How America’s War on North Korea Destroyed a Chinese Dynasty

May 8, 2021 Topic: China Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: ChinaMaoMao AnyingNorth KoreaHistory

How America’s War on North Korea Destroyed a Chinese Dynasty

This is the tale of how the death of one man accorded high honor by North Korea may have changed the fate of China.

Though the egg fried rice story is well known in China, it is not embraced by everyone. Cheng Pu, the lone survivor from the fateful breakfast maintained in an interview that this detail is false and that there would not have been any eggs available on the battlefront. Another Chinese writer, Cheng Xi, held forth on CCTV that Mao Anying was actually baking an apple peel. Still another historian, Yuan Jiang, claims Anying was actually warming up frozen bread and porridge.

Anying’s death was so random, so absurd that it’s hard to imagine how the government could not have invented a more heroic narrative. The director of a Beijing play staged in 2013 on Anying’s life claims his own research found that Mao’s son died fetching documents from the office. Other renditions suggest Mao had risen from bed late that morning because he had been working long hours the night before, contrary to Yang Di’s description of Anying as a spoiled princeling who disregarded air defense procedures.

Inevitably, there are also rumors that Anying’s death in Korea had been orchestrated within the Chinese camp—perhaps at the behest of Mao’s fourth wife, Qing Jiang. Indeed, Anying’s widow Liu Songlin claimed his death brought Jiang “immense ecstasy.” However, Jiang opposed Anying’s desire to volunteer in Korea, and there doesn’t appear to be any evidence supporting the notion that he was assassinated.

The path not taken

When Anying died, he took with him the possibility of a new Mao dynasty. His brother Anqing was disqualified due to his mental illness, though he did eventually marry and lived on until 2007. Anqing’s son, Mao Xinyu, is today a major general in the People’s Liberation Army but has kept a low profile.

Nor did Mao Zedong groom either of his daughters, Li Na and Li Min, for high political office. Two additional daughters and three sons born to Mao and Zizhen either died during the war or were lost track of.

If Mao had wished to install Mao Anying as a successor, it is possible he might have succeeded. The Chinese Communist Party does not espouse hereditary rule as a principal, but Mao’s cult of personality was so great that when he grew unhappy with the reforms the party undertook in the 1960s, he single-handedly undermined them by launching the Cultural Revolution.

Successful as a revolutionary leader and political organizer, Mao was a disaster when it came time to manage the country. His bungled agricultural polices under the Five Year Plan led to the deaths of tens of millions from starvation during the 1950s.

The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s brought college education to a halt for nearly a decade, stirred up deadly conflicts between rival communist factions, and led to the dismissal, public shaming and torture of thousands of educated professionals and politicians who knew how to keep the country’s institutions functioning.

Mao’s last wife, Jiang Qing, promoted her husband’s personal power as leader of the Gang of Four and saw to the often-violent fate of both his political opponents and her personal rivals. The most loyal of party leaders who dared to express their concerns about the consequences of Mao’s policies faced banishment from the halls of power and exile to remote farms in the countryside.

Victims of the campaign included Gen. Peng Dehuai, who was beaten regularly for years but luckily survived to have his reputation restored. Some claim Mao never forgave the famous general for Anying’s death, though the proximate cause was likely Peng’s private criticism of Mao prior to the 1959 conference at Lushan.

This carnage among the political elite should bring to mind the brutal fate of many high-ranking politicians in North Korea. China during the last two decades of Mao Zedong’s life exhibited the worst aspects of a totalitarian state ruled by a charismatic dictator, with governing bureaucrats and political elites completely subject to his whims and radical policies.

We cannot know what kind of leader Mao Anying might have grown to become had he survived, nor what values he would have espoused. However, if he had sought to inherit his father’s political and ideological mantle, a de facto Mao dynasty in China might have stillborn badly needed reforms and perpetuated bloody internecine intrigues, just as the Kim family in North Korea has led that nation down a path of isolationism and repressive despotism.

One month after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, a coup d’état overthrew Jiang Qing and the rest of the Gang of Four. She committed suicide in 1991 after being released from jail. The cabal of political leaders that took power declared that Mao had been “seven part right and three parts wrong,” and instituted the reform and opening policies that have led to China’s rise as a great power.

China today remains an authoritarian single-party state, and the ruling Communist Party is divided by competing, though largely non-ideological, oligarchic factions. However, its current paramount leader—the General Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee—is subject to re-election every five years by the National Congress. This complicated and opaque system is meant to prevent any one executive from treating the leader’s chair as a lifelong throne.

Mao Anying remains honored in North Korea to this day. However, though some Chinese commemorate his sacrifice in battle, many are likely grateful he represents the path not followed.

This first appeared in WarIsBoring here.

Image: Reuters.