As a historian, I’m more accustomed to writing about “historical” figures who were buried long before I was born. Nelson Mandela was an exception. I am humbled when I think that I shared the same planet with Nelson Mandela for the last four decades. He was a giant who lived among us and it is unsurprising that news of his death reverberated even in China. I say “even in” because in his long career Nelson Mandela was so many things that the current Chinese government actively fears and loathes. He was a political prisoner, an activist, a party organizer, general rabble rouser, an outspoken champion of the disenfranchised, and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. If you are Chinese, these are not activities that get you a place on the CCP Christmas card list.
And yet, the Chinese government has joined the world in mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela. President Xi Jinping said, “”The Chinese people will forever remember the outstanding contributions he made to the cause of human progress.” The People’s Daily quoted Vice President Li Keqiang as saying, “Mandela spent all his life advocating and implementing racial equality and reconciliation. He not only was a hero in the heart of South Africans, but also won global recognition.”
In fact, the state media has been so effusive in their eulogizing of Mandela that they’ve managed to stir up the hornets nest of crazy that is China’s Neo-Left who are miffed that some people might actually consider Nelson Mandela to be greater than Chairman Mao. Seriously, these people exist.
Other corners of the Chinese media universe, namely CCTV, have tried to link the two together. Mandela as South Africa’s Mao.
Despite attempts to link the two, Mandela didn’t really have much in common with Mao. Mao was an idealist in the strictest sense of the word, a man who believed that how you did something mattered more than the results, often with disastrous consequences. During his long career, Mandela always kept his eyes on the prize. He repeatedly showed a willingness to compromise tactics to realize his dream of equality in South Africa. If that meant becoming a Communist or being a capitalist, preaching non-violence or urging township residents to arm themselves then fuck it: whatever worked. To paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, it didn’t matter what you did with the mice, so long as eventually the black cats and the white cats were equal.
With Mandela’s passing, the world has lost one of its great leaders and inspirational figures. It must absolutely make Xi Jinping want to start slamming his hand into the door of a shoddily-constructed Hongqi Limo when he hears the foreign press lauding the Dalai Lama, among others, as an heir to Mandela’s legacy. Fortunately for him and the Chinese dignitaries dispatched to today’s memorial service, the South African government isn’t about to piss off Beijing and issue the DL a visa thus eliminating the possible high comedy of Li Yuanchao and the DL bumping into each other in the receiving line.
It is striking however, how so much of the vitriol directed at Mandela by his critics in the South African government resembles that of the CCP toward its critics today. Mandela’s crime was treason and at his trial he was accused of, among other things, seeking to upset the stability of South African society.
Perhaps that’s why the Chinese state media is laying it on so thick. By trying to appear on the side of the angels, they are hoping people might forget that the government here has more in common with Mandela’s old opponents than it does with Mandela.