Shaking Hands with Chairman Mao

Four Biographical Approaches to Maoism

In the town of Haiyan on China’s Zhejiang coast, at the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution a man returned from Beijing weeping tears of joy. He had, he said, shaken the hand of Mao Zedong. The man catapulted into the ranks of “local hero.” In the year that followed, the man did not once wash that right hand, and everyone in town who knew him made a point of shaking it. As Yu Hua, chronicler this hand saga, writes, the townspeople would tell their neighbors ecstatically, “I shook the hand that Chairman Mao has shaken.”[1]

As Yu grew up and exchanged stories about the Cultural Revolution with friends from across China’s vast swathe, he would often mention this man and his grimy hand. Curiously, many of these friends would also know of similar men with similar hands from their own home districts. Yu began to suspect that his man, and all the others, had simply made it up—that he had seen Mao in “the far , far distance as he stood on the Gate of Heavenly Peace and waved his hand in greeting. He dimly saw Mao’s hand and imagined himself shaking it—and when everyone in our town became convinced this had happened, he became convinced of it, too.”[2]

Yu’s autobiographical collection of essays, China in Ten Words, stays standing far, far away from Mao Zedong. It is a much different vantage point than that of three other histories of modern China as they, too, attempt to make sense of Maoism, but by joining Mao as he shakes hands with cadres, leaders, and revolutionaries. Maoism: A Global History, Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, and Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth Century World each takes a different biographical approach to Maoism. Can standing with Mao reveal its soul?

Julia Lovell’s Maoism traces Maoist ideology from the past to the present, from China to the world. Her Maoism is a global phenomenon, but it begins, of course, with Mao. “What is Maoism?” Lovell asks in her opening chapter. To answer, she combines Mao’s most famous sayings from the emblematic “Little Red Book,” Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, with biographical anecdotes about Mao’s personality and philosophizing. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” explains the lesson Mao drew from the massacres of Chinese communists by Guomindang rival Chiang Kai-Shek in 1927.[3] It also explains Mao’s personal “attachment” to “normalized” political violence, which endeared Mao to “aspiring insurgents from California to Kolkata [who] worshipped him as the military colossus of the revolution.”[4]

In China, those insurgents would come from the countryside. “Several hundred million peasants … will rise like a fierce wind or tempest, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great will be able to suppress it … Revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao wrote.[5] This encapsulates Maoism’s break with orthodox Marxist theory and justified the cruelty of his mass campaigns and political purges. Read alongside Mao’s own peasant habits and stylings, described by Lovell in cherished detail, Maoism becomes a “rural religion” led by a peasant philosopher king who reveled in violence and terror.[6] “Women hold up half the sky,” meanwhile, demonstrates Mao’s practical nature rather than any truly held egalitarian idealism.[7] Mao deployed the rhetoric of gender equality to gain a mass following even as he mistreated his own wives and “[indulged] his taste for pretty young women,” proof of his mendacity.[8]

Lovell has other examples, but the thrust of each is that by combining Maoist aphorisms with biographical details—and especially prurient personal details—we can grasp Maoism in all its contradictions, “one of [Mao’s] own very favorite subjects.”[9] “To rebel is justified,” is quintessential Maoism, after all, and it expresses for Lovell the lifelong inspiration Mao found in the Monkey King of the classic novel Journey to the West. Mao shared his beloved Sun Wukong’s “havoc-wreaking instincts,”[10] and Mao’s fiction-reading habits, then, help explain the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution, the near destruction of the Chinese Communist Party, the Sino-Soviet split, comfort with nuclear Armageddon, and the export of Maoist lunacy to the rest of the world.[11] “Mao … defined chaotic inconsistency as dynamism,” Lovell writes. “Capriciousness is the final element that propelled Mao’s ideas across the world … inspiring insurgents the world over with his theory of ‘continuous revolution’ against authority.”[12]

The results of such an approach to Maoism—resting on the intersections Mao’s most contradictory philosophizing and his most oddball or distasteful personal qualities—are a focus on chaos, cruelty, and disaster in all that Mao touched. By standing with Mao atop Tiananmen or sitting with him at diplomatic summits in this way, Cold War history becomes one giant Maoist plot. Lovell watches Mao the Monkey King launch China into war against the Americans on the Korean Peninsula “as the self-proclaimed leader of the Asian revolution.”[13] She watches his “bid for leadership in the decolonizing world”[14] at Geneva and Bandung, inviting American antipathy by turning the world into a game of communism dominos by showing “what kind of threat to US interests Mao’s China would be.”[15] Lovell’s Mao renders even the United States passive.

