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Mao & His Impact on China
• China‟s past
   – Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism
• A brief history of modern China
• Mao‟s „war on nature‟
      •   Political repression
      •   Utopian urgency
      •   Dogmatic uniformity
      •   War preparations and forcible relocations
      •   Science and ideology
• Liberalisation and the environment in post-Mao
    Change during China‟s imperialist past

• Long history of managing the environment
      • Yu the Great said to have built massive hydro-projects for
        flood control 4000 years ago
      • Legal codes in the Qin (221 BC–206 BC) and Qing (AD 1644
        – AD 1911) dynasties regarding hunting in season, restricting
        deforestation, careful use of hill slope land.
• But: clear evidence of long term damage too
      • Deforestation
      • Soil exhaustion, alkalinity, degradation of pasture lands
      • Erosion and river siltation
    Different philosophical and religious

• Daoism
     • Accommodation towards nature‟s way
• Buddhism
     • Reverence for all living things
• Confucianism (the most dominant)
     • Nature should be managed, utilized and controlled
       for humankind – society must master nature
 A brief history of modern China
     Western interventions
• Nationalist period
• People‟s Republic of China formed in 1949
  under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the
  Communist Party
     • Civil war with the Nationalists (during which the
       Long March took place), who eventually fled to
     • War with Japan
 A brief history of modern China
• Initially, PRC close to the Soviet Union –
  aid, strong ideological influence. Problems
  by the late 1950s.
• 1958-1961: The Great Leap Forward
     • Massive mobilisation of peasants to increase yields,
       and to produce steel
     • Around 30 million people died from the famine that
• 1962: Break with the Soviets
 A brief history of modern China
• 1966 - 69: The Cultural Revolution
      • Mao sought to exert total control
      • Red Guards terrorised China
• 1976: Mao died. Deng Xiaoping became
  paramount leader in 1978
      • Launched economic reform
      • From “Better Red than Expert” to “It doesn‟t matter whether a
        cat is black or white: what matters is how well it catches mice”
• 1997: Deng Xiaoping died. Jiang Zemin leader
• Increasing liberalisation of the economy and
          Mao‟s war on nature
Shapiro (2001) identifies four features of Mao‟s
rule that had appalling consequences for people
and the environment:
–   Political repression
–   Utopian urgency
–   Dogmatic uniformity
–   War preparation and forcible relocations
     Through these runs a fifth – the discarding of science
     and scientific thought by ideology
        1. Political repression
Freedom of speech, critique and intellectuals:
• Regime originally unsure about intellectuals
• Confucian tradition – „friendly critics‟
• Mao tended to mistrust intellectuals, and
  very unwilling to listen to different opinions
• Strongly influenced by Soviet ideology
  (authoritarian and anti-intellectual)
• 1956-7: Ideas welcomed and freedom of
  opinion encouraged in the „Hundred Flowers
• 1957: oppression, silencing and ostracisation
  of many of those who had taken part.
  Denounced as „Rightists‟
• Hundred Flowers movement has been seen
  as a „trap laid for millions‟, but it may just
  have taken the authorities by surprise.
• Increasingly, ordinary people and leaders
  became afraid to disagree.
       Case Study: Population
• Ma Yinchu, President of Beijing University
     • Presented a report, “New Demography” to the
       National People‟s Congress on 1 July 1957 (and the
       People‟s Daily on 5 July)
     • Based on the 1953 Census
     • Argued that population growth would damage
       China‟s development
     • Differed from Malthus – pro-contraception and
       against the inhumanity of „positive checks‟
            Mao‟s response
• Attacked, vilified, had to resign in 1960
  (and burnt his research during the Cultural
• Called a Rightist for supporting the ideas of
  Malthus, who was:
     “an apologist for the bourgeoisie for using
     demographic analysis to explain away the ills
     of capitalist exploitation and therefore
     working class misery”
Mao‟s view of population growth
• Influence of the USSR, which was calling for
  post-war population recovery (e.g. „Mother
• Chinese cultural traditions (son preference, clan
  power base, ancestor worship)
• Military logic – numbers are strength
• Ideological aspect – numbers could compensate
  for lack of advanced technology because of mass
  labour mobilisation (“The Foolish Old Man Who
  Removed the Mountains”)
• Limited global awareness of population issues
Fundamental ideology – population growth cannot
be a problem under socialism

 “The socialist system guarantees that labour
 power be fully employed. Therefore, there
 is no, and can be no, surplus population.
