On September 9, Celebrate This Event — Because China Can't

Things in China are so bad that they can't even celebrate one of the best days in their history: September 9, 1976, the day Mao Zedong died.

Mao was — and still is — loved by many in China for uniting the country and ending a "Century of Humiliation" that involved occupation by imperial powers and a relentless civil war. Unfortunately, Mao proved to be just as deadly to innocent Chinese citizens as war and colonialism. Maybe even more deadly.

Standing out in particular was Mao's disastrous "Great Leap Forward," a five-year-plan (beginning in 1958) to industrialize China's economy. Far from being a success, it brought together some of the worst flaws of government economic intervention and wound up killing anywhere from 10 million to perhaps 50 million Chinese.

Surprisingly, we hear very little about this tragedy (say, compared to the Holocaust), and many people know almost nothing about it. So, what happened?

Part of the failure of the Great Leap Forward comes down to the usual problems of communist economic practice. Mao got rid of family farms and forced peasants onto collectives, a practice that stifles productivity and ingenuity. But three further mistakes made the Great Leap Forward an utter catastrophe.

First, Mao got it into his head that the high-quality steel needed to build railways, factories, etc., could be made by peasants in small, backyard furnaces. This was nonsense, as it requires both a knowledge of metallurgy and high heat that can only be achieved by using coal. Under Mao, peasants cut down trees and burned furniture to melt down farm tools, cooking implements, and even doorknobs only to create low-quality, useless pig iron.

Second, Mao wrecked China's farming sector. He knew that having so many peasants making steel would result in a shortage of labor for growing food, so he introduced new agricultural techniques to boost output. But the "innovations" he imposed were untested. Many of them were bogus methods advocated by Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet "scientist" who shunned rigorous empirical experiments. The result was a drop in grain production.

Third — and perhaps worst and most typical of communist rule — Mao invoked a culture of fear where anyone who failed or questioned him or the Chinese Communist Party risked being arrested, tortured, or killed (or all three). At many stages of planning for the Great Leap Forward, people who knew enough to say that Mao's steel-making and agricultural policies would flop instead stayed quiet. Worse, local communist bureaucrats, eager to cover up the crop failures in their district, lied and reported huge increases in crop yields. And upper-level party leaders, eager to believe they'd proved the superiority of communism over capitalism, accepted the figures as accurate. Thinking they had a massive surplus, they sold "surplus" Chinese grain to other countries.

In reality, that grain was desperately needed to feed the Chinese population. A massive famine ensued, made worse by bad weather, and millions died. Mao and the other communist leaders were reluctant to admit their failure, further exacerbating the problem.

Mao lost influence after the Great Leap Forward, but staged a comeback in 1966 after swimming across the Yangtze River. Soon after this, he incited the Cultural Revolution, in which hundreds of thousands (or even millions) more were killed.

Mao's brutality only came to an end with his death on September 9, 1976. Almost 40 years later, it is still dangerous for people in China to criticize Mao, whose portrait is displayed at Tiananmen Square (the site of the 1989 massacre of student protesters). The Chinese Communist Party still resorts to brutality against those it deems to be dissidents (even among its own party members). And Bo Xilai, the former member of the ruling Politburo who is now on trial, came to prominence using many of Mao's tactics.

While I don't normally celebrate people's death, I'll make an exception for somebody who is responsible for the deaths of so many millions of innocents. Particularly when those lucky enough to have survived Mao's brutality are unable to celebrate his death for themselves.