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Where's the "official" verdict that Mao was 70% correct, 30% wrong?

We’re in a Mao Moment. The proximate cause being the 50th anniversary of the “start” of the Cultural Revolution and the “back to the future” feel of the Xi Jinping era. As Andrew Browne declares in his big, new piece in the WSJ this weekend, “Contrary to expectations, a half-century after the Cultural Revolution began, the ‘Great Helmsman,’ as he styled himself, is again the most potent force in the country’s political life. What part of his legacy, exactly, is Mr. Xi claiming?”

I think the comparisons between Mao and Xi now in vogue are overblown, but it’s important that we're beginning to take seriously the historical legacies of the country’s not-so-distant past after neglecting them during the heady years of 10%+ economic growth. For too long it was asserted and assumed that China had “buried Mao,” to borrow from the title of the late-Richard Baum’s wonderful 1996 book, but the events of Chongqing in 2009-2012, and the shifting ideological winds of the Xi regime, have exposed the shallowness of that conceit.

Mao Zedong, we now know, still matters and maybe now more than at anytime since his death. The question, then, is how much and in what ways? My research only focuses on those who remain sympathetic to Mao and his vision, but obviously there are many voices in this discussion, and there is no one answer to these questions anymore then there’s one answer to the question of Thomas Jefferson’s or Lenin’s legacy. (Please note that I’m not equating the three, but for the US and Russia, as with China, founding leaders and founding legacies still matter and countries never stop wrestling with them, even if they are less-than-glorious).

As we try to navigate the question of Mao’s legacy in contemporary China, a good place to start is with the Party’s own evaluation of Mao. And here I’d like to briefly discuss one assertion that repeatedly crops up: the official Party consensus holds that Mao was 70% correct and 30% wrong.

Except there is no “official” 70/30 evaluation on Mao. Or at least I can't find one.

Let’s first look at how the 70/30 evaluation (known as the 三七开 in Chinese) is used evoked in English-language discourse. (I should hasten to add that I’m not criticizing anyone cited below — I didn’t know any of this until about three months ago, and I’ve been researching Mao for 5 years!)

A few examples, and notice that there’s usually no source given for this “official” verdict:

  • “It's been nearly 35 years since the death of Chairman Mao, and the official verdict is that Mao was 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.” NPR, 2014
  • “…the official verdict remains that Mao was 70 percent correct and 30 percent wrong.” NYT, 1989
  • “Officially, Mao lost his godlike status when, in 1981, Deng Xiaoping, then China's leader, announced Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong.” Al Jazeera, 2009
  • “In 1981, five years after Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Deng pronounced that Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong.” Eric Li, SCMP, 2013
  • “Not long after Mao's death the party announced that he had been 70% right, 30% wrong.” BBC, 2006

You get my point. The source of the "verdict" is often vague, or the year 1981 is mentioned, or the source of the verdict is Deng Xiaoping, but it's never stated where he made this announcement.

Others go further and specifically point to the "Resolution on Certain Questions in Our Party's History since the Founding of the PRC," which without a doubt is the “official” Party evaluation on Mao (and a bunch of other things), as it was passed unanimously by the Central Committee in June 1981 and published in its entirety in the People’s Daily. Tariq Ali, for example, writes that “...the official view is that Mao’s achievements far outweigh his mistakes—by a ratio of 70:30, according to the official Central Committee report of 1981.” Rebecca Karl of Duke University, in her book Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World, likewise states that the "verdict" of the 1981 Resolution was that "Mao was 70 percent correct and 30 percent wrong." (pg. 166)

The problem is, the 1981 Resolution doesn't contain any such verdict, statement, conclusion, or announcement. But don’t take my word: do a keyword search of the document (here in English, here in Chinese). (I'd say read the whole thing, but it's loooonnnnggg.) Some point to the fact that the ratio of positive to negative statements about Mao in the document is 7-to-3 (according to one analysis (footnote 54) there were 91 positive mentions, 34 negative), but this strikes me as too Da Vinci Code for the CCP. Deng himself made the quite sensible point that some mistakes are more egregious than others, so how could you possibly talk of 30% "bad" as if all "bad" is qualitatively and quantitatively the same. Deng, when referencing Mao's own evaluation of the Cultural Revolution, said "And when [Mao] referred to the 30 percent of mistakes, he meant ‘overthrowing all’ and waging a ‘full-scale civil war.’ How can anyone reconcile this with the idea of 70 percent achievements?”