The Soviets are not dealt with much differently. After Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin in 1956 and announcing “peaceful coexistence” with capitalist countries, Lovell follows Mao the peasant rebel to Moscow’s hotel rooms where we learn that “Mao was the sworn enemy of Russian food and toilets …  But it was above ideology that pushed these two powers apart,” not least because “Mao was addicted to … aspects of the Stalinist project” and thus considered Khrushchev “a bureaucrat turning his back on revolution through armed struggle.”[16] In response, Mao “did his utmost to generate conflict with both the USSR and the US”[17] by “deliberately manufacturing global quarrels in a way that was explicitly designed to challenge ‘peaceful coexistence’ and to style himself the world supremo of revolutionary troublemaking.”[18] Meanwhile the CCP enshrined and what Lovell terms “high Maoism” into its governance: mass politics and political struggle over all else. Mao’s love of chaos hurled China into the starvation and revolutionary madness in the 1960s. “Mao’s invisible hand” reached into Malaysia, into Indonesia, into Africa, Vietnam, and Cambodia, stirring up violence and anarchy there, too, to push forward continuous, global revolution. Local people themselves had little choice in the matter, nor did local conditions mean much in Lovell’s reading. It was Mao who invited mass murder in Indonesia, Mao who brought ultra-violent land reform to Vietnam and prolonged war with the Americans, and Mao who ensured the overthrow of Cambodia’s government accorded with the rise of the Khmer Rouge, Maoism perfected.[19] The goal, Lovell implies, was to take Cultural Revolution global, to make of the world a killing field.

Mao died with this revolution incomplete, but Maoism lives on in Peru, India, Nepal, and even in today’s China.[20] Although Lovell is quick to point out that “Mao-ish” China today is as much of a contradiction as s Mao himself, she finds hints of the Cultural Revolution’s Red Guard “sense of privilege and entitlement” in “the deep corruption of second-generation revolutionaries” and in China’s violent intolerance toward minorities and continued oppression of women.[21] See glimpses Mao in Deng Xiaoping’s brutal repression of the 1989 protests,[22] and in Xi Jinping’s “Maoist” personality cult and other methods for political control.[23] And the Monkey King’s capriciousness lives on in what she terms the CCP’s “adaptive, ‘guerrilla-style’ mode of policy making.”[24] Maoism, Lovell writes, will be with us for some time.

On that point, Sulmaan Khan may not disagree, even if his Haunted by Chaos contradicts many of Lovell’s central claims. Although Khan, like Lovell, stands with Mao at the Tiananmen gate, squats with him in the Yan’ an caves, and sits with him in the Party compound at Zhongnanhai, Khan’s Mao is no Sun Wukong bent on “continuous revolution.” Of Lovell’s selected aphorisms, “Practice is the sole criterion of truth,”[25] matters most. Khan’s approach to Maoism reveals a careful grand strategy aimed at putting a fractured China back together and keeping it safe. Maoism as strategy, not ideology.

Where Lovell only sees Mao act on the world, Khan sees the wide world around Mao as he grows from librarian to rebel to head of state—how geography, history, and hostility molded and constrained. Mao came of age, Khan emphasizes, in a world where China had been torn to pieces: Great China, Mao observed in 1920, was form, not reality. To be made whole, it would first have to be “smashed” and rebuilt as “many small China’s.”[26] Mao’s own small China was born in Jiangxi with the stitching together of his beloved soviet. It was nearly snuffed out as it fled with him on the Long March. It grew in the north during the civil war to encompass Beijing and then all of China. But it was always tenuous. Mao had seen Great China destroyed before.[27]

Along the way, Mao enfolded the peasantry into his update to Marxism, not out of some ideological drive, but because it made sense. “Win the peasants of China, wage the war that that victory allowed you, and you could create and defend a state,” Khan writes. “Those basic insights lay at the heart of the state Mao founded in 1931 … To be strong militarily, an insurgent army must be strong on politics; it needs friendly terrain and friendly people to wage guerrilla war with any success.”[28] Born of experience in Hunan, Mao knew that without mass support, his small China could not survive. Where Lovell’s Mao relishes in the violence of land reform, Khan’s Mao wields land reform as a calibrated tool with which to keep the peasants on his side. During the wars against Japan and the Guomindang, Mao told his compatriots:

