I am unusual among American conservatives in feeling quite positive about the rise of a strong and prosperous China. Not long since, I was exploring Beijing’s thronged Wangfujing Street, which is consumer heaven, and it was sobering to realize that the ancestors of virtually all those prosperous customers would have been permanently hungry peasants who spent every day being worked to exhaustion. Over the past 30 years, literally hundreds of millions of Chinese people have been allowed to pull themselves out of penury, to benefit themselves and their families by hard work and creative enterprise. Why shouldn’t their children run riot in buying electronics? Poor people becoming prosperous through honest means is an unqualified good. And it’s only natural that a thriving commercial country feels the need for armed forces to defend its global interests. If the Chinese start building space colonies, good luck to them.
And yet . . . if China today is indeed such a towering success story in material terms, she also represents the world’s most alarming example of historical amnesia, in that so few people around the world have the slightest knowledge of the mass murder perpetrated by the immediate predecessors of the current regime. To use an analogy that might initially seem far-fetched, imagine an alternate world in which Nazi Germany survived World War II, and really did complete the holocaust of all Europe’s Jews. By the 21st century, the country still retains a nominally Nazi regime, but one now pledged to consumer prosperity and global stability. Awed Western tourists report from the Reich’s titanic new capital of Germania, but never mention the millions of slaves who built it. Nor do most such visitors recall all the murdered of the 1940’s, or the fact that the modern country is built over a massive graveyard.
Contemplating such an alternate history, most “real world” observers would be appalled. Yes, forgiving and forgetting is a good thing, especially in international affairs, when yesterday’s deadly foe is probably today’s fast friend. But how could the world ever forget the villainy on which this hypothetical Reich is founded, even if its current incumbents have only the most tenuous connection with the crimes of its founders? Without confronting her past, without punishing surviving perpetrators—without “truth and reconciliation”—surely that Germany must remain an international leper, and it is sickening to suggest otherwise.
We can argue at length as to the historical distinctiveness of Hitler’s murder of the Jews, and how much that was aggravated by the intent to eliminate every vestige of a single ethnic group. But in terms of the number of fatalities and the scale of violence inflicted, there is no doubt that the Chinese communist regime that came to power in 1949 was worse than the Nazis, and that by any rational standard, Mao Tse-tung deserves to be remembered as a villain more atrocious than Hitler. In contrast to the holocaust, though, the only historical event that is familiar to virtually every person on the planet with even a marginal education, China’s crimes remain all but unknown except to specialists. The difference in historical attitudes is astounding.
One problem with the Chinese case is that the numbers soon overwhelm. The country after all had some 550 million people when Mao came to power in 1949, rising to over 800 million by his death in 1976. In such a setting, violence against even a small segment of society can amount to millions of dead and maimed. Mao’s rule, however, witnessed at least three separate internal revolutions, each of which claimed millions of lives. The first wave, in the years immediately following the revolution, killed several million identified as landlords, bosses, and other “class enemies,” as well as their families. Following a few years of relative tranquility, in 1958 the regime began a policy of aggressive and appallingly mismanaged economic development, which directly caused widespread famine. Worse, Mao’s regime refused to relax its lunacies until whole regions were devastated. Forty million is a realistic estimate of the famine’s death toll.
The final phase began in 1966, when Mao feared that his followers were losing their revolutionary zeal. To counter this, he called for mass insurrection against all forms of authority, an anarchistic lurch that provoked the war of all against all that we call the Cultural Revolution. Over the next decade, some five million died, and tens of millions more lives were ruined. The agony only ended when the monster died.
Perhaps some well-trained ethicist can point to some significant moral distinction between the carnage ordered directly by Mao and that associated with Hitler. It is not apparent to the untrained eye. Why, then, are Mao’s Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution not household names like the holocaust? Why, for God’s sake, have we forgiven and forgotten?