In his opening remarks at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual meeting between high ranking U.S. and Chinese officials, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke about his first visit to China in 1976, the year that Chairman Mao Zedong died. "It was already clear then," he said on July 10, "that China stood on the cusp of remarkable change." That was 37 years ago, when China was still one of the poorest countries in the world -- even after a century of experimentation with one formula after another for making their nation wealthy and powerful again.
It was by no means clear back then whether the incipient changes Biden sensed would really take hold. Few imagined that by the early 21st century, China would be in a position to challenge the United States economically, militarily, and even in the contest for soft power. So, after spending so many generations mired in a cycle of failed reform and revolution, how did China finally manage to chin itself up into its present period of prolonged economic dynamism?
One of the most interesting and paradoxical explanations originates with Mao, the very person who had such a destructive effect on China in the last decades of his life. By razing the edifice of old China as relentlessly as he did, Mao may have actually cleared the way for Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's subsequent reforms, thereby playing a role in China's rebirth that the Chairman could never have imagined while alive.
No leader in 20th-century China was more totalistic and unrelenting in attacking traditional culture than Mao. Under his despotic rule, China's Confucian heritage and old social values system was subject to a series of relentless assaults unequaled in history. Since the early 20th century, reformers such as the public intellectual Liang Qichao and political leader Sun Yat-sen had recognized that China's modernization would require the destruction of the old to make way for the new. They sought to transform a docile populace into an energetic and patriotic citizenship and turn a xenophobic ruling class into a cosmopolitan and modernist elite. But none of Mao's predecessors had been able -- or willing -- to muster the same ideological boldness, much less the organizational fortitude and leadership ruthlessness, to challenge China's thousands of years of continuous culture aggressively enough to actually neutralize tradition's drag on modernization.
As a young man, Mao was a disciple of both Liang and Sun, but was made of far sterner stuff. He ultimately embraced a far more extreme form of revolution -- one that insisted on constant, violent upheaval. Where others succeeded only in muting the influence of China's ancient culture, Mao nearly extirpated its very roots, and thus its hold on several subsequent generations of Chinese. His successive political and ideological campaigns, culminating in the riotous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that ended only with his death, all but severed the bonds of tradition that had fixed father over son, husband over wife, master over student, family over individual, past over future, and continuity over change. The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966, was a lost decade of violent criticism sessions against parents, teachers, and party cadres, of urban youths being sent down to rural backwaters, and of vicious power struggles among top leaders. Mao's mass campaigns such as "Criticize Confucius and Lin Biao" and "Destroy the Four Olds" made Chinese tradition itself into the enemy of the revolution.
The bonds of that tradition had tormented earlier reformers, many of whom confessed to being unable to escape it themselves. Lu Xun, a master of modern Chinese literature, admitted to "constantly rediscovering in myself ... odious thoughts that the ancients recorded in their works." A profound influence on Mao, Lu hoped at least the next generation could be spared: "Let the conscious man assume the heavy burden of tradition, let him arch his back under the gate of darkness to allow his children to escape into the free space and light where they may spend their days in happiness and lead a truly human life." It was that "gate of darkness" which Mao sought to demolish.
But, so powerful was the hold of the past that later in their lives the first generations of reformers were almost all ineluctably drawn back into the "gate of darkness" of traditional values and culture from which they had so energetically sought to escape. Liang, Lu, and even Communist Party founder Chen Duxiu all returned to Chinese classical scholarship late in life, finding a solace in the ancient texts as they faced their own mortality and a society so stubbornly resistant to change.