“…that land reform should be carried out in areas to the enemy’s rear or where the enemy was being pursued, because seizing the great landlords’ property was the key to rousing the masses, which was what was needed for a people’s war. But the policy was to apply only to those great landlords who were traitors. And because the will of the people mattered, it followed that absent their agreement, there was no need to rush to seize property from middle-class traitors … Creating chaos would only help the enemy and isolate the CCP. ‘To the extent possible,’ as Mao put it, killing should be avoided. It was not that he was averse to killing; rather, killing unnecessarily would alienate the populace and undermine the larger goal of winning the civil war and securing the new state. When people carped that the economy had become capitalist, Mao fired back that it was not; it was a ‘new democratic economy.’”[29]

            Ideology, Kahn writes, was flexible—mere philosophizing, where words could mean whatever one wanted. Statecraft, on the other hand, required dealing with “more prosaic questions.”[30] This pragmatism, Khan argues, did not harden into the kind of dogmatic, one-size-fits-all approach suggested by Lovell, and so Khan reads Mao’s engagement with the world much differently. Rather than decades of troublemaking and meddling, the 1950s and 1960s are years of successful realpolitik. Geography and security, rather than ideology, drove Maoist foreign policy. Standing with Mao, Khan sees a weak China surrounded—and populated—by potential enemies, hemmed in at sea, and threatened from all directions.

Maoism grew out of this strategic insecurity, not just revolutionary fervor.[31] Insecurity drove Mao to fling millions of exhausted soldiers into Korea. It was too dangerous to allow the Americans to set up on China’s northeastern border and form an arc of aggression sweeping down to Taiwan and into Southeast Asia, where an array of US and Guomindang covert operations nipped at China’s underbelly. Lovell dismisses these concerns as “paranoia – brought on perhaps by too much reading about ‘man eating demons artfully disguised as kindly old people, beautiful young women, and adorable children’ in Journey to the West.”[32] But Mao believed in them (and they did exist, Khan emphasizes), and so China’s leadership at the Geneva Conference aimed to exorcise at least a few of those demons. “The whole, often unrecognized, point of Zhou’s efforts at Geneva had been to bring an end to the first Indochina war and, in doing so, to eliminate any excuse for a foreign military presence in China’s near abroad. Geneva was about so much more than getting recognition as a diplomatic player; it was China’s attempt to secure its backdoor,” Khan writes.[33] Strategy, not revolution.

Neither was the opening of the split with the Soviets ideological. “Khrushchev had, without warning, attacked one of communism’s holy saints, a saint who had been used to sanctify communism in China. If Stalin could be criticized today, Mao could be criticized tomorrow. The speech threatened the new order he had worked so hard to create.”[34] As the years progressed, Mao became convinced that a revisionist “Moscow was willing to barter away PRC national security.”[35] China had to secure its own interests by seeking friends in Tanzania, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere, and to tip regional balances of power in places Indochina in its favor. This is not some “invisible hand,” as Lovell would have it, but old-fashioned diplomacy. And even as the split between China and the Soviets widened, Mao never stopped trying to find common ground, Khan argues. Khan’s Maoism, after all, is strategic pragmatism, and all-out antagonism is not good strategy.

That is not to say that Mao did not make mistakes. The shelling of Jinmen Island in 1958 may, in Khan’s view, have been meant to bring the Americans around to talks—not provoke them, as Lovell suggests—but it was still a strategic miscalculation that made life more difficult for China. The Great Leap Forward, formulated on Mao’s understanding that industrialization was key to security, resulted in mass death because Mao simply didn’t understand economics.[36] As for the maddest years of the Cultural Revolution when “Maoists popped up around the globe,”[37] Khan’s strategic view dims; he has no explanation for those years. “Mao Zedong had no idea of what he wanted: he was an old, confused man, who in his arrogance and confusion had unleashed forces that could not easily be stoppered again,” Khan writes.[38] But by the end of the 1960s, Mao’s foreign policy, at least, had regained its pragmatist footing, preparing the way for the rebalancing of global power with the American rapprochement and a return to diplomatic normalcy with China’s friends around the world. By the time Mao died in 1976, he had cemented together the many small China’s of his youth, and he had held it together. China had was more secure than it had been in more than a century.[39]

If there is a Maoist imprint on China, then, it is Mao’s enduring strategic vision: a pragmatic but imperfect politics that prioritizes geopolitical security through balance-of-power tactics and a hardnosed assessment of the conditions both outside China and within. Maoism from Mao’s death onward has meant containing chaos, not exporting it. This is a much different vision than the “guerilla-style,” land of contradictions posited by Lovell. Since Mao, each of China’s rulers have seen “China as a brittle entity, in a world that was fundamentally dangerous. Their main task was to protect it. … Of all the great powers, China is perhaps the one that has seen the fewest changes in its basic philosophy of international relations between the Cold War and post–Cold War eras. For China, in a way, the Cold War never really ended.”[40] For Khan, as with Lovell, Maoism remains with us.