Still another theory, offered by Paul Gewirtz of Yale Law School, holds that “It was shortly after this [1981] Resolution was released that Deng Xiaoping made his famous comment that Mao was ’70% right, 30% wrong.’” Again, no source is offered, and I can’t find any post-Resolution comment to this effect. (If anyone does know, please let me know.)

 So why the persistence of this "official" meme?

For one, Deng Xiaoping almost makes this evaluation of Mao himself. In his 1977 speech entitled “The Two Whatevers Do Not Accord to Marxism,” Deng states “[Mao] said that if one's work was rated as consisting 70 percent of achievements and 30 percent of mistakes, that would be quite all right, and that he himself would be very happy and satisfied if future generations could give him this ’70-30’ rating after his death.” Deng does not say if he agrees with this formulation of Mao’s or not, merely adding “This is an important theoretical question, a question of whether or not we are adhering to historical materialism.”

In his autobiography, Deng Liqun also records Deng invoking the 70/30 rule, although he doesn’t mention where or when: “邓小平说:毛主席说,能够有三七开就很好了,很不错了;毛主席说,我死了,如果有人能够给我以三七开的估计,我就很高兴,很满意了” (邓力群自述,十二个春秋,第90页,香港博智出版社). You can see, however, that Deng is quoting Mao’s own self-evaluation as opposed to making a new one himself. Similarly, in 1979 Chen Yun said "毛泽东同志说他是三七开,所以他的像还挂在天安门广场," but again, Chen is referencing Mao's own self-evaluation.

Indeed, there’s even evidence that Deng Xiaoping expressly opposed the 70/30 formulation for Mao. According to a 1980 report by Jonathan Kaufman that appeared in the New Republic, “A poster appeared [on November 25, 1979] declaring that Mao was ’70 percent good and 30 percent bad’ — the same judgment Mao had once placed on Joseph Stalin. This was too much even for Deng Xiaoping, Mao was much better than 70-30, he told an American journalist, “and I myself am only 60-40.”

(Ironically, Mao had slapped the 70/30 label on Deng, or at least that’s what Deng told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1980: “[Mao] said that my mistakes were only 30 percent, my merits 70 percent, and he resurrected me [brought Deng back into the government] with 30/70.”)

But while there is no “official”  三七开 for Mao, the formulation was a regular feature of Chinese political discourse during the Mao era.

Indeed, Mao had himself used the 70/30 formulation to evaluate the Cultural Revolution, commenting “When it comes to the Cultural Revolution, my overall opinion is that it was basically correct, and only partially unsatisfactory. What we need to do know is research the unsatisfactory portion. 70/30 split — 70% positive and 30% mistaken. This opinion will not necessarily be uniform.”

In his 1956 essay “On the Ten Major Relationships,” Mao stated for Stalin, an “assessment of 30 per cent for mistakes and 70 per cent for achievements is just about right.” In October of the following year, Mao told the CCP Central Committee “As for Stalin himself, you should at least give him a 70-30 evaluation, 70 for his achievements and 30 for his mistakes. This may not be entirely accurate, for his mistakes may be only 20 or even 10, or perhaps somewhat more than 30. All things considered, Stalin's achievements are primary and his shortcomings and mistakes are secondary.

Italics and bold added, and here’s why. In the 1981 Resolution, the Party (Deng, really) had this to say about Mao: “His merits are primary and his errors secondary.” Sound familiar? The Resolution, long thought of as the document that buried Mao’s historical legacy, basically plagiarized Mao himself.

There are other instances of the 70/30 ratio being invoked in China (see 中共历史上的“三七开” by 贺朝霞 for a further list), but it was never “officially” used by the CCP or by Deng to evaluate Mao.

Does that mean that the formulation is garbage? The Global Times asserts that it "represents the mainstream ideas about Mao," or at least what the Global Times hopes is the mainstream. I doubt this is true, or more accurately, I doubt that the Global Times actually knows this to be true.  But it clearly is the case that the CCP has "unofficially" adopted the 三七开 in regards to Mao. As a 2012 Global Times editorial states "官方从邓小平时代就有了对毛的“三七开”评价态度..." A 评价态度 is important, and indicative, but it's not "official." Likewise, in 2001, Xi Jinping, then the governor of Fujian, gave an interview in which he stated "年轻时,我对主席和小平同志为什么对自己的评价不理解,三七开,那么低!现在明白了,作为一个领导干部能争取到人民和自己都打出及格分已经很不容易了." What's notably here is that Xi is accurately referencing Mao and Deng's own self-evaluation of 70/30 as opposed to any official document or pronouncement.

So, in summary, the 三七开 is important and, in many ways a helpful shorthand for thinking about the CCP's evaluation of Mao.

But it's not "official."