The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist!
Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris, 1869
I have been saying for the last three years that Naxalism remains the biggest internal security challenge facing our country.
Manmohan Singh, Indian Prime Minister 2004–2014, in May 2010
I doubt that most of the Estonian public has ever heard of the Red Corridor or Naxalites. South Asian matters are rarely newsworthy for the European press. However, quite a few have obviously heard of China and Maoism. Those who noticed the connection between the two topics may now set this article aside. Those did were not, read on, as the following explains what connects an ideology originating from China and several South Asian conundrums.
Let us begin with Maoism. What kind of ideology is it and what is its aim? Based on that the answer, one can already observe specific cases, the influence of Maoism in Asia and the forms this ideology takes.
Firstly, let us recognise that the doctrine named after its main ideologist and founding Chairman of the Communist Party of China—Mao Zedong (1893–1976)—did not emerge from nothing. Maoism was forged in battle and the ideology was shaped by a century of bloodshed. Xenophobia against Western colonists, who had essentially been in charge of the coastal areas of China and its economy since the Opium Wars (1839–60)—which was manifested in the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901)—and the Proto-communist Taiping Rebellion (1851–64) definitely played a part in the formation of Maoism. Nonetheless, the primary factor that influenced Maoism was probably Japanese imperialism in the Far East in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, and the Chinese struggle against it.
Iconoclastic tendencies—the wish to abolish the old culture and civilisation completely and restart history from scratch—hold a central position in Maoist ideology. Unlike Marxism and Leninism, Mao did not see anything worthy of preservation in the old; similarly to the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi (reigned 221–210 BC), he reformed the Chinese writing system, thus making ancient texts difficult to understand for the new generation, burned manuscripts and books, destroyed historical monuments and executed intellectuals.
Maoism is an extremely xenophobic ideology due to Western and Japanese imperialistic arrogance. Mao’s followers were naturally also antagonistic towards the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12) ruling over China. Continuous attacks against “white barbarians” were common at the turn of past centuries in China, the most atrocious (but not the only) manifestations of which were the Tianjin Massacre in 1870 and the Boxer attack on European embassies in Beijing in 1900.
Following from this, Maoism can be defined as National Socialism, a version of fascism, which demanded that China be “returned” to the Chinese. The same idea lies behind today’s Chinese minorities policy, which attempts to assimilate or eradicate smaller national and religious communities.
This is where Maoism diverges and differs from Marxism and Leninism. It does not have any interest in an international fight against capitalism or imperialism. Maoism set out to be a “third-position doctrine”, an alternative to the two opposing ideologies of the Cold War. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) essentially practised an isolationist policy throughout almost all the Mao Zedong regime (1949–76), being separated from the rest of the world by the “Bamboo Curtain”. The foreign policy of the PRC was and is aimed at protecting the interests of China on the basis of the listed principles.
Maoism is clearly an idealistic ideology, which often pursues impossible goals without taking realities into account. The most ludicrous undertakings in Chinese history fuelled by Maoist idealism have been the Great Leap Forward (1958–60: the establishment of giant communes, national steel production, the Chinese sparrow war, forced labour) and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76: party purge, destruction of cultural relics by the Red Guards, forced labour in the case of rice farmers, Chinesification of minorities, the personality cult of Mao).
Maoism has always been extremely populist in the name of achieving its goals. It is important to engage the masses in the fight against a common enemy, regardless of ideology, and to abandon morality. An ideal Maoist society follows a rustic ideal; it is a nation of rice farmers. Unlike Leninism, the participation of workers is not acknowledged and intellectuals are not to be trusted. At the same time, the idea of a class struggle is undeniably important to the ideology, yet this means the struggle of peasants—who constitute the majority of China’s population—against everyone else. The world view is antagonistic, based on a black-and-white principle. Additionally, unlike Lenin, Mao did not believe that revolution could end with the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Revolution had to be constant, purge continuous. Firstly, the old society was destroyed, yet regular “purges” took place in the new PRC as well: the Three-anti campaign in 1951, the Five-anti campaign 1952, the Hundred Flowers campaign 1956–57, the Great Leap Forward 1958–60 and the Cultural Revolution 1966–76. According to different estimates, some 30 to 80 million people lost their lives during these purges.