But does it? Rebecca Karl’s Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth Century is the most traditionally biographical of these histories. Karl, too, walks with Mao and stands with Mao. But rather than treating Mao as the ideological cipher through which to understand global Maoism or identifying Mao as the architect of the PRC’s grand strategy, Karl attempts to re-root Mao in his time and place. It “takes Mao Zedong and his era—in Chinese and in global terms—seriously.”[41] For Karl, Maoism died with Mao.

Karl stands at Mao’s birth in the family house in the Hunan’s Shaoshan village in December of 1893, as China is beginning to break into all of Mao’s “small China’s.” She follows him through his peasant upbringing, his education, and his radicalization amid the student movements of 1919 and the 1920s. Karl reaches further back in history than either Lovell or Khan, which allows us to see a growing and changing Mao—not just the Chairman—and to experience a changing and chaotic China through fresher eyes. We are with Mao in his earliest attempts at organizing among spontaneous peasant uprisings in the 1920 and awakens to the potential of a revolutionary peasantry. By 1927, Mao’s “Report of an Investigation of the Hunan Peasant Movement” lays out tenets of Maoism: peasant violence against landlords and the state is not “terrible” but necessary for “the establishment of a new democratic order,” because a revolution, after all, is “not a dinner party .. it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle … a revolution is an act of violence whereby one class overthrows the power of the other.”[42]

This is, however, not violence for violence sake. It is necessary, Mao writes, because the Chinese peasant was subjected to the domination of not only the state, but also of the clan and of superstition. The Chinese woman was further dominated by masculinity. These “four thick ropes” embodied the feudal-patriarchal system that crippled the Chinese people of Mao’s era; to unleash them from oppression, those ropes must be ripped apart, he believed.[43] The CCP must unite with the peasants or be left behind. Here was Mao the nobody, studying a specific intersection of history and society, and formulating the basis of his Marxist revisionism from down low, rather than from on high. The people lead, and the bureaucrats follow.

 Karl takes Mao’s time-bound theorizing more seriously than his philosophizing. Mao Zedong Thought, formed in the 1930s by Mao’s experiences organizing and fighting among the peasants, was “a simultaneous interpretation of Chinese history and China’s present through Marxist categories and the interpretation of Marxist categories through the specific historical situation in China,” Karl writes.[44] Mass revolutionary consciousness and mass activity formed the nucleus of Maoism. “There is no concept of politics in Maoism divorced from mass politics … [it] cannot be abstracted from everyday life, engaged in only by distant elites.”[45] Only the masses could drive forward the global revolution against imperialism and fascist-capitalism, first by liberating the Chinese nation from its semi-colonized state, then by creating a new nation and a new culture.[46] “This new culture would be guided by a new type of Marxism, which drew simultaneously from general Marxist theory and also from the particularly Chinese historical conditions of its creation. This new culture would produce a new China.”[47]

This belief in the revolutionary potential of the masses led to the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward, the split with the Soviets, and a Maoist war on the CCP itself. By the early 1960s, Mao targeted bureaucracy, sclerotic and revisionist, as the primary enemy of the masses and “new China.” The Moscow bureaucrats had long been Mao’s antagonists, and one advantage of Karl’s longer viewpoint is her cataloguing of the decades of deception and betrayals, small and large, by Stalin’s Soviet Union.[48] The rupture of the late 1950s was nothing new nor Maoist troublemaking. It was a culmination of decades, freed from Stalin’s towering presence and sharped by Mao’s transnational attack on bureaucracy. To complete their revolution, the masses must be free of both Soviet and CCP interference. This frontal assault on bureaucracy was outlined most clearly in a 1957 speech where Mao pronounced that there was a contradiction between “the leadership and the led:”

“The implications were staggering … First, Mao implied, the Party was now … thoroughly divorced from the society it ruled. It was a force above rather than a force of the people. It had lost its claims to revolutionarionariness. Second Mao placed himself conspicuously outside the Party on the side of the people, from whence he and they could criticize the Party. This gave the impetus the Mao cult. Third … in proclaiming a contradiction between the leadership and the led, Mao seemed to be advocating popular struggle against the Party. He had transposed class struggle within society into a struggle between Party and society.”[49]

