What do I think of Mao?
It’s the question I get asked most often after “How can a white dude from New Hampshire be teaching Chinese history in Beijing?” and “How’s the dissertation coming?”*
My usual answer is that if Mao had exited the stage in the early 1950s, his historical legacy might have been relatively secure as a brilliant, if often ruthless, revolutionary general and master propagandist. But as is too often the case in history, great revolutionaries seldom make good leaders of the nations they found. The skill sets required are just too different.
Had Mao stepped aside/died** early on, the grown-ups (Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Peng Dehuai, Zhou Enlai) might have managed to create a state which blended revolutionary gains with rational policies of economic and social development. Unfortunately, China and the world had to wait 29 years for Deng Xiaoping, the last surviving member of the “Coalition of Reason”,*** to see if such a blend was possible.
In the interim we had the Mao years, which, politically speaking, were kind of like being strapped in the passenger seat of a stolen Lexus at 3:00 a.m. with your good friend Gary Busey at the wheel huffing paint and sucking down his third bottle of Goldschläger. Under such conditions, your life will change, probably not for the better, and any memories you might have – should you survive at all – will be of the highly weird and ultra-violent variety. Not good times, very bad times.
But as any good Mao story datelined Beijing will tell you, Mao is still revered in China, because, you know, taxi drivers have statues of him in their cars and such and Shaoshan gets tourists, I guess, and so…yeah, Chinese people love Mao.
There are a lot of reasons, beyond dashboard décor, why this is. You often hear some of the same nostalgia for the old days from older Chinese residents that many Russians feel for the Soviet days…life sucked, but at least it sucked for all of us, there wasn’t any ‘corruption.’
There’s also Mao as a potent symbol – the liberator of the oppressed masses against the forces of tyranny, though it does get a little…awkward when those forces of tyranny happen to be the CCP and its cronies.
The Party has always had a hard time dealing with memories of Mao. On one hand, most of the people in power today had a difficult go of it during the Cultural Revolution. They came of age and came to power under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who cagily egged on resentment over the excesses of the Mao era to consolidate his own hold on power.
(Part of the reason for Mao going batshit crazy in the 1960s was just such a fear: that members of his own Party would do to his legacy what Khrushchev had done to Stalin. There were many suspected “Khrushchevs” in the CCP before Mao settled on Liu Shaoqi as the most likely culprit. As we know, this did not work out well for Liu Shaoqi.****)
At the same time, no matter how much they wished they could, subsequent generations of CCP leaders simply couldn’t jettison or besmirch the Mao legacy. Khrushchev always had Lenin to fall back upon. Stalin could be blamed for moving away from the original revolutionary vision. Mao could not, the vision was his. To repudiate Mao was to hack away at the Party’s own historical and theoretical legitimacy and nobody wanted to be the first one to swing the axe. Deng was too savvy. Jiang was too stupid. Hu is too weak. And Mao lives on.
What is Mao’s legacy today? Is it the mathematical absurdity of 70% good and 30% bad? Is the story to be told through the hagiographies of the PRC publishing houses? The Hippocratic porn of Li Zhisui? The polemical rage of Jung Chang? The truth is: a good biography of the Chairman is almost impossible to write as of right now. The kinds of archives, records, writings, notes, diaries and other evidence needed by historians to reconstruct a life are under lock and key. (Or, if the CCP is smart, long ago ‘disappeared.’)***** Without them, we have only the vaguest, highly filtered glimpses into the mind of Mao.
It is a complex legacy, and one fraught with conflict. There is a group in China today who seeks at all costs to protect the memory of the Chairman. They resent the way historians and scholars inside China are taking a more critical and objective tone in dealing with the mistakes of the 20th century. Their love of Mao is in part an expression of extreme ‘patriotism,’ but their writings also contain subtle jabs at the steady dismantling of the socialist system in China, the erosion of benefits and the rise of materialism. Often referred to as Neo-Leftists (not to be confused with ‘critical intellectuals’ like Wang Hui, who are not in favor of restoring Maoism, but rather balancing and equalizing the social and economic inequalities associated with development), these self-declared guardians of Mao’s legacy have in recent months turned their anger upon several Chinese writers who had the temerity to suggest that Mao was anything less than Demi-God, in particular the writer and “Old Comrade” Mao Yushi, for this essay helpfully translated by China Media Project.
