Most people (including many who call themselves socialists) have a very deceptive impression of Mao Zedong. They tend to rely on bourgeois myths and fictions as their only sources of information about him, and they thus lack a proper understanding of his immense achievements (which are ignored), as well as his flaws (which are exaggerated and mischaracterized).
Because Mao’s ideology continues to be the driving force behind the most active and revolutionary sector of the international communist movement (as demonstrated by the Naxalites in India, the NPA in the Philippines, and many others), it is important that we have a correct understanding of Maoist policies, and the immense gains they made for the Chinese people.
General Overview of Living Standards
Our primary source in this section will be an in-depth study conducted by Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, and fellow of Trinity College at Cambridge University. Sen was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work comparing living standards in the People’s Republic of China (particularly during the Maoist period) to those in India:
The results of the study can be summarized by the following remark, in which Sen discusses China’s decidedly superior achievements, and attributes them directly to the socialist ideology of the Maoist period:
Because of its radical commitment to the elimination of poverty and to improving living conditions - a commitment in which Maoist as well as Marxist ideas and ideals played an important part - China did achieve many things that the Indian leadership failed to press for and pursue with any vigor. The elimination of widespread hunger, illiteracy, and ill health falls solidly in this category. When state action operates in the right direction, the results can be quite remarkable, as is illustrated by the social achievements of the pre-reform [Maoist] period.
Another important comment summarizing the findings of the study is as follows:
We argue, in particular, that the accomplishments relating to education, healthcare, land reforms, and social change in the pre-reform [Maoist] period made significantly positive contributions to the achievements of the post-reform period. This is so not only in terms of their role in sustained high life expectancy and related achievements, but also in providing firm support for economic expansion based on market reforms.
Sen states here that the Maoist period saw enormous increases in quality of life for the Chinese people, as well as important economic developments, without which the economic expansion following the 1979 market reforms most likely could not have taken place.
Sen notes that during the Maoist period, a “remarkable reduction in chronic undernourishment took place,” attributing this to the socialist policies implemented by Mao’s government:
The casual processes through which the reduction of undernourishment was achieved involved extensive state action including redistributive policies, nutritional support, and of course health care (since undernourishment is frequently caused by parasitic diseases and other illnesses).
Sen focuses more attention on the remarkable advances in healthcare during the Maoist period:
China’s achievements in the field of health during the pre-reform period include a dramatic reduction of infant and child mortality and a remarkable expansion of longevity.
It is also noted that China’s life expectancy approximately doubled during the Maoist period, from approx. 35 years in 1949, to 68 years in 1981 (when Dengist reforms began to take effect). This is further elaborated on in the next source.
On the issue of education, Sen notes that the huge improvements (including dramatic increases in literacy) can be attributed primary to the pre-reform Maoist period:
China’s breakthrough in the field of elementary education had already taken place before the process of economic reform was initiated at the end of the seventies. Census data indicate, for instance, that literacy rates in 1982 for the 15-19 age group were already as high as 96 percent for males and 85 percent for females.
Let us examine the issue of public health in more detail.
Further Research on Public Health and Life Expectancy
Another excellent source on public health in Maoist China comes from the journal Population Studies, in a study conducted by researchers from Stanford University and the National Bureau for Economic Research:
One important comment is as follows
China’s growth in life expectancy at birth from 35–40 years in 1949 to 65.5 years in 1980 is among the most rapid sustained increases in documented global history.
This alone goes to show the massive benefits attained by the socialist policies under Mao Zedong. More important information is provided in the study, dealing with hospital and medical resources:
Physician and hospital supply grew dramatically under Mao due to a variety of factors (including increases in government financing, the introduction of social insurance for urban public employees, and the launch of China’s Rural Cooperative Medical System in the mid-1950’s). Rural Cooperative Medical Schemes (CMS) were vigorously promoted and became widespread in the late 1960’s as part of the Cultural Revolution.
The study confirms Sen’s analysis of education:
China made large strides in primary and secondary education under Mao.
It also quotes other research which found that the rapid gains in Chinese healthcare can be attributed to the specific socialist policies implemented:
China’s mortality decline between 1953 and 1957, which resembles that of the US between 1900 and 1930, was “primarily due to the unique social organisation of Chinese public health practices.”
Note that China achieved in four years what the United States took thirty years to accomplish, due to their differing systems (i.e. socialism vs. capitalism). The study also confirms the immense success of Maoist vaccination programs:
Systematic efforts to vaccinate the population against polio, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever, and cholera were rapid and reputedly successful (China nearly eradicated smallpox within the span of only three years, with the last documented cases occurring in Tibet and Yunnan in 1960).
Additional citations for the claims in the above quotes are provided in the original study.
Analysis of the Great Chinese Famine - Comparison to Capitalist India
In analyzing this topic, we may look to another work by Amartya Sen, his book Hunger and Public Action, written with John Dreze:
Sen and Dreze point out that, while the Chinese famine was devastating, it pales in comparison to the ordinary mortality rates which occur under capitalism in an otherwise comparable nation like India:
…it is important to note that despite the gigantic size of excess mortality in the Chinese famine, the extra mortality in India from regular deprivation in normal times vastly overshadows the former. Comparing India’s death rate of 12 per thousand with China’s of 7 per thousand, and applying that difference to the Indian population of 781 million in 1986, we get an estimate of excess normal mortality in India of 3.9 million per year. This implies that every eight years or so more people die in India because of its higher regular death rate than died in China in the gigantic famine of 1958 – 61. India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame.
This comes out to more than 100 million excess deaths in India alone from 1947 (when India become independent) to 1980. As Paul Heideman put it, writing in Jacobin:
In other words, though India experienced no concentrated period of starvation which can be easily identified and hung around the neck of a particular ideology, its ordinary conditions for the latter half of the twentieth century, in which an extraordinarily unequal distribution of land obtained, created an excess mortality that, over the long term, dwarfed that of the worst famine of the century.
This demonstrates the effects that capitalism has on a developing nation. This is all the more shocking when compared to the immense gains made in the People’s Republic of China, described in the earlier sections of this discussion.
The People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong made enormous strides in living standards, dramatically bettering the lives of hundreds of millions of people. While the bourgeois establishment continues to misrepresent and distort the legacy of Mao Zedong, he remains an inspirational figure to the billions of people around the world who have benefited, either directly (via the improvements mentioned above) or indirectly (via his influence on global revolutionary movements), from his work.