The rest of Mao’s life would be dominated by this struggle, Karl argues, as the belief in the energy of the masses dragged China into still-born revolution. When starvation stalked the land during Great Leap, Mao warned party leaders that if they tried to halt the communization, “I will go to the countryside and lead the peasants to overthrow the government.”[50] Although that crisis backfooted Mao, he would do just that in 1966, calling on the masses of the Cultural Revolution to “bombard the headquarters” in order to “restore to the people the revolutionary momentum seized from them by Party bureaucrats … cleansing the Party of these usurpers. If this meant destroying the Party to save it, he was prepared to do so.”[51]

Mao failed the masses. By as early as the end of 1967, the state apparatus was rebuilt, and the Party began its comeback. As Mao declared victory against bureaucracy in 1969, Karl writes, “it had already become clear that those who had engaged in it with passion and conviction that the promise of mass politics in command had been betrayed. The ‘victory’ turned out to be for the Party alone.[52] And that has been the story of China since: Victory for the Party. Unlike Khan, who sees in Deng Xiaoping’s reforms a clever reformulation of Maoist strategic thinking, Karl sees only repudiation. Deng may have couched reform Maoist terms, but they were “shorn of their political and revolutionary meaning.”[53] After Mao’s death, the Tiananmen massacre, and Deng’s southern tour “politics are monopolized by state and Party procedures, while economics and social development are monopolized by market-defined success.”[54] Whatever Lovell says, Maoism— born from Mao’s experiences, rooted in history, and expressed in a belief in the people to make a new culture and a new China—is dead.

Although there are overlaps in these three biographical portraits of Maoism, they are hard to reconcile. By approaching Maoism through Mao’s eminently exportable aphorisms and earthy, if abhorrent, personal conduct, Lovell grasps the appeal Maoism held for revolutionaries the world over. By steering the ship of state alongside the Great Helmsman, Khan peers through his eyes at a fragmented and dangerous world and a China aching to be made safe and whole. And by swimming among the tides of peasant revolution, Karl glimpses Mao’s vision for a new China, freed from the ropes of historical oppression. These are the fruits of these conflicting biographical approaches to Maoism.

But there are limitations, too. Lovell, in particular, stands too close to Mao, and in doing so loses context by granting her subject far too much power. Lovell’s vision is limited. Local conditions fade out, and important actors flit only in the peripheral. Mao acts, and the world is shaped. Lovell’s approach also leads to a kind of voyeurism, gaze locked on Mao’s petty tyrannies and shortcomings of character. It is perhaps a trap of tackling “isms” through biography, and it is one Lovell falls deeply into. Khan is on firmer ground, fastening his gaze, instead, on Mao’s strategic decisions—an appropriate and powerful lens in trying to understand the workings of the state Mao headed. Mao acts here, too, but his actions are constrained by the world he inhabits and by his limited role in it. Karl, too, emphasizes context, circumstances, and historical contingency, which keep Mao in her work from becoming a revolutionary caricature. Mao was a creature of his time, which is something both she and Khan remember.

But is each of these historians, like Yu Hua’s Maoist handshaker, simply imagining themselves standing next to Mao on Tiananmen? Can Maoism be understood by inhabiting the life and mind of its namesake? There is another vantage point to consider: that of the handshakers as they stood on the Tiananmen square, among the masses.

Yu’s China in Ten Words is not, ostensibly, about Maoism. It is, rather, an attempt to explain China today. It is a different kind of biographical approach, one of autobiographical vignettes, most of them from the Cultural Revolution. Mao himself is never present, but he looms large, nonetheless. For Yu, the history of the PRC is one of Mao’s ‘continuous revolution.’ The Great Leap Forward never ended, Yu writes, as we see in China’s “frenzy to construct airports, harbors, highways, and other such large-scale public works. … impractical, extravagant, and duplicate initiatives are common, and they are pursued as vigorously as a revolutionary campaign.”[55] The post-Deng developmental model, meanwhile, is not Karl’s rejection of Mao, but is “saturated with revolutionary violence of the Cultural Revolution type.” Local discontent boils up against the forces of bureaucracy as bulldozers crush neighborhoods and city police beat street hawkers and smash their modest livelihoods.[56] Yu’s lived China is more textured than Lovell, Khan, or Karl’s, full of both joy and tragedy, love and cruelty, revolutions and reform. And in that China, the main actors are the masses who, when one stands beside Mao and above them, merely blur into the background.

It is Yu’s biographical approach—not of Mao but of those, like himself, far, far away—that gives us the widest vista from which to make sense of Maoism. Yu watched warring Red Guard factions toss each other from roofs, and he listened to the school-age Maoist soldiery spins tales of their trains travels across China. Yu who wrote Big Character Posters denouncing his teachers, and he beamed after dreaming that Mao had tousled his hair. Maoism is where it belongs: with the people. Despite the tragicomedy of those eras, Yu senses “that Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Deng’s open-door reforms have given China’s grassroots two huge opportunities: the first to press for a redistribution of political power and the second to press for a redistribution of economic power.”[57] A people’s revolution, continuous after all.