Yet no ideology is dangerous or harmless on its own account; ideas cannot be put on trial even in hindsight. Responsibility and guilt still lie with people who execute ideas. Thus, the main question is not which ideology is adopted in each specific case, but how it is done. In the case of Maoism, its fields of application have unfortunately been severely violent. And these methods of implementation are exactly what make this ideology dangerous.
Maoist ideology triggered an avalanche of violence in China itself, yet Maoism’s sphere of influence was not limited to China (nor is it even today). Following Maoist principles, the PRC (officially, Chinese “volunteers”) joined in the Korean War (1950–53), fighting alongside North Korea. As a result, this escalated into the first great military conflict of the Cold War, during which the two sides suffered 2.5 million deaths among civilians and approximately a million among military personnel (at least another million were wounded).
The most notable attempt to implement Maoist ideology outside China took place under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia (1975–79). Whilst their most notorious leader—Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar; 1925/28–98)—did not have a university education, many of Cambodia’s communist leaders were highly educated. Khieu Samphan (born 1931), Hou Yuon (1930–75) and Hu Nim (1930/32–77) all held doctoral degrees and their research spoke of ways to apply Maoist principles in Cambodia.
After the left-wing movement won the Cambodian Civil War in 1975, these principles were put into practice. People from urban areas were relocated to work in rice fields in the countryside. Religion and currency were banned. Ancien régime officials, intellectuals, and people involved in cultural activities were executed. A language reform was introduced, banning polite speech and literature. A state of peasants was set as an ideal. The state was isolated from the outside world and the only trade connection was with China. The aim was to become economically independent and self-sufficient. Familial, emotional and sexual relationships were forbidden. The party underwent repeated purges. Those who showed even the slightest resistance were executed. Minorities were set to be eliminated. According to different sources, between one million and three and a half million people (i.e. half the population) were killed in just four years.
Moreover, let us remember that Maoism has extended its tentacles all over the world: parties promoting that ideology are active in Spain, Albania, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, New Zealand, Brazil, Ecuador and Somalia. In the Philippines, Nepal and India, Maoist groups are in a guerrilla war with governments even today.
Maoism raised its head in South Asia after the relationship between India and the PRC deteriorated in 1959–62. The main reason for bad blood between the two was the PRC’s incursion into de facto independent Tibet (in 1950–59), which culminated in the 14th Dalai Lama and hordes of Tibetans fleeing to India in 1959 and a bloody suppression of the uprising on the roof of the world. This was followed by tensions on the borders of the Himalayas with the PRC on one side, and India and its dependents Nepal and Bhutan on the other. The opposition led to a border war between the two giants in 1962. Despite China’s success in this conflict, the great country found India to be a worthy adversary that could be distracted and perhaps even strongly swayed (which is what China attempted to do in subsequent decades with the help of Pakistan), but not broken. And this is what led to a change in strategy: the implementation of Maoism in South Asia at the grassroots level.
Maoist rebels raised their heads in Nepal, surrounded by India and Tibet (the PRC), as early as 1949, when the (Maoist) Communist Party of Nepal was founded, the successors of which still dominate the politics of the former Himalayan Kingdom even today. In the period 1996–2006, Maoist rebels (People’s Liberation Army, Nepal) led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (also known as Prachanda, born 1954) fought a civil war against the Nepalese government, which was ultimately successful for the Maoists. Funding and weapons for the rebels came straight from China, while several Western countries supported the government of Nepal. According to different sources, 15,000–17,000 people were killed. The peace treaties signed by the Maoists and the Nepalese government in 2005–6 promised democracy and popular power, but also the abolition of the monarchy and the redistribution of state assets. In 2008, the Hindu kingdom became a secular federal republic. The Maoists won the elections and Prachanda became the prime minister for a year. They were not particularly successful in the 2013 elections: the United Communist Party of Nepal is currently only the third-largest political power in the Constituent Assembly. Maoists continue to campaign in pursuance of their agenda, and the party is still armed.
