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From the Archives: Mao and the Marriage Counselor

Ed note: Still one of my favorite posts, a little something from the archives…

“People ask for criticism, but they only want praise.” – Somerset Maugham

“As a scientific truth, Marxism fears no criticism.” – Mao Zedong

As sometimes happens with couples, by 1956 the relationship between Mao and the Party had begun to suffer from a seven-year itch. Still only in their first decade of rule, the CCP were shocked by events in Eastern Europe. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s legacy vexed the aging Mao, while the Party leadership (more concerned with maintaining order and control in the “here-and-now” than protecting their legacies in the forever after) listened warily to the news out of Hungary and Poland.


“Bring every positive factor into play, correctly handle contradictions among the people, 1958” From the collection of Stefan Landsberger,

At the same time a lot was actually going right in the PRC. It’s easy to forget this now: but between the end of the Korean War and the start of the Great Leap Forward, there was a period of increasing prosperity, economic recovery, and a certain relaxation of ideological and social controls. It was all relative of course–this was still Mao’s China–but compared to later periods of PRC history, the mid-1950s had much more in common with the early years of the Deng Xiaoping regime than with darker days just around the corner.

In what may have been a legitimate but overconfident move to let off some steam and forestall a Hungarian-style uprising, or, as others see it, a cynical scheme to root out disloyal elements in the Party, Mao began privately kicking around an idea to encourage people to openly and honestly express their views about the Party leadership.

Needless to say, the rest of the Party leadership didn’t warm to the notion.

So Mao took his plan quasi-public in a famous speech, given in February, 1957, entitled “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.” 《关于正确处理人民内部矛盾的问题》Mao’s belief was that the Party could only stay unified and ideologically pure through struggle, and struggle existed as a result of contradictions. The problem was how to keep up struggle when things were going well, and then how to manage that struggle so that it might add spice to a relationship grown stale without leading to broken china (ahem) and bruised feelings.

Like a lot of marriages, Mao and the Party were in a bit of a rut, the passion was gone, they were missing the ZazaZoom. Not completely sure how best to rekindle the spark, Mao fell into a pattern that any $150/hour marriage counselor would quickly identify as ‘passive-aggressive.’

First of all, his speech relied on an oft-used but fatally flawed strategy known as fishing for compliments.

In essence, he asked “You don’t really love me that much, do you?”  Confident in his heart that there could be but one correct answer: “Yes, of course! Of course we love you Mao…”

….but if you could just change a couple of things that have been driving me nuts recently…

…and you know, there’s this thing you do, that really, really bothers me…

…and wow, you know, if you could only do this a little more, it would really be helpful….


Likewise, through the summer of 1957, intellectuals, students, and rank-and-file party members hung posters and published essays critical of CCP policies and the Party leadership.

“Our guiding theoretical ideas have been conservative and profoundly influenced by doctrinairism from abroad, which has hindered and stunted the development of literary and artistic enterprises…”

“I think a party leading a nation is not the same as a party owning a nation; the public supports the Party, but members of the public have not forgotten that they are masters of the nation…”

“True Socialism is highly democratic, but the socialism we have here is not democratic. I call this society a socialism sprung from a basis of feudalism…”

Double Whoops.

For their part, the intellectuals and Party rank-and-file who voiced their concerns fell into a trap all too familiar to young husbands the world over: “Do you think I’m getting fat, be honest with me…”


Savagely attack and hurt the rightist elements to protect the results of socialism, 1957. From the collection of Stefan Landsberger,

By the summer of 1957, the criticism threatened to spiral out of control. Mao had asked for honesty but what he really craved was love, and instead all he got in its place was a raft of crap about how things should be but weren’t. It hurt. As is sadly common with aggrieved partners in any dysfunctional relationship, Mao became nasty and in his anger lashed out at the ones he felt had spurned him.

For their part, the CCP leadership, never wild about this whole plan in the first place, were relieved when Mao reversed course. By the time Party brass finally got around to publishing Mao’s February speech (in June), it contained a new caveat: Ideas could only be judged ‘correct’ if they strengthened socialism and helped to consolidate party control and democratic centralism.

The worm had turned.

In the following year, over 300,000 intellectuals were branded as ‘Rightist Deviationists,’ forced out of their jobs and/or sent to labor camps for the crime of following Mao’s own call to “Let a hundred flowers bloom and let 100 schools 0f thought contend.” Faced with public excoriation and professional ruin, many committed suicide.

With the Anti-Rightist Campaign, Mao established his threshold for ‘acceptable’ criticism, and it cost him a whole generation of intellectuals, experts, and scientists, purged from society.

The new group which took their places in academia and government was made up of cadres whose ‘revolutionary credentials’ and willingness to toe the party line made them politically less suspect even as many were grossly under-qualified for their new positions.

The aftermath? Well one result was that three years later when the lunatic plans of the “Great Leap Forward” were being implemented throughout the country, nobody was left with either the expertise or the temerity to step forward and say, “Planting all the seed in one big hole doesn’t make the wheat grow higher,” and “Hey, you can’t make industrial steel by melting farm tools and cooking pots in backyard furnaces” and/or “If you melt all the farm tools and cooking pots, the people won’t be able to harvest whatever grain does survive and they’ll have to eat that raw.”

Instead, party officials competed with each other to set ever more impossible production quotas; nobody wanted to be the one to tell Mao that the goals set for his county were too high. Harvest time came, the quotas were non-negotiable, and the government took what it was owed.  The result was mass starvation and misery.

In the marriage of Mao and the Party, the Hundred Flowers Movement of 1957 could charitably be called a ‘rough patch.’ Ten years later, the same motivations would lead to utter disaster when Mao looked outside the wedding bed and found a new, younger and more energetic fling in the Red Guards.

In the 1980s, almost all of the 450,000 people labeled as “Rightists” had been rehabilitated although for many, that rehabilitation came years, even decades, too late. The campaign destroyed lives and ruined careers and set the stage for greater horrors to come.

Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), pp. 571-573
“On the correct handling of contradictions among the people,” and “Intellectual opinions from the Hundred Flowers Period,” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume II. Edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano. (Columbia Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 459-468