Did Mao Modernize China?

Reviewing a set of books on China’s path to power in the 21st century, Ian Johnson takes issue with the popular idea that Mao’s reign, much like Stalin’s, proved necessary to modernize a vast, backward country:

[It] supposes that prior to Mao, China was on a dead-end path—that essentially it needed a Mao joeblack4or it wouldn’t have modernized. This used to be a fairly conventional view, but many historians now believe that the pre–World War II Nationalists were well on their way to modernizing China and likely would have stayed in power if Japan had not invaded. [Authors Orville] Schell and [John] Delury are aware of this argument, and mention a “golden decade” of development in their chapter on Chiang Kai-shek; but they don’t follow through on its implications. If Chiang and the Nationalists were succeeding, then why was Mao’s destruction necessary?

Rather, it seems to me that the authors could more easily have portrayed the Mao years as motivated by fuqiang [wealth and power]—and thus not at odds with their overall narrative—but as a period that, nevertheless, led China down a dead-end street. One could even go further and say that the Mao years helped prepare for economic takeoff by creating a literate and healthy workforce—two real accomplishments—while they also laid the Communist Party so low that Deng was forced to experiment with capitalist-style reforms. Instead, there is almost a teleological argument that Mao was necessary, perhaps to give meaning to the series of catastrophes that defined his years in power, such as widespread death by famine during the Great Leap Forward and the millions more who perished in political campaigns like the Cultural Revolution.

(Image of a toy-soldier mosaic of Mao courtesy of artist Joe Black)