The Maoist rebellion in India began in 1964. Anti-government protesters (“Naxalites”) are named after the village of Naxalbari in the state of West Bengal, where the (Marxist) Communist Party of India, which currently has a million members, was founded in that year. Naturally, there are several socialist, communist, Marxist and even Maoist parties and movements in India; it is a vast country, after all. At this point, we will discuss a Maoist political movement that emerged from the situation after the Sino–Indian border dispute, when communists divided into two camps: China and Maoist powers on one side and the Soviet Union and supporters of Leninism on the other.
1967 saw a Naxalite-led peasant uprising in east and north-east India, which in many ways still smoulders beneath the ashes. The protesters demanded that land be redistributed from major owners to peasants and that the rights of the oppressed be better protected. The movement was led by Charu Majumdar (1918–72) and Kanu Sanyal (1932–2010).
In 1969–70, the Revolutionary Communist Council of India was founded, consisting of about 30 armed groups with a total membership of some 30,000. The ideological centre of the movement was Jadavpur University in Calcutta. The movement adopted the tactics of a people’s war in 1980, attempting to recruit as many commoners as possible to pursue their objectives. In 2004, a coalition was formed, which now consists of about 70,000 fighters.
In this context we can talk about the “Red Corridor”: a rebellious geographic region that stretches from the border between India and eastern Nepal to the west coast of southern India, encompassing 11 Indian states: Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Some areas of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Assam are also partly influenced. It is estimated that Naxalite activities have influence in 40% of Indian territory and 35% of the population.
The primary objective of Naxalites in India is to establish a people’s democracy and boost agricultural economy. The fight is aimed against federalism, capitalism and imperialism. Naxalites practise the tactics of guerrilla warfare, attacking government institutions and police departments, freeing imprisoned fighters, and destroying railways and state property. In order to fund their activities, Naxalites cooperate with criminal gangs and engage in arms, drugs and human trafficking; foreign citizens have been kidnapped for ransom. At times, they are quite popular amongst minority groups and local politicians and parties. Between 1990 and 2010, some 11,000 people were killed in conflicts, half of them civilians caught in the crossfire between the Indian Army and Naxalites. India, which pays little attention to its regional policy and where socio-political problems are plentiful and complex, undoubtedly shares the blame for the Naxalite activities.
The more informed among you would probably argue at this point that Mao Zedong died in 1976 and that was the end of Maoism. Deng Xiaoping (1904–97) assumed power and the process of opening up China to the world, which began as early as 1971, gained new momentum. Even though political power in China still lay in the hands of the Communist Party (where it remains), a capitalist economic model was put into place. Land reform was introduced, a number of state enterprises were privatised, and a socialist market economy was endorsed. In a couple of decades, the PRC became a wealthy country. 1995 saw the start of the “Go Out” policy, which brought about major Chinese investment in the economies of countries in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. China is a strong competitor to the United States in Africa’s economy, selling weapons to Sudan, Zimbabwe, Congo, Tanzania, Rwanda, Chad and Liberia at the same time.
I am far from finding the PRC’s current policy equal to Maoism. Since most Maoist activities have taken place after Mao’s death, many see developments in Nepal and India only as an echo of Maoism, since you cannot squeeze the genie back into the bottle. At the same time, China still regards Maoism as its main ideology and distributes weapons to Maoists in Nepal and India and offers financial and moral support, having, by South Asian standards, almost unlimited economic means for doing so. The most unpleasant aspect is that China does this non-stop and in secret, while trying to appear a normal country with Western values.
What should we conclude from this? Firstly, I would recommend educating oneself: many problems—serious, complex and dangerous issues — in the world are ignored by the media. Secondly: all that glitters is not gold. Let us not be blinded by China’s glory (or that of any other great power). Silken robes often hide dirty underwear. Thirdly: let us learn from history. Poverty and ignorance provide the most fertile ground for ideologies urging people to change the world using violence. Fourthly: even the most ludicrous ideas can be successfully sold to the public if it is done in the guise of distributing bread and circuses. With a full stomach and soft bed, many lose interest in the question of whether the person responsible for this pleasant environment is a murderous dictator or a democratically chosen humanitarian.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.