Yu’s is a mass approach to Maoism. And it suggests that, perhaps, the best way to understand Maoism is in the biographies of China’s Maoists. To do otherwise, may be to risk imagining that we, too, are shaking hands with Chairman Mao.

[1] Yu Hua, “China in Ten Words” (Pantheon Books, New York: 2011), 30.
[2] Ibid, 30.
[3] Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History (Vintage Books, New York: 2019), 26-31.
[4] Ibid, 31.
[5] Ibid, 32.
[6] Ibid, 34.
[7] Ibid, 37-40.
[8] Ibid, 39.
[9] Ibid, 58.
[10] Ibid, 54.
[11] Ibid, 54-57
[12] Ibid, 58-59.
[13] Ibid, 109
[14] Ibid, 53.
[15] Ibid, 90.
[16] Ibid, 130-131.
[17] Ibid, 132.
[18] Ibid, 132.
[19] See Lovell, Chapter 5 about Indonesia and Chapter 7 for discussion of Vietnam and Cambodia.
[20] Lovell, Chapter 9 covers Peru’s Shining Path rebellion, Chapter 10, Maoist guerrilla’s in India, and Chapter 11 Maoism in contemporary Nepal.
[21] Ibid, 440.
[22] Ibid, 430.
[23] Ibid, 443-444.
[24] Ibid, 465.
[25] Ibid, 35.
[26] Sulmaan Khan, Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass: 2018), 8.
[27] Khan, Chapter 1 deals with Mao’s strategy before the founding of the PRC.
[28] Ibid, 11.
[29] Ibid, 25 and 32.
[30] Ibid, 26.
[31] Khan, Chapter 2 addresses the PRC’s strategy under Mao.
[32] Lovell, 55.
[33] Khan,70.
[34] Ibid, 67.
[35] Ibid, 113.
[36] Ibid, 110.
[37] Ibid, 112.
[38] Ibid,.
[39] Ibid, 125-126.
[40] Ibid, 3.
[41] Rebecca Karl, Mao Zedong and Twentieth-Century China: A Concise History (Duke University Press, Durham: 2010).
[42] Ibid, 31-32.
[43] Karl, 32.
[44] Karl, 53
[45] Karl, 58
[46] Karl, 61.
[47] Ibid, 61.
[48] And there were many, beginning with the Soviet support for the GMD and the unified front, forced upon the communists by Stalin, that set them up for the 1927 massacre. By as early as 1935, Mao was working to end the CCP’s dependence on Moscow and the Comintern.  
[49] Karl, 95.
[50] Ibid, 108.
[51] Ibid, 118.
[52] Ibid, 134.
[53] Ibid, 168.
[54] Karl, 181.
[55] Yu, 118.
[56] Ibid, 126.
[57] Ibid, 180.


Domestic Divisions: The strait is not the only dividing line in Taiwan’s politics

It is tempting, from the vantage point of the United States, to view Taiwanese politics solely through the lens of cross-strait relations with mainland China. The tension between the island polity and its much larger sibling to across the narrow ocean, is, after all, one of Asia’s critical inheritances from history—one that has enmeshed the United States in regional geopolitics. “Free China,” although not so free until the 1990s, served as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for American geostrategic positioning in its decades-long battle with global communism from the end of World War Two onward.[1] Although that political landscape has shifted ceaselessly following the rapprochement with Red China beginning in the 1970s, Taiwan has remained, with some fluctuation, a key ally of American policy makers and erstwhile Cold Warriors in the Pacific.[2] Taiwan remains a thorn in People’s Republic of China even as the Republic of China has evolved into an important and successful democratic partner for the United States and its allies.

But to grant overwhelming centrality to cross-strait relations is to slip into solipsism. Relations with the mainland—and thus with the United States—undoubtedly remain an important factor in Taiwan’s domestic politics, and the heft of the cross-strait relationship has a gravitational pull that affects many of the Taiwan’s internal political issues, especially economic ones. Still, in order to gain a full picture of Taiwanese politics and Taiwanese elections like the recent re-election of President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic People’s Party (DPP) over the more conservative and China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), it’s important to grapple with the other local issues at stake in Taiwan’s flourishing democracy and to understand just what drives Taiwan’s citizens when they turn up to the polls or out into the streets. While these issues interact with mainland and greater Pacific Asian international relations, at heart they are Taiwan’s own issues. And they will continue to play an outsized role in the future of Asia’s political geography.

