Footnote or figurehead: Mao's place in Chinese history could have been very different [EPA]

October 1, 1949. After two decades of brutal civil war, Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist Party of China, stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace and, addressing hundreds of thousands of his supporters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, declared the founding of the People's Republic of China.

It was one of the pivotal moments in 20th century history.

After the end of World War II in 1945, civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists started anew.

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The Communists, who enjoyed popular support, crushed the corruption-ridden and now poorly-managed Nationalists, led by General Chiang Kaishek.

By 1949 Chiang was cornered. He fled with the remains of his party to the island of Taiwan, where he ruled as dictator until his death in 1975.

As the People's Republic marks 60 years of Communist Party rule, the consensus view is that China would be a much freer and more democratic country under the Nationalists.

"China would be much better off," says Ai Weiwei, an outspoken Chinese architect and artist.

"You would have a democracy; you would not have state-controlled media; you would have freedom of expression; freedom of speech. Society would not be so corrupt. There wouldn't be so much bureaucracy... in the art world you wouldn't have taboos or censorship."

Others point to Asian democracies such as Japan and Taiwan as possible models.

"My guess is that if you look at what happened in Japan and in Taiwan you would have seen China developing into some sort of democracy with a proper civil society," says Jasper Becker, a British journalist who has written several books on China.

Chiang Kai-shek ruled Taiwan as a one-party state after his defeat on the mainland [AFP]
"I don't think there would necessarily be a multi-party democracy but more like Japan where the Liberal Democratic Party almost always wins."

While Chiang himself was no champion of democracy - he ruled Taiwan as a one-party state for several decades - he was not as tyrannical as Mao, say academics.

He would also have come under pressure from the US and politically-motivated sectors of Chinese society to move towards a more democratic model.

"Chiang would probably have continued, at least for the duration of the Cold War, to rule China as a primitive fascist,” says Gregor Benton, professor of Chinese history at Cardiff University in the UK.

"Perhaps the Americans would have persuaded him to take some ameliorative measures, but look at Vietnam, where that tack didn't work... Perhaps a different form of socialism would have developed in Chinese cities, from which radical movements had been wiped out by the Japanese occupation - a sort of socialism that I, and perhaps you, would have preferred."

Purges

"You wouldn't have such destructive policies against the population if Chiang was in charge. He didn't have Mao's extremes"

Meredith Goldman,
Harvard University

In human rights terms, at least, many believe devastating campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward - a disastrous economic plan that killed tens of millions of people - and the social upheavals of mass purges would not have happened.

"Mao is judged to be 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong. I like to turn that around; in my mind he was 70 per cent wrong and 30 per cent right,” says professor Meredith Goldman, a research associate in Chinese studies at Harvard University in the US.

While Chiang did purge his enemies in Taiwan, they were only his direct political rivals.

Although he was an authoritarian leader he never persecuted ordinary people or completely stifled dissent, Goldman explains.

"You wouldn't have such destructive policies against the population if Chiang was in charge. He didn't have Mao's extremes," she says.

But how about the status of minorities?

Some 60 years after its founding, the Uighur Muslim minority of the northwest Xinjiang region and ethnic Tibetans are still a thorn in the side of the Communist Party of China.

Both these ethnic groups complain of discriminatory policies and security forces regularly struggle to contain illegal protests.

'Genocidal campaigns'

Chiang was as keen on suppressing minorities as any Communist Party hardliner.

"[Chiang's] Nationalists led pretty savage genocidal campaigns in Inner Mongolia, so I don't think we can kid ourselves that [Chiang] would have been too kind," says Dr Kerry Brown, author of several books on China and a researcher for British-based think tank Chatham House.

"They were ruthless nationalists – they can be soft on Tibet now because they don't have any responsibility over the issue," Brown says, adding that Mao lifted his ethnic minority policies straight from the Nationalists' manifesto.

"It's hard to imagine he would have been enlightened," agrees Cardiff University's Benton.

However, the influence of the west may have pushed Chiang to give these regions more autonomy over time.

"I think he would have also tried to exert 'hegemony' over Tibet and Xinjiang but most of these policies would have been far milder and tempered by American influence," says Becker.

China's economy today would probably not be that much different from now, but for different reasons, say academics.

"If the Nationalists had taken over China it wouldn't have made a great deal of difference," says Chatham House's Brown.

"The problems they both had to face would have been the same – a huge lack of development, massive poverty - in 1949 life expectancy was 35 years. To be honest, the tools with which you can attack that are limited."

Communist win 'inevitable'

So the pace towards economic development would have been different – Chiang would have kicked in a freer market model decades before Mao, and there would have been investment from the US and the West from the start.

But the path would have needed to be the same – building heavy infrastructure and moving towards an industrial model.

"Pretty much what we have today," says Brown. "But we would be seeing genuine non-state companies that we don't see today. The Nationalists proved themselves fairly competent economically and their record for the past 60 years has been better than China – except for the last 20 years."

However, there are some who say that Chiang would never have been able to hold on to China.

Jonathan Fenby, British journalist and author of several books on China and Taiwan, says he thinks that even if Chiang had won in 1949, it was inevitable that he would lose power at some point to the Communists.

Chiang would not have been able to cope with the rampant inflation at the time, the USSR would have ramped up support for the Communists - "Mao would not have given up" - and with Japan tamed, the US would be unlikely to have given Chiang the help he needed.

"In other words, the same outcome a couple of years later," says Fenby.

Source: Al Jazeera