Mao, 4GW, and Judgement

Jung Chang’s massive book on Mao – “Mao” – hasn’t been released in the States yet, but was on the shelves when I was in the UK last week (yes, I’m back…great trip, highlighted by dinner with Norm Geras, a productive business week, and a rocking dinner at a restaurant called “Loch Fyne” which in my view ought to be called “Loch Mighty-Damned-Fyne” but more on that later).

I’m about halfway through the book, having read through my cramped flight to LA on Virgin Economy yesterday, and wanted to note some initial thoughts.

Jung Chang lived through the Cultural Revolution, and so has cause not to like Mao much. But she really dislikes him, and her overt bitterness and rage – deserved as it may be – undermines the inherent strength of her argument. The book is full of rhetorical digs at Mao; the facts alone suffice.

If you were a leftist in the West in the late 20th Century, the book will rock your world more than a little bit; its basic premise is simple:

The story of Mao rising to power with the support of peasants who saw Communism as their path to a brighter future, and his success based on his wiliness as a guerilla leader is a lie. Mao was a brutal exploiter of peasants, whose explicit use of terror and brutality match the Islamists we oppose so strongly. He won China, not because of his skills as a military leader, or even because of the power of his guerilla (4GW) methodology, but because of the incredible level of resources the Soviet Union put at his disposal, and because he managed to control the information flow outward to the Soviets and the West – using internal control derived from fear and brutality.
He was a brutal tyrant, and nothing more.

I’ll post some longer things on the book as I get time (and if there’s interest), but two interesting points have been running through my head as I’ve been reading.

First, what does this do to Hammes’ arguments in “The Sling And The Stone“?

Hammes argued, if you’ll recall, that it is the power of Mao’s formulations:

Phase I: The insurgents concentrate primarily on building political strength. Military action is limited to selected, politically motivated assassinations. Any other military action must have a propaganda purpose to cement the population’s support of the insurgents.

Phase II: The insurgents gain strength and consolidate control of base areas. They begin to actively administer some portions of the contested area. And, because Mao had no outside sponsor supplying weapons [an assertion contradicted by Chang – Ed.], they conducted military operations both to capture arms and to wear down government forces.

Phase III: The insurgents commit regular forces (which have been carefully husbanded up to this point) in a final offensive against the government. This phase can only succeed if the “correlation of forces” has been shifted to the insurgents during the early phases.

that drives the power of 4GW. Does it make any difference if Phase I is in fact based on brutalizing the population into supporting the insurgents? And if Phase II can only work if a powerful sponsor is maintaining a flow of cash and materiel (as China did in Vietnam)?

I don’t know, and I want to think hard about this (which means: I want you to think hard about it and help me develop my ideas).

Second, and here’s one that will get me into serious trouble, but I have to ask anyway. Mao was unquestionably evil. There were, in almost every case, less-brutal, equally effective alternatives to the routes he took.

But – and here’s the but – what would China today be like if the Nationalists has won? Would they have created a supersized version of Taiwan (good outcome) or simply have been equally tyrannical and oligarchic? And if you think China is better off today – stronger, more prosperous, no less free – than it would have been under Nationalist tyranny (note that their status in Taiwan as a client state of the US leads me to guess that they were more liberal than they would have otherwise been), do you change your judgement of Mao?

18 thoughts on “Mao, 4GW, and Judgement”

  1. “Would they have created a supersized version of Taiwan (good outcome) or simply have been equally tyrannical and oligarchic?”

    Tyrannical and oligarchic? You mean like Taiwan was up to about ten years ago? Or you mean like the Nationalists were before the Communists took over?

    The Nationalists were not nice people. I would have rather they won than the Communists, but don’t kid yourselves: they were plenty nasty themselves. (Though without the massive social engineering mandate, thankfully.) There was a reason that there wasn’t a lot of popular support for them during the civil war.

  2. Compare/contrast South Korea and Taiwan with China and North Korea. One group has total control of all aspects of personal life and society, the other moved from rigid political control with some space for personal freedoms to political and economic liberalization.

    South Korea and Taiwan have moved to rapidly grow all economic and regional sectors, South Korea is the most wired nation on earth. China outside of the coastal regions remains mired in horrific rural poverty and deprivation. Outside the Coastal regions personal control over all aspects of life is a given inside China.

    The Nationalists were a better fit for China since they would not have stifled personal life and would have led to a more Taiwan or South Korean outcome. China would look more like France and less like Weimar Germany.

