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It’s a Mad Mad 90th Anniversary

Two things happened this summer.  The CCP celebrated its 90th anniversary and Mad Men decided to take the year off.  The truth is, the world’s longest running Communist government has a lot in common with an American show celebrating naked capitalism and martinis.  Mad Men is about that moment in US history when the American dream was being invented and promoted by Madison Avenue.  They convinced us that if we just bought the right car and had the house with the yard and drank the right soda then “everything was going to be okay.”[1] The CCP uses basically the same message.  Stick with us and you’ll get what you want…the house, the car, kids in college.  Forget about what happened before, it’s irrelevant.  The story is anything we want it to be.  Think about the present, the future, and the fear that you have over losing everything you worked for by dredging up unpleasant truths from the past.

You have to figure too that Mao and Don Draper share a lot in common, both being chain-smoking misogynistic misanthropes with shady pasts who rose to prominence by being good ideas men and not a little bit ruthless.  Politics aside, I bet they could have hung a bit.

So with that, and out of withdrawal for my usual summer guilty television pleasure, I present the Mad Men guide to 90 years of the CCP.[2]



“I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie, there is no system. The universe is indifferent.”

For all the Marxist educational materials and classes foisted upon China’s students plus forests of trees felled to supply the paper for endless government reports on socialist theory and scientific development, the real secret of the CCP is this: There is no plan and there never was.  For the last 90 years, the Party has lurched from one big idea to another without really ever stopping to think about what might happen next: Join the KMT, work with the urban proletariat, get purged by the KMT, work with the peasants, work with the KMT again, fight the Japanese, carry out land reform sometimes but not if it pisses people off, take over the country, reform the land again only this time you mean it, then take the land back, ask for help from the Soviets, antagonize Khrushchev and watch the Soviets leave, fight the US “invaders’ in Korea, invite Nixon to China, 100 Flowers and Anti-Rightist movements, criticize Confucius, communes and SEZs, Capitalists in the Party, put statue of Confucius on Chang’an Dajie.  Four Modernizations, Two Whatevers, Three Represents and still no plan.  Why do so many foreign pundits argue about the future of the CCP? Because the CCP itself has no clue where it’s going to be in 10 years.   It’s going to continue to react to whatever is immediately threatening its hold on power and go from there.


“Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”

A defining feature of the Party ever since they all piled into that little room in the French Concession in 1921 has been its casual relationship with History.[3] In particular, its ability to convince people to overlook the past no matter what kind of historical wreckage might still be smoldering in the rear-view mirror.  Great Leap Forward? Cultural Revolution? April 5? June 4? The Party shares a central conceit with Mad Men: What actually happened is only one of many possible pasts.  No matter how badly you may have messed up, if you move forward and keep delivering the goods people will forgive and forget an awful lot, especially if it’s not in their best interests to remember.[4]


“If you choose not to attend the anniversary celebration, it will appear to many that you are ill.”

“Who told you I was vain?”

“Really? Isn’t it obvious?”

For Jiang Zemin, who is, so far, a no show at the 90th anniversary celebration.  Given that the most dangerous place to be in Beijing is either a) in front of a speeding  taxi b) in front of a speeding tank or c) between Jiang Zemin and a bank of television cameras it seems safe to say that Old Panda Eyes may be on his way out.  Fortunately, CCP economics guru/resident curmudgeon/favorite Spock impersonator Zhu Rongji is up there, still representing.



“I said congratulations, didn’t I? Though sometimes when people get what they want they realize how limited their goals were.”

To Hua Guofeng, the man had an almost Taoist ability to turn utter uselessness into a political art.  His complete lack of aptitude, allies, and discernible motivations made him the perfect bridge between the lunatic Mao years and the beginnings of the Reform and Opening era.  It was always sad to think of the old guy rattling around the annual meetings after he was eased out of power.  I could see new cadres running into him, shocked that he was still there. They would mumble a quick hello and then flee as fast as they could, like 20-somethings accosted by a chain-smoking cougar who tells every guy in the bar how she used to be a cheerleader and her nickname was “Pull the Train Paula.”  Awkwardness abounds.


Pick a job and then become the person who does that job.

