In a recent visit to Beijing earlier this year, my business partner decided to conduct a poll with every Chinese we met along the way. The question is a rather difficult one to answer: How would you rate Mao on a scale of 1 to 10 baking in everything he has done over the cause of his life?
The answer of this crude poll was a tight range from 6 to 8. The answers generally started with the perspective that Mao did a lot of great things in his early years (advancing the rights of women, promoting modernization of industrial production, etc.), followed by some mistakes.
The interpretation of his mistakes fell under several camps. 1) That Mao was so far up on top, he had no idea about what was happening at the ground level. In other words, he had no way of knowing the turmoil that his decisions/commands had caused; hence, we cannot hold him responsible; 2) A few sacrificed for the benefit of the whole. Yes, tens of millions died, but the country as a whole attained stability and progress and emerged stronger than before; or 3) We got to analyze him in the historical context. China had been invaded and controlled by foreigners for decades, including the Qing occupation, civil war, korean war, WWII and the Japanese invasion. Mao unified the country and that was what the peasants wanted at the time.
One comment is universal – it is a complicated matter. How should one judge a leader who has done a lot of good things but made one or two huge mistakes? Should we judge Mao’s legacy based on the aggregate result? Or, were the damages and turmoil caused in his later years simply unforgivable?