Utopian Fevers

One Billion: A China Chronicle

by Jay Mathews and Linda Mathews
Random House, 353 pp., $17.95

The heart of China’s twentieth-century revolution has been the revival of the Chinese state. Until the 1890s the Chinese empire had remained the most durable of the universal kingships of the ancient world. Its transformation into the state now known as the People’s Republic has left the Chinese public saddled with a political order still deficient in our sort of civil liberties. To be sure, the old China had worked out certain customary limits to despotism, but how such limitations are to be institutionalized in the revived state remains still uncertain. Now that China’s great revolution is in remission and off the front page, scholars and journalists are reaching mature verdicts both about Mao’s despotic part in it and about the quality of life that the new order has brought the Chinese people. Like tornado survivors, many Chinese have been wondering what hit them, and a flow of memoirs and more relaxed contact with outsiders have combined to give us a clearer view, at least for the moment.

Back in the late 1950s Mao’s Great Leap Forward was quite opaque to us, especially in cold-war America. The lead in academic discussion of Mao’s revolution was taken in London in 1960 by the founding of The China Quarterly. The first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, spent eight years making this much-needed journal preeminent before he moved into full-time research, first at Columbia and then at Chatham House, on the origins of the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s attempt in 1966-1969 to tear down and rebuild the edifice he had led in creating so shook the Chinese earth and amazed the world that it has taken its place alongside 1789 and 1917 as one of the greatest of all the revolutions in which the state power dissolved and had to be reconstituted.

The first volume of Mr. MacFarquhar’s trilogy, Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Contradictions Among the People, 1956-1957, came out in 1974. After it appeared he served five years as a Labour member of Parliament. “Low-temperature British socialism of the 1970s,” he says, “was a far cry from the utopian communism of China,” yet being an MP undoubtedly sharpened his understanding of the interplay between leaders and followers, ideology and policy, and, in his words, “politicians and bureaucrats,…conscience and compromise.” Like the masterpieces of diplomatic history on the origins of the war in 1914 (before the enormous increase of communication made such work impossible), his second volume is based on a prodigious knowledge of where and when who said what. By sifting through the vast number of publications that accompanied Mao’s last decade, 1966-1976, and the rehabilitations that followed, MacFarquhar has traced the genesis and vicissitudes of the Maoist policies that led to disaster. No one else has so succinctly and yet comprehensively summed up the Great Leap.

Chairman Mao’s weak spot was that he couldn’t stop doing what he was best at—mobilizing mass campaigns to attack the status quo. The result was a tragedy in three acts—first the antirightist campaign of 1957 that…

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