 The population quickly increases, people‟s
 living standards rise, disease and death rates
 decrease, and at the same time labour power
 is appropriately and fully used. That is the
 essence of socialism”
           Quoted in Shapiro, 2001: 29
    The military calculation and
      Mao‟s disregard for life
• 1954: Boasted to Nehru that America had nuclear
  weapons, China had 600 million people
• 1957: Discussions with Krushchev:
       “We shouldn‟t be afraid of atomic missiles. No matter what
       kind of war breaks out – conventional or thermonuclear – we‟ll
       win. As for China, if the imperialists unleash war on us, we
       may lose more than 300 million people. So what? War is war?
       The years will pass and we‟ll get to work producing more
       babies than ever before”
“It is a very good thing that China has a big
population. Even if China‟s population multiplies
many times, she is fully capable of finding a
solution. The solution is production. The absurd
argument of bourgeois western economists like
Malthus that increases in food cannot keep up with
increases in population, was not only long ago
thoroughly refuted in theory by Marxists, but has
also been completely exploded by the realities in
the Soviet Union and the liberated areas of China
after their revolutions. …Revolution plus
production can solve the problem of feeding the
     (Mao, 1949. Quoted in Shapiro, 2001:31)
• People afraid to speak out/dissent
• Families who wanted small families found
  it very difficult
• Massive population growth which, given
  other factors, led to massive environmental
  degradation (see later)
• Later responses, in late 70s and 80s, were
  authoritarian and problematic.
           2. Utopian urgency

• By mid/late 1950s Mao unopposed because of
  political repression
• Zhou Enlai and other moderates wanted a more
  cautious approach (e.g. economic growth before
  collectivisation), but they were attacked by Mao
• In 1958, Mao argued that China was entering a
  period when “a day equals 20 years”
• At the „Great Leap Forward‟, Mao constantly used
  the language of urgency and war mobilisation:
      • „labour shock brigades‟, „battles to build large irrigation and
        hydropower schemes‟, China on a „war footing‟
• Slogans urged a miraculous compressing of time
  to achieve a utopian future through present
  sacrifice and struggle.
• Sheer will could transform China
      • “When the thought of men changes, the earth yields more
      • “Man‟s ability to know and conquer Nature is unlimited”
        (Mao, 1959)
• Frenzied action and crazy targets, which would
  not be met, but results falsified
• Destructive efforts to make the land yield more
  e.g. deep ploughing of fragile lands, close planting
  of crops, the attack on the „four pests‟ (1958)
• Steel targets and back yard smelting
• Massive suffering and massive environmental
• 1959-61: famine in which 30 million people were
  estimated to have died
   Example: agricultural targets
• Quote
• “During the Leap, the leaders mixed political and
  scientific questions up together. You could only
  report high [production[ figures or you would be
  labelled a Rightist. Some county leaders were
  being purged for “for being suspicious of rushing
  ahead”. We were told to plough deeply, the deeper
  the better. In fact, it wasn‟t necessary to plough
  deep, but we didn‟t dare to say or publish
      • Agricultural professor, quoted in Shapiro, 2001: 78
An environmental economist, writing about his
life as a young man
     “At the time, I didn‟t understand the
destruction. It was only when I went back in 1988
that I understood what we had done. Before, there
were so many trees that you couldn‟t see the river
from the road. But in 1988, the whole forest was
gone. There was nothing to eat but farmed fish –
the wild fish were gone. Today, there is a tiny bit
of forest left in the Great North Wilderness,
there‟s a little wetland left in the northeastern
counties. I‟m working to protect it, but people are
still talking about „opening the wasteland‟”.
                    Quoted in Shapiro, 2001: 168
        3. Dogmatic uniformity
• After the Great Leap Forward, and subsequent
  chaos, some relaxation (e.g. smallholdings,
• By 1964, Mao getting restive, and making a
• 1966, launched the Cultural Revolution
• Wanted to wrest power away from the moderates
  and return China to revolution e.g. labourers and
  peasants to be rewarded for their political attitudes
• China terrorised by the „Red Guards‟
  Case Study: The Dazhai model
• 1963 the Dazhai Commune flooded
• The leader refused state funds, grains or materials.
  Said that they could be self-sufficient, even
  recovering from disaster.
