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.

  • http://surfputah.blogspot.com wu ming

    the difference is that chiang v. 2.0 has managed to keep the currency stable, the trains running on time, and the foreigners in a position of doing business but not calling shots.

    i think mao would be proud of how rich and powerful china got, if not outright slackjawed boggled at it, really. can’t say that he’d be happy with the fate of the revolution, but i’m not sure if he’d reject it all out of hand. after all, the whole point of the great leap was initially to overtake britain and catch up with america.

    if someone could talk him into thinking it had been his idea, perhaps…

  • Bill

    All the CCP did was delay the reform by 70 years, and get itself into power, and 30 million more untimely deaths.

  • http://granitestudio.org Jeremiah

    Wu Ming,

    Okay, I’ll go there for a moment…Couldn’t you argue that Ol’ CKS really never had the time? The actual territory under his control was limited, he was being harassed by warlords, fighting a stalemate conflict with various CCP Soviets and then he lost the whole thing to the Japanese. I’m not saying that he didn’t have options and certainly his administration was hardly the model of political efficacy or integrity, but he was working with certain handicaps.

    And before people start piling on, yes…I’m to a certain extent playing devil’s advocate here.

  • http://surfputah.blogspot.com wu ming

    compare the areas under GMD control in the nanjing decade with those same areas under CCP control in the first decade after the war. night and day, in just competence alone.

    i suspect the chicken and egg thing cuts CKS the other way: he wasn’t able to deal with all that other stuff because his regime was so utterly incapable or disinterested in actually running a government, if doing so meant it had to constrain the corruption somewhat.

    it is not so much a cheer for the gucci handbag set, but rather a brickbat at their 1930s equivalents, to point out that the former still manage to make things work somewhat as they skim off the top. think reform-era china as daley’s chicago.

  • Cao Meng De

    Wu Ming,

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • Gomer Pyle

    good thing he saved those national relics in taibei from the red guard.

    wonder what kind of training the young pioneers are receiving today

  • http://www.froginawell.net/china/2008/03/five-things-that-didn%e2%80%99t-happen-but-might-have/ CW Hayford

    Is this another “thing that might have happened but didn’t”?

    Well, maybe not, as I figure that if Chiang had been capable of holding and ruling the mainland he would have. Mao found a way to win, so the continuity or change from the days of Mao’s rule is only partly in economic policy. Perhaps his biggest feat was uniting China.

    To be sure, Chiang did a lot of the heavy lifting in the 30s — before there could be one, there had to be two . And his best armies were devastated by the Japanese. But a winner finds a way to win.

  • Josh

    The difference between the CCP and KMT has always been one of ideologies, not methods. In many ways, China at the beginning of reform and opening was in a similar position it was in the 40s (reeling from the ravages of internal strife) and has continued with similar policies. However, it always hurts when you think about the irrevocable cultural and historical damage suffered during the CR…I think I would have preferred Taiwan’s “cultural rennaisance” if I was going to be repressed anyway.

  • Tom

    Google is not making us dumber, but it’s making the idiots more visible. The question that started this post seems pretty obviously to be coming from a student looking to copy-and-paste an essay together.

    The counterargument is that the Generalissimo did this to himself. If he hadn’t massacred those Communists in Shanghai, then maybe he could’ve had a united front at home, just the way Sun Yat-Sen imagined it. (Granted, he might’ve have had troubles with the foreign powers.)

    P.S. I wish we still had devil’s advocates. Pope John Paul II did some very strange things.