Isn’t this basically the story of Mao? In the late 1920s, no Marxist worth his red undies would have bet on a rural land revolution, it was still all about the urban proletariat…even though the CCP had almost no presence in the cities and China’s “urban proletariat” was hardly an overwhelming force at the time. Kicked out of the cities by Chiang’s purges and not allowed to sit at the cool kids table by the orthodox Marxists in the CCP high command, Mao headed out to rural Jiangxi and started his own revolutionary summer camp.  Economics determines ideas? Bullshit. Change people’s way of thinking and you can transform the basis of the means of production.  Peasants too stupid and conservative to revolt? You say too stupid, I say poor and blank.  A few years and a long march later, Mao looked like a genius and gradually emerged as The Chairman.  And even though much of Mao’s thought has been shelved for the past three decades, he’s still getting a lot of love.  Bo Gu? Not so much.


Am I to entertain your ballad of dissatisfaction, or has something actually happened? Because I am at work, dear.

As awful as this is to say, you have to be impressed with the brutal efficiency with which CCP suppresses dissent.  Not only are they able to silence opposing voices with a cold ruthlessness that keeps the more timid from even speaking up, but it does so in such a way that most people in China could absolutely care less.  Bearded overweight artists exposing their privates are just not on most people’s online agenda.[5] Folks are too busy making money.  Which is sad, but is the result of a careful (and callous) calculation by the CCP that people in China are too wrapped up in buying things and social climbing to pay attention to a few wailing prophets of doom, especially when said prophets look and act like a Chinese avant-garde version of Ron Jeremy.


A self-made man, the Abe Lincoln of California, who was Vice President of the United States six years after getting out of the Navy.  Kennedy?  I see a silver spoon.  Nixon?  I see myself.

It seems that both Don Draper AND Mao would have voted Republican. I mean, if either of them actually voted.


I don’t understand. I try to do my job. I follow the rules and yet people hate me. Innocent people get hurt, and other people, people who are not good, get to do anything they want. It’s not fair.

There are an awful lot of people in China who feel this way.  In the past thirty years, living standards have risen dramatically (whether this is due to CCP policies or the CCP simply getting off of people’s backs is another question) but not everybody is a winner in the new society, and while most unrest is contained to pockets of discontent sounding their barbaric yawps, the perception among people here – even those who are not unhappy with their position in society – is that good things come only to those who know how to game the system.  Trust me: when and if a body blow is thrown against the CCP, it won’t be from the ‘dissident’ community, but because good people  finally got sick of living in a kleptocracy.


I feel like I should make a speech…go back to work.

You have to love Deng Xiaoping. He pushes Hua Guofeng out the door so fast and smooth it’s a wonder he didn’t leave money on the nightstand and a promise to Hua that Deng would ‘call him next time he’s back in town’, greases his two protégés into positions of power, borrows a few Maoist clichés (实事求是 anyone?) and then in 1978 he gives a speech which hits the reset button on Mao’s revolution.  The best part is how he completely eschewed all of the trappings of his position.  No posters, no big pictures, no fancy titles.[6] Just four modernizations and a microphone.


If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.

There’s little difference between the advertising industry and the Communist propaganda machine.  They’re just selling different products.  For 90 years the CCP has survived by training a steady fire hose of bullshit at its supporters and convincing those same supporters that it’s all just chocolate pudding with Chinese characteristics.  And they’ve gotten better at it over time.  Sure there are stumbles still, but the propaganda department in 2011 is, generally speaking, a pretty slick operation. Why block the New York Times or CNN when you can simply convince people that it’s all just the jealous rantings of bitter anti-China white people?   The CCP and its apologists are masters at the strategy of “Hey, look over there…don’t look here.”  Human rights in China? Hey, buddy, where’s our apology for the Opium War? Even the 90th anniversary is an exercise in misdirection.  90 is a decent round number, and the CCP never misses a chance to flaunt themselves in public such that even Eric Weiner is embarrassed for them, but I also firmly believe that part of the motivation is to reclaim this anniversary year for the Party and its origin mythology rather than turn it over to the more historically ambiguous and politically tricky centenary of the 1911 Wuhan Uprising.


“I guess what I’m saying is at some point, we’ve all parked in the wrong garage.”

Apart from the whole Mao was “70% correct, 30% incorrect” blather (which the Party has been clinging to like a crazy shut-in on an episode of Hoarders) there’s also a growing tendency to excuse the worst excesses of the 1958-1976 period as simply “Mao being Mao.”  Like a kindly but eccentric drunk uncle who gave out candy to little children but also did to 5-10 for putting the candy store owner into a coma with a 2×4.  I don’t count myself among the “Mao the Monster” crowd, but give the guy his due: His reign featured some of the the craziest and most destructive events in 20th century history, and whether he was the mastermind or a dupe is kind of irrelevant.[7] As bad ideas go, having this guy run your country is up there with hitching a ride with Ryan Dunn or hiring R. Kelly to be your baby sitter.