The boys and girls who write their “We Love Mao and anybody else can suck it” posts and comments on Utopia recently convened a whole lynch mob/pep rally in Shanxi over the weekend. Seriously, these yahoos come across like the Chinese version of those American wing nuts who claim their love of the Confederacy and flying the Stars and Bars has nothing to do with race.****** Whatever Mao’s value as an icon of socialist values in today’s China a-go go, you can’t venerate the man without coming to terms with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Just like you can’t celebrate the Confederacy and ignore slavery. You just can’t. It simply doesn’t work like that.
David Bandurski had an excellent post last week looking at some of the proximate and immediate causes for the recent boom in “Leftisim” in China, and this week The Economist chimes in under the typically histrionic headline “Boundlessly loyal to the great monster.”
I’ve translated the latest manifesto/conference report from this past weekend’s meeting posted on Utopia. It reads like the minutes to a Tea Party rally. Just replace “Mao Yushi” with “NPR” and “socialist road” with “The American Way” and substitute this song for the Internationale. Enjoy.
On the afternoon of May 29, the Shanxi All-People’s Convention to Denounce the Race Traitor Collaborationists Mao Yushi and Xin Ziling was successfully convened. This was a patriotic rally, a rally which reflected the voices of the people for justice, and rally to opposed imperialism and invaders of all forms as well as running dog race traitors and collaborationists.
Attending comrades unanimously believe:
We cannot allow the glorious and radiant image of Chairman Mao Zedong, who acted as the leader of the Party and the People as well as founding the People’s Republic of China and the People’s Liberation Army, and who, for his whole life, lead the revolution of the working masses, to be recklessly slandered and distorted. The attacks against the Party and the People’s Leaders by Mao Yushi, Xin Ziling, Yuan Tengfei and others for the purposes of betraying their race and acting as collaborationists will not be tolerated by the Party, by the people, and tolerated even less by History.
In the face of the ever increasing arrogance and hostility by the race traitors and collaborationists, the Party and the People to unite as one and uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the leading position of Mao Zedong thought, support the following of the Socialist road and to raise high the red banner of Socialism. Only in this way can the arrogant and hostile collaborators and race traitors who seek to restore Capitalism, deny the leadership of the Party, repudiate the Socialist Road, and renounce Mao Zedong thought be thoroughly smashed. Only by overthrowing Imperialism and its agents within China can a truly independent national economy develop and the People can again be the true masters.
The attendees all spoke out, angrily denouncing the vicious slanders, libels and attacks against Chairman Mao and the party by the race traitors and collaborationists Mao Yushi and Xin Ziling. Our glorious senior revolutionary comrades spoke first at the meeting, in an angry and trenchant speech, they denounced the exceedingly despicable, vicious, obscene, contemptible words and strategies used by the race traitors and collaborators Mao Yushi and Xin Ziling to against the Great Leader Chairman Mao. After which Comrade Li Guangrang, Comrade Cha Delin, Comrade Shang Zhenhuai, Comrade Bai Yang, Comrade Wang Honghai, Comrade Liang Ling and others also spoke out giving angry denunciations. Each comrade expounded from all angles the greatness of the Party and Chairman Mao, and bitterly attacked the slanderous and despicable actions of the race traitors and collaborators Mao Yushi and Xin Ziling
As everyone knows, our mighty leader Chairman Mao was the great liberator of the working masses and the people. He carried out the great liberation of the toiling masses from the evils of the old society, and led us on the happy road of socialism. The Great Old Man allowed us to to free ourselves and make us the masters of our own affairs and happy lives. The perfect system of Socialism ensured the benefits of housing, education, work, and care for the aged. The common folk genuinely lived in peace and contentment, living happy and harmonious lives. It can be said that the enormity of Heaven and Earth are nothing compared to the enormity of the Party’s grace and devotion or that the depths of the rivers and seas cannot be compared to the depths of Chairman Mao’s grace and devotion.
Therefore, we must use our lives to uphold what is just against the rumors and slanders of the race traitors and collaborationists Mao Yushi and Xin Ziling. We must resolutely defend and support the leading position of the Chinese Communist Party, support taking the Socialist Road, and support Mao Zedong Thought. The conference concluded with a majestic rendition of the Internationale.
* Fine, thank you for asking. And now I’m going to resume mainlining Red Bull into my bloodstream and type until dawn…
**Not saying I wish Mao had died young, but as Gore Vidal famously said of Elvis: “Good career move.”
***Borrowed from The Office
****Though Liu’s kid has been making his own waves of late.
*****As was done with the papers and archives of Chiang Kai-shek.
******I was going to compare them to Justin Bieber fans but then I realized I’d rather have deranged White Supremacists flaming me than angry Bieber fans. I fear the power of Bieb like the Devil fears the wafer.