• Mao held this up as an ideal model for all of
  China – right down to their (supposed) agricultural
• This became the „Dazhai Road‟, „Learn from
           The Dazhai model
• Under the fervour of the Cultural Revolution, Mao
  said grain could be grown anywhere – just needed
  sufficient ideological belief
• “To get grain from the mountain tops, to get grain
  from the lakes”
• Focus on grain (like Dazhai) led to the cutting
  down of other trees and crops – tea, bamboo,
  medicinal plants – even where grain couldn‟t
  grow, or low returns
• “Destroy the pastureland, open the
• On flat-lands, construct terraces”
• “Plant sprouts in the centre of lakes”
• “Squeeze land from rock peaks, get grain
  from rocks”
            The Dazhai model
• Peasants and Red Guards taken to Dazhai to show
  them what path they should follow
• Complete neglect of specific agro-ecological
• Any departure from the model seen as political
• Later turned out that the Dazhai claims had been a
• Massive environmental damage and massive
  suffering had resulted from this and other
  examples of dogmatic uniformity
“During the Cultural Revolution .. Dazhai was
considered as the advanced model. Only the
Dazhai experience could be promoted in the whole
country, making Dazhai the absolutistic single
model … Thus the Dazhai productions team‟s
specific methods, like moving mountains to create
farmland, and neglecting a diversified economy to
guarantee the stability and high yield of grain, was
imitated even when not practical, and this violated
the laws of nature and economics, harmed
ecological balance, and wasted human strength
and supplies”.
          Quoted in Shapiro, 2001:100
            4. War preparations
• Late 1960s/70s, increasing tension with both the
  USSR and the USA
• Military/strategic considerations given priority
  over all others
• War on nature served as a metaphor for the
  political struggle between Maoist radicalism and
  the moderates
• Slogans – austerity, obedience, mobilisation
      • “Prepare for war, prepare for famine”
• Main element – to produce an economy that could
  function even under attack
      • “In mountains, dispersed, in caves”
“The intention was to create an entire industrial
base – not just an armaments industry – that
could survive a prolonged war. The program
was so huge that it can fairly be said that, with
the exception of petroleum development, the
central government‟s industrialization policy
from 1965 through 1971 was the Third Front
[ie the interior]”
                     Naughton, 1988: 158
• A major part of labour mobilisation, and now war
  preparation, was the voluntary and coercive
  relocation of population
   – 1949, progressive Chinese asked to volunteer to settle
     in ethnic minority areas, to dilute opposition, secure
     borders, and provide labour
   – Relocation as punishment e.g. 500,000 intellectuals and
     „Rightists‟ sent to remote labour camps
   – Socialist education – 20 million youths sent to the
     countryside, especially after the Cultural Revolution
      • Employment, political control, labour
• Relocation of huge amounts of people to places
  where they had no sense of stewardship,
  connection or local knowledge
      • “Don‟t think of father, don‟t think of mother, Until you can
        produce iron, Don‟t go home‟
      • “Launch a battle on the Burial Forest, Get Grain from the
        Spirit Forest”
      • 1968-9: The Production-Construction Army Corps
          – “Open the wasteland”
      • Had little or no idea of the environmental consequences of
        their actions (e.g. ploughing the grasslands, terracing slopes
        that were too steep)
• Relocation of industries to mountains,
  valleys, remote areas
• Because of the haste, often very poorly
  planned, with major problems – including
  waste and pollution
• Ideology “the workers are the masters,
  technicians can only be consultants” made
  the situation worse
   Ma Bo: “Blood Red Sunset”
• Originally astounded by the beauty of
  nature, and the area to which he had been
  assigned in Inner Mongolia.
• But, „reclamation‟ of the land he had been
  working on had “destroyed the ecology of
  the steppes, with a loss of water and topsoil,
  virtually turning them into desert”, which
  then had to be abandoned
“For eight years we had laboured for this. And it was
worse, for we had wreaked unprecedented havoc on the
grasslands, working like fucking beasts of burden, only to
commit unpardonable crimes against the land … A huge
international joke. The depletion of resources was
staggering; the waste of manpower, mind-boggling, the
financial losses, incalculable .. The vast, silent steppe,
how bleak and hideous you became: your glossy skin
gouged by coarse, blistery sand; your broad chest crushed
by thudding hoes; your lovely face pocked and scarred by
rat holes, stove pits, wagon-wheel ruts … Huolin Gol [the
ethnic people] forgive us our ignorance, our fanaticism,
and our cruelty. There‟s consolation in the knowledge that
we too suffered and that we made horrible sacrifices, even
the ultimate sacrifice for some. Tens of thousands of lovely
flowers bloomed and died here, silent and unnoticed.”
