Did Mao Fail?
To assess the Maoist experiment, however, one must look not to official retrospection but to the condition of China's people.
From the Liberation in 1949 until his death in 1976, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) directed one of the most ambitious, wide-ranging, and, some would say, inspiring programs of social engineering ever undertaken. Mao's goal was to transform a sprawling and dilapidated empire into a modern socialist state. The price was steep. If China's current leaders are to be believed, it was far too steep.
To assess the Maoist experiment, however, one must look not to official retrospection but to the condition of China's people: What do they have to show for the sacrifices they have made and the suffering they have endured in the name of bringing forth a poverty-free society?
Until recently, the information needed to answer that question was simply not available. Lately, however, the new rulers of the People's Republic, for their own reasons, and perhaps only temporarily, have lifted the statistical "curfew" clamped down after the collapse of the Great Leap Forward in 1960. Even so, one must be wary.
As late as the mid-1970s, as many as one out of three Chinese communes could not be reached by road—an unfavorable situation for gathering up-to-date statistics. Moreover, despite the recent "liberalization," China is still governed by a regime that does not hesitate to execute citizens for opinions expressed in private conversation; in such a society, information does not move freely or emigrate without official sanction. Finally, Deng Xiaoping and his ascendant technocrats no doubt find it expedient to exaggerate Mao's shortcomings, thereby making their own work shine more brightly. Official data always risk losing their virtue in the hands of men who may gain by molesting them.