Some of these issues are economic: Although Taiwan grew at more 3 percent through most of 2018,[3] its growth rate has since dropped, and Taiwanese remain dissatisfied in the face of aging population pressure and greater technological competition with mainland and other foreign companies, as well as with the quality-of-life consequences of recent attempts to improve domestic competitiveness.[4] Others are societal: Taiwanese have been divided by social issues, of which same-sex equality, indigenous rights, and a restart of Taiwan’s nuclear power program are salient and representative.[5] Although the probable death knell of any “one-country, two-systems” unification sounded by the mass protests in Hong Kong throughout 2019 played a major role in incumbent Tsai’s re-election earlier this year, as the impact of the repression in Hong Kong recedes, domestic issues will affect Taiwanese politics and thus ultimately Taiwan’s orientation toward the PRC.[6] In turn, they will reverberate across Pacific Asia to the shores of the United States.

Economic Issues

With its greater than 3 percent growth in the first quarter of 2018, it looked as if Taiwan may finally have begun to shake the slump that had dragged its economy into negative growth through 2016 and 2017.[7] That growth dropped back below 2 percent in 2019, but it is expected to remain at or above 3 percent for much of 2020, still a far cry from the 5-10 percent growth it experienced in the decades before the 2008 economic crisis.[8] Although better growth should ease some of the pressure on Taiwan’s leaders, dissatisfaction with Taiwan’s economic situation remains high. Two factors, one internal and one external, will continue to put downward pressure on Taiwan’s economy, namely increasing competition from mainland Chinese companies (some of them backed by Taiwanese money) and a rapidly aging population.

President Tsai, first elected in 2016, has attempted to diversify Taiwan’s international relations in order to reduce its reliance on Chinese connections for economic growth. To that end, her DPP has tried to tighten relations with the United States, but more significantly, Tsai’s government has worked to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties to South and Southeast Asia as part of her New Southbound Policy. That strategy has been accelerated because of the China-USA trade war that has put clamps on global supply chains targeted by American President Donald Trump’s tariffs.[9] The New Southbound Policy is more than merely supply-chain and trade diversification; it also aims to strengthen cultural ties with Asia’s southern region to boost tourism and academic exchange to add fuel to Taiwan’s domestic economy.[10]

These internationalist economic changes are taking place against a background of domestic financial crisis. Taiwan’s rapidly aging population means a burgeoning retired population and an extreme financial burden on Taiwan’s government, especially if Taiwan’s low economic growth cannot be brought to an end.[11] To cope with the rising deficit required to maintain its pension program, Tsai has promised to take on a reform of the financial system. Those efforts began with two major reforms in 2016, first the introduction of amendments to Labor Standards Act aimed at making seven Taiwanese industries more competitive in the global market and boosting growth.[12] The Labor Standards reforms reduced the amount of mandatory time off and increased the amount of allowable overtime work.[13]  Those amendments have been accompanied by a set of reforms to the pension system, including reduction of pensions for Taiwan’s military, civil servants, and public school teachers.[14] Although the reductions were coupled with an increase in the monthly minimum wage by 10 percent and civil servant pay by 3 percent, despite significant public support, both reforms efforts have been deeply unpopular in some quarters, leading to mass protests, some of which turned violent.[15] It remains to be seen what effect the reforms will have on Taiwan’s economic situation, but these twin issues—competitiveness and a near-bankrupt pension system—will continue to be significant in Taiwanese politics as the population grows older.

Social Issues

Tsai was first elected upon a upswell of social activism that has continued to pressure her government to enact sweeping social reforms.[16] Although not fully onboard with many of the activist demands, Tsai’s DPP found itself in a de facto alliance with activist organizations in order to defeat the opposition nationalist Kuomintang party in 2016.[17] Tsai has made progress on some of these issues, but they are a deeply divisive in Taiwanese society, and she’s been met with anger from both activists, who say her administration has moved too tentatively on social reforms. Conservatives, meanwhile, vigorously oppose many of the changes she has promised in her campaigns.

First among them is same-sex marriage equality. During her 2016 election, Tsai became the first Taiwan presidential candidate to support same-sex marriage equality.[18] A May 2017 ruling by Taiwan’s Constitutional Court that existing laws banning same-sex equality were unconstitutional demanded a marriage equality law. Tsai’s subsequent proposed constitutional change to enshrine marriage equality, however, was pilloried from all sides.[19] The social activists who helped bring her into office decried the proposal as too slow and too conservative, while conservatives in the polity resisted the move as too radical. As the deadline for a new law approached in 2019, the DPP expedited legislation to legalize marriage equality, and Taiwan became the first Asian administration to legalize same-sex marriage. [20] Although the law’s passage won praise from activists, the fight over it demonstrates the deep fault lines through Taiwanese society regarding social issues, fault lines that will not disappear in the years ahead as activists push for new, progressive frontiers and conservatives resist.