                             Quoted in Shapiro, 2001: 164
“The educated youth has a severe impact on
nature. After 20 years of leftist thought and
policies, only 25% of the original forest was left.
60,000 square miles of forest have disappeared.
When I came to Yunnan, the rivers were clear.
Now the rivers are yellow and red with sediment.
The erosion is continuous. It is very difficult to
reforest because the topsoil is gone and there is
only bedrock left. Aside from some well-terraced
places, you can‟t grow anything in the mountains.
Some ground water has gone dry. In April and
May, water is scarce”
Chinese geographer, quoted in Shapiro, 2001: 184
       5. Science and ideology
• Under Maoism, ideology could over-ride science
  and reality, and natural laws could be made to give
  way to will
• “Mao tried to use the power of will as a substitute
  for a scientific relationship between humans and
  nature … The lack of political freedom
  determined the lack of intellectual freedom. It was
  impossible to have a different position from
  Chairman Mao. As soon as Chairman Mao said
  your position was wring, you were finished”
         – Journalist, quoted in Shapiro, 2001: 46
In heaven, there is no Jade Emperor,
On Earth, there is no Dragon King
I am the Jade Emperor, I am the Dragon
I order the three mountains and five peaks
“Make way, here I come”
                           Song, 1958
“The belief in the triumphal human domination of
nature thus mirrored the totalitarian impulse in the
human political world”         Shapiro, 2001: 48

“Mao wanted to modernise China but could not
grasp the basis of modern scientific thought, the
scientific method: that the way the natural
universe behaves can by proved or disproved by
objective tests, independent of ideology or
individual will” (Becker, 1996: 308)
“With the earth frozen hard, the blow of the
pick left only a white mark on the ground. The
shock made … hands crack and bleed. But no-
one complained. During breaks they nibbled on
their cold food while studying “The Foolish
Old Man Who Removed the Mountains”. The
more they studied, the more enthusiastic they
        Quoted in Shapiro, 2001: 104
“International experts believed rubber
[trees] couldn‟t be grown north of latitude
200 N; above that it was impossible. But
relying on imports meant allowing the
imperialist revisionist counter-
revolutionaries to strangle us. .. The heavy
responsibility to answer the call to struggle
for rubber fell on the Yunnan Production-
Construction Army Corps‟ 200,000 cadres
and workers and educated youth ….
…The youths had to throw themselves into
this great battle of reforming the heavens
and changing the earth to grow rubber. The
15th Company of the 3rd Division was
assigned to the foot of the snowy mountains
of [Eastern Yunnan], at a latitude of 250 N.
They „opened the wilderness‟ and cut down
the forest, and with their own sweat refuted
the legendary world saying you cannot
grow rubber north of latitude 200 N”.
          Quoted in Shapiro, 2001: 177-8
• Winter 1974-5, many trees died
• Under the slogan “Man must conquer
  Nature” they were planted and re-planted
• 71% trees lost again
• Even so, rubber areas expanded
• People sickened, died, were depressed,
  psychological problems
  Liberalisation and the environment in
             post-Mao China
• Since Mao‟s death in 1976, the Chinese leadership has,
  slowly, unevenly, and with setbacks, adopted a more
  market approach, with limited freedom of expression
• Increasingly aware of the economic and social costs of
  environmental damage
• Increased legislation and regulation
• But, the growth that has followed the economic reforms
  has put new stresses on the environment.
• Political participation remains restricted
• China now faces international pressure on environmental
   The environment and reform
Benefits have arisen from:
• Shift towards lighter and service industries
  (decline in heavy industry)
• Less centralised planning, more market
  mechanisms, improving efficiency
• Creation of environmental legislation and
• Environmental activists still face penalties and
  imprisonment (especially after Tiananmen
  incident in 1989). E.g. activists working on the
  Three Gorges.
• Rudimentary environmental data and monitoring
• Focus on economic growth – by the state,
  individuals etc
• Ongoing inefficiency and pricing irregularities,
  leading to immense waste
• Growing urbanisation, poorly regulated
• Ongoing fascination with massive projects
      Socialism and capitalism
• Commentators are now suggesting that
  although Maoist socialism was an
  unmitigated environmental disaster, the
  move towards liberalisation is not going to
  solve the problem
     • New stresses
     • Inadequate attention to the old problems
• Example: the Beijing Olympics

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