Gao’s 2008 work “The Battle for China’s Past, Mao and the Cultural revolution” contains a scholarly demolition of Jung and Halliday’s book. You can read a PDF of the whole introduction to Mobo’s book here. I would strongly recommend you buy the book.
A dispassionate yardstick to evaluate Mao’s achievements is provided in Amartya Sen’s brilliant book, “Development as Freedom”, where the Nobel Prize winning economist compares China’s progress favourably to India’s, especially in the areas of land reform, expansion of literacy, public health and spreading of higher education. Under Mao’s rule there was an enormous accumulation of social capital in China, which provided the foundations for the economic lift off following the reforms of the Deng era. Overall the period of Mao’s rule was much more successful than the equivalent period in India, with a much greater improvement in life expectancy, and reduction in inequality. It also empowered tens of millions of people towards political participation, when the Chinese pattern of politics as the preserve of a privileged elite was overturned during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
Sen makes the remarkable observation that African American men in the USA today have a lower life expectancy than impoverished Chinese peasants; and indeed African American women today have a life expectancy no longer than women in Kerala province in India. So some of Western criticism of China reveals a blindness to failings of the West’s ability to provide health, security and safety for its own population.
Nevertheless, the famine of 1958-1961 was a national catastrophe, where poor harvests due to natural causes were compounded by a disastrous voluntarism of the Communist Party who continued with economic reforms of the Great Leap Forward, regardless of evidence that it was failing disastrously; and due to informational errors whereby the government genuinely believed there was 100 million more tonnes of grain than there really was.
Following the famine, that perhaps killed 30 million people, many of which deaths would have been avoidable by more appropriate and earlier government response, Mao made a speech in 1962 to 7000 cadres:
Without democracy, you have no understanding of what is happening down below; the situation will be unclear, you will be unable to collect sufficient opinions from all sides; there can be no communication between top and bottom; top-level organs of leadership will depend upon one-sided and incorrect material to decide issues, thus you will find it difficult to avoid being subjectivist; it will be impossible to achieve unity of understanding and unity of action, and impossible to achieve true centralism.
The Leninist model of party organisation had simply failed to allow effective government in a period of crisis, where instead of an ideological prescription from the party about how it should behave, a pragmatic approach had been required. The ruling cadres and administrators simply did not have the skills and experience to implement famine prevention measures, and did not pass back the information to central government. This was a systemic failure based upon weaknesses of the political system.
Nevertheless, it is a travesty to paint Mao as a monster like Hitler, which is what Jung and Halliday do. Mao’s government failed to deal effectively with a famine, but they did not do so deliberately, and even with the famine taken into account, overall life expectancy and standards of living rose dramatically during the period of Mao’s rule. Mao never carried out a campaign of mass terror like Joseph Stalin. Of course Amartya Sen’s point is well made that had the Communist Party faced elections, and had the failings been exposed in a free press, then it is hard to imagine that the government mistakes would have been persisted with; but the Communist Party at the time were still facing an international campiagn of destabilisation, there was still internal opposition from the dispossessd landlord class, and they had only recently survived a major war with the USA in the Korean peninsula; it is not remarkable for a government in such circumstances to hold the reins of power tightly.
Mao was a great leader of the Chinese nation: he brought order where there had been chaos; he expelled the Japanese; he forged a national government; developed the economy; overcame illiteracy, and spread basic public health and education throughout the land.
He also understood the importance of sport for healthy, happy lives.
buy the T-shirt from Philosophy Football here