Another such issue will be transitional justice for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, who have suffered inequity at the hands of successive administrations including imperial Japan and the KMT-aligned mainlanders fleeing the communist consolidation of the mainland. Tsai’s DPP has made transitional justice a key theme of its political alignment. In 2016, it passed legislation to deal with KMT party assets built upon indigenous property, and in August of that year Tsai became the first Taiwanese president to offer an apology for the historical treatment of the islands’ indigenous peoples. [21] Still, like marriage equality, many social activists believe Tsai’s administration is less than interested in material progress, and some of the largest protests against her administration have come from activist quarters that supported her 2016 election.[22] Land reform to compensate indigenous communities is likely to continue to be a hot and dividing issue between activists, governments, and the conservatives in the KMT.

Finally, in response to blackouts in 2017, Tsai’s administration restarted nuclear reactors after promising on the campaign trail to phase out nuclear power.[23] Anti-nuclear activism has been a key component of Taiwan’s social activism since Japan’s Fukushima disaster.[24] And so, while the go-ahead to restart won support from Taiwan’s business community, it outraged activists.[25] With climate change looming and energy solutions limited, the fight over nuclear will grow in importance in Taiwanese politics. It illustrates the fissures not just between progressives and conservatives, but environmentalists and the business community.


Despite Tsai Ing-wen’s 2020 electoral victory and its repudiation of China’s heavy-handed tactics in its ethnic borderlands, Taiwanese politics do not revolve solely around cross-strait relations. Taiwan’s economic and financial situation, while tightly tied up with mainland businesses, comes with its own set of difficult domestic problems that will be central challenges—and campaign issues—for Tsai, her successor and her competitors. Economics are further complicated by energy and environmental issues such as nuclear power development that divide society along environmental- and business-biased lines. Those spheres are further fractured by divisive social faults—faults that divide progressives from conservatives, young from old, and put pressure on politicians and governments, DPP and KMT alike. Although the PRC-ROC situation dominates United States foreign policy thinking when it comes to Taiwan, these inward-facing issues will continue play an important role in Taiwanese politics. They will play a part in determining the fate of relations across the strait.

[1] Robert Green, “The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier,” The Taiwan Review (May 1, 2005).
[2] Shelly Rigger, Why Taiwan Matters.
[3] Republic of China, Bureau of National Statistics.
[4] Pengqiao Lu, “Taiwan’s Biggest Problems are at Home (Not Across the Strait)”, The Diplomat (November 17, 2016).
[5] Sheryn Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On,” The East Asia Forum (December 25, 2018).
[6] The Economist Explains, “What’s at Stake in the Taiwan Election,” The Economist (January 10, 2020).
[7] Republic of China, Bureau of National Statistics.
[8] Republic of China, Bureau of National Statistics.
[9] Paul Huang, “‘New Southbound Policy’ Insulates Taiwan from US-China Trade War,” The Epoch Times (July 15, 2018).
[10] Dafydd Fell, “History: Taiwan,” Europa World Online (London: Routledge, 2020).
[11] Chien-Tsun Chen, “Taiwan’s Pension Crisis,” Economic and Political Weekly (Vol. LIII, No. 50: December 22, 2018).
[12] Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On.”
[13] Keoni Everington, “Changes to Taiwan’s labor law go into effect today,” Taiwan News (March 01, 2018).
[14] Agence France-Presse “Taiwan Passes Bill to Cut Veterans Pensions that Sparked Violent Protests,” The South China Morning Post (June 21, 2018).
[15] Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On.”
[16] Fell, “History: Taiwan.”
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ben Wescott and Angus Watson, “‘A great divide’: Inside the battle to stop same-sex marriage in Taiwan,” CNN (November 24, 2018).
[20] Julia Hollingsworth, “Taiwan legalizes same-sex marriage in historic first for Asia,” CNN (May 17, 2019).
[21] Fell, “History: Taiwan.”
[22] Thomas Reuters Foundation, “Taiwan’s indigenous people take land rights fight to the heart of the capital,” South China Morning Post (June 11, 2018).
[23] “In the Dark: A massive blackout prompts questions about Taiwan’s energy policy,” The Economist (August 17, 2017).
[24] Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On.”
[25] Ibid.