Mao and Chiang Kai-shek are walking down the street, and Mao says…

Whether or not our Google culture is making us smarter, dumber, or somewhere in between, I do get a fair bit of traffic from Google searches. Many of them a bit random, but a few are questions plugged into search engines like messages in electronic bottles floating in the Internet sea hoping for a bit of information and enlightenment. I dare not suggest that either information nor enlightenment are available in seller’s quantities from this little hobby of mine, but some of the questions do get me thinking.

Today a user followed this query to the Granite Studio: “How do Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong continue to influence Taiwan and China today?”

It’s obviously a complicated question, but it does recall a comment a Beijing acquaintance of mine made the first time we went to the old South Bar Street to take in the spectacle of a Sanlitun Saturday night:

“This is what all of China would like if Chiang Kai-shek had won the war.”

But didn’t he?

If the ghosts of Mao and Chiang somehow reconciled over shots of baijiu in the afterlife, and then wandered around Beijing on a rainy afternoon O-Minus 55 days, what would they be thinking? What would they talk about?

Some scholars have made the argument that post-Opening and Reform China is very much in keeping with the KMT vision of a strong one-party state administering a relatively open economy, going so far as to suggest that today’s China shares more in common with the Nanking Decade of 1927-1937 than with the Mao years (1949-1976). There might be something to that.

For example, both today’s CCP, like the KMT of the 1930s emphasizes modernization, a strong military, and urban development at the expense of rural areas. Like the 1930s, today there is a fair amount of personal freedom and autonomy…so long as individuals don’t challenge the political leadership or threaten ‘social stability,’ and as is in the PRC today, the secret police under Chiang’s government were always ready to squash dissent in the name of ‘national unity’ lest that personal freedom and autonomy get a bit too bumptious.

Even the CCP’s recent ‘Harmonious Society’ campaign bears more than a passing resemblance to Chiang’s New Life Movement in that both advocate a kind of Confucian neo-traditionalism in the service of social stability/political loyalty alongside campaigns against “uncivilized/backwards” habits of hygiene and personal deportment.

Moreover, A case could be made that Chinese society today is exactly what Mao was afraid would happen when he decided to ice the economic plans which Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping proposed in the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Forward. (Plans which Deng would revive 15 years and one Cultural Revolution later.)

I can’t help but wonder if today’s China would be Mao’s nightmare come to life: A capitalist society riven with economic inequalities, foreign influences, and corruption run by a class of elitist technocrats far more concerned with what works than with ideological purity.

As I said, it’s a complex question, but certainly one worth considering on a rainy and flu-ridden Saturday afternoon.