  3. Consider, too, what “equally tyrannical” means next to guy who piled up 60-100 million skulls by most estimates.

    Generalissimo “Cash My Check” and his wife were never in that league. In a _worst_ case scenario, China would have been run the way it has been run for the last decade. And the progress of China under post-Mao liberation alone is prima facie proof that even under that kind of leadership, China would now be far, far ahead of its present position had Mao lost.

    His victory was a complete diaster for the peoples of China, Korea, and Tibet. And the Left cheered him on every step of the way.

  4. The KMT were pretty brutal. Even considering their regime in mainland China and their brutal, and often bloody, policies in Taiwan I can’t imagine they would have engaged in anything remotely comparable to the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. So, “yes,” China would have been better off with the KMT.

  5. Irrationality when confronted with a mass murdered is to be expected. The killing of tens of millions tends to make a rational person irrational. Also, in WWII the U.S. gave the Nationalists mountains of supplies to be used against the Japanese. Generalissimo Chiang chose to let the Americans fight the Japanese and to save the supplies for what he knew would be the fight for China. Warlord thugs against Communists tyrants. Some choice. The U.S. did not lose China because it never had it.

  6. Sean: The Nationalists were not nice people … There was a reason that there wasn’t a lot of popular support for them during the civil war.

    But as Mao and others have proved, you don’t need popular support to win, and brutality really works.

    What doesn’t work, though, is an army where the officers steal the payroll so the troops get nothing. Those same officers had a tendency to sell their weapons and supplies to warlords and communists, and Chiang was not a strong enough person to do anything about it.

    One thing the Nationalists did do, though, was put up something of a fight against the Japanese. Mao deliberately avoided combat, in order to preserve his forces to overthrow the KMT.

  7. Glen:
    To follow up on your point: Mao was quite forthright when he stated that his power was assured by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 37. The Nationalists committed their nbest troops and lost many of them.
    Mao’s attitude is quite interesting because every communist party/insurgency sat out the initial invasion. The French communists actually subverted the war effort and after the defeat; they sat on the sidelines until the Soviet union ws invaded and then theFrench communist participated.

    To get back to Mao, I’m pretty sure that if he,d been killed or Chaing had been less merciful, China would’ve been better off; yet I wonder if China would’ve become a less centralized country sort of halfway between the warlord period some kind of federalism?


  8. My wife (a born in Taiwan ex-KMT now US citizen) would disagree in some important ways.

    She believes that Mao’s great achievement was taking out most of the warlords and unifying the country. She sees that as very important. That said its long past time for the communist party (the party of thieves and corruption) to either die of old age or vaporize. Its a contradictory view but one that has its sense.

    Taiwan is currently in deep political trouble too. The current president is so corrupt people don’t want to be seen with him. The KMT is split into 3 parties and woos the communists while buying southern china.

    Its the old – may you live in interesting times curse.

  9. I don’t really have anything meaningful to say; I just wanted to say thanks for posting this. I think the origin of the techniques being used by Zarqawi and co. is one of the big neglected stories of the time.

  10. Does it make any difference if Phase I is in fact based on brutalizing the population into supporting the insurgents?

    It definitely does matter, and definitely doesn’t.

    Yes, if one is trying to understand history with the aid of a moral compass. This is one of A.L.’s abiding interests, it seems.

    No, it doesn’t matter at all if we are examining the world as-it-is. Why ever would it make a difference–the past and present are full of movements, visions, parties, volk, nomenclatura, a seemingly-unending stream of them, drenched in the blood of real and imagined opponents. Most of us, most of the time, shug and get on with our lives. Perhaps some show a slight reluctance to model those stylin’ ‘Che’ tee shirts.

    Look at the tidal wave of reckoning for 25+ years of Baathist torture and murder in Iraq. Look how the bien-pensants carefully weigh the sins of the Coalition and their allies against the actual transgressions of the past, and the likely ones that would have transpired. Then look around the region, then to Africa, Asia, a bit into the past of the remaining continents. More Phase I brutalizing than not.

    On comparing the CCP with the KMT, historian Paul Johnson made an analogous point regarding Russia, in Modern Times IIRC. He presented evidence that late Czarist Russia was evolving towards bourgeois, parliamentary, capitalist liberalism when the state was hijacked by the Bolsheviks. The great strides made by the CPSU in modernizing the country, he argues, were the delayed dividends of progressive actions taken in the last years of Czarist rule.

  11. There is a book called “What if?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been” edited by Robert Cowley that has essays on alternative histories. Near the end is an essay by someone about a battle in Manchuria that the Nationalists could have won that would have left Mao and the Communists with Manchuria and the Nationalists with the rest of China. I don’t have my copy available to give the actual author. The author wondered what the Cold War would have looked like with a poor Manchuria in the Communist camp and a Nationalist China neutral or aligned with the West.

  12. I would argue that ruthlessness such as that demonstrated by Mao is part and parcel with 4GW. It doesn’t work without a brutal, amoral view that places victory above all other concerns. And because opponents can rarely match that level of amorality, it is hard to counter. When people KNOW they will die if they aid one side, they are more likely to base their decisions on fear than popularity.

  13. Not to hit a sore point but – oh, hell, let’s. You marched against the Vietnam War, A.L., yet the Viet Cong (and after Tet, the NVA because the VC were decimated) used pretty much the same tactics in their efforts. Did any of that slow down their lionizaton in America? One iota? The massive boat people exodus caused a few important rethinks – but not many. How many friends do you know who either don’t know, don’t care, or just can’t process even that obvious data point?

    I submit that the tactics used would matter a great deal, IF THE ISSUE WAS ABOUT THE ENEMY OR THE GEOPOLITICAL OBJECTIVE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

    That these things seem to have so little effect is simply one more symptom of the fact that these kinds of tactics succeed precisely because Mao, Ho, Zarqawi et. al. are not the issue for many people.

    An extension of what David Aronovitch in the Guardian calls “the language of grievance,”:,,22369-1699136,00.html and what others might call self-hatred, is. The foreign war is just a proxy to work out those feelings and demonstrate the evil of our society, and minor issues like the actual situation on the ground or nature of our enemies will not be allowed to intrude.

    Your “abusive parent” analogy still remains one of the best explanatory frames for this subject – remove that mindset by addressing it as objectively wrong (morally and factually) and an enabler of evil, and the nature of the debate changes.

    We should have done that, strongly, after the Cold War. This war, and the collaboration of the same usual suspects with a very different enemy, is forcing us to face the fact that we’ll have to have that reckoning.

    Once we do, be it sudden or slo-mo, things will change. If we don’t, then as Rome discovered the clock begins ticking. The question then becomes not whether the barbarians take over, but when and who.

  14. 3dc has an excellent point; CKS tried to coopt the warlords and be basically the “first warlord”, while Mao would temporarily coopt them and then backstab them and destroy them when he had a chance (a strategy with a long pedigree in Chinese history).

    CKS got rid of some of the warlords with his Northern Expedition and clearly wanted to do the same thing as Mao, but the war with Japan kicked off just at the wrong time, so he had to make peace with them and greatly weakened his own position in order to try to make a united front. He further weakened his position by trying to fight the Communists when the other warlords wanted to fight the Japanese – which culminated in his brief kidnapping and imprisonment near Xi’an, where he finally agreed to a united front with the Communists against the Japanese.

    Had CKS beaten the Communists after WWII, he likely would have tried to run the table against the other warlords to cement his hold on the country. The tricky issue there would be that Stalin would also be playing the warlord game, so there may have been “other Maos” that Stalin would have anointed.

  15. Joe: An extension of what David Aronovitch in the Guardian calls the language of grievance, and what others might call self-hatred, is.

    Interesting that the “Grievance” is purposefully ambiguous and amorphous, so that it “fits” anywhere – it fits in Fallujah and London, and is coming very soon to Toronto and Los Angeles.

    The left has definitely found a fit for Islamist grievance – it must be due to Bush, Blair, and Iraq. These are the things that agrieve them. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that a jihadist would be equally angry at Afghanistan – it’s hard to imagine a reasonable terrorist saying “The US shouldn’t have invaded Iraq without a UN resolution, but I guess I can kind of see their point about Afghanistan. We were getting out of control there.”

    Mao understood the language of grievance very well. He was a master at manipulating the age-old xenophobia that has always robbed China of its place in the world.

  16. What I love about this book are the purported anecdotes that will paint Mao as lazy, expoitative, and whorish– not just the cruel beast we already knew him to be.

  17. Manchuria was the part of China with all the factories. The Korean war would have been fought in China and likely be lost as Navy power is almost useless in China.

    About the first phase in a 4GW war. It is not important to be loved but to be less hated that the enemy. If you are a foreign power it is very easy to be really hated and as such a 4GW war is really hard to be won by the foreign power.

    The fact that the Iraqi insurgency is, for this type of war, very civil makes it extremly difficult to win. Add to that the Americans and their reputation of being nasty evil hicks who like shooting and stealing and it is impossible.

    ps. For those who wonder how i can claim that they are civil? Imagine how bad it usual is in this kind of war. Or if you want to sleep tonight, don’t.

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