He may have been great as a political visionary, a poet, a revolutionary general and/or a noted connoisseur of stewed fatty pork, but when that many people die on your watch and the NEXT guy (or the next, next guy – sorry Hua) presides over a historically unprecedented period of economic development…that’s not good.  That’s not even 30% not good.  That’s like 70% sucks and 30% really, really sucks and all the Red Songs in the world aren’t going to change those numbers.


I have ideas.
I’m sure you do. Sterling Cooper has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich.

Ideas matter, but not all ideas are created equal especially when the CCP has a say in the matter.  During the 1930s and 1940s, the CCP managed to convince a whole generation of left-leaning patriotic Chinese that the the Party had their interests at heart.  Of course, it turned out that it was this same group of intellectuals – people who like to, you know, ask questions and stuff – who ended up taking the fall after the Communists took over and especially during the 100 Flowers/Anti-Rightist era of the late 1950s.  Frankly, I’ve always wondered if the CCP leadership – many of whom had aspirations as philosophers/writers/poets/thinkers – just weren’t pissed off that other people had actual talent.  Jiang Qing was particularly notorious for taking out her frustrations on the artistic community by making them sing her shitty operas, but I’m guessing she wasn’t the only bitter failed artist in the bunch willing to take revenge on the more talented.


But that’s life. One minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute some secretary’s running you over with a lawn mower.

Liu Shaoqi was a good communist. He wrote a famous essay called “How to be a Good Communist.” He, along with Zhou Enlai, functioned as the Party’s designated grown-ups, even taking the keys away from Mao for a brief period in the early 1960s.  Too bad Mao was a vindictive son of a bitch.  Within three years, Liu went from being the President of China to dying of cancer, naked and alone, in an unheated prison tool shed.


“Look, I want to tell you something because you’re very dear to me. And I hope you understand that it comes from the bottom of my damaged, damaged heart. You are the finest piece of ass I’ve ever had and I don’t care who knows it. I am so glad that I got to roam those hillsides.”

To the women of the CCP, and not just those who hold up half the sky but to all the girls Mao loved before.  How awkward is it to see a young and lithe Mao courting Yang Kaihui on the big screen when you know that 10 years later she would be executed for protecting Mao even as the future Great Helmsman was shacking up with (and impregnating) his new 18-year old girlfriend?


It wasn’t a lie, it was ineptitude with insufficient cover.

Which brings me back to history.  The key to the Party’s hold on power is to keep control of its own story.  I’ve used this quotation before, but on a day when my television is an endless loop of self-congratulatory propagandistic bullshit, it is worth repeating George Orwell’s famous dictum that ‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’  The party is afraid of many things, but most of all it is afraid of losing control of its own past.  The recent multi-volume History of the CPC reads like an inoculation: rather than ignore dark moments in the Party’s history, traumatic events are papered over with passive grammar and a banal platitudes.  Mistakes were made. Enemies were among us.  Shit happened.[8]

It’s getting harder and harder for the Party to lie, to simply make things up and hope to get away with it. But at the same time, they are getting smarter about how they go about massaging the past, augmenting the mythology with modern media, and working overtime to avoid any counter-programming or competing messages.  But that’s what it has to do if it wants to stay in power for another 90 years.


[1] Brilliant scene from the very first episode.  The whole thing is worth watching, but the money quote comes at 2:07.

[2] With the usual apologies to Bill Simmons who invented (and is still the master of) the movie quote blog post. Past examples on this site have included the Hangover Guide to the 60th Anniversary of the PRC, the Sicilian Guide to Chinese History and the Pulp Fiction Guide to Apartment Hunting in Beijing.

[3] By which I mean the kind of relationship Florence “Mrs. Brady” Henderson apparently had with a former mayor of New York and let me add how little I needed that visual in my life.

[4] One of the best scenes from season one is when account executive Pete Cambell tries to blackmail Don with information about Don’s desertion and identity theft.  When told about Don’s past, senior partner Bert Cooper gives a jaded sigh, shrugs, and asks, “Mr. Cambell, who cares?”  Unfortunately, Betty Draper wouldn’t be quite so cavalier about these revelations later on, but she could be handled. In fact, Betty makes the perfect candidate for a CCP smear campaign – whining, bitter, and borderline psychotic – the Global Times denunciation practically writes itself.

[5] Though apparently overweight clean-shaven sex-hound cadres still attract an online following.

[6] Later on, Party propagandists wouldn’t be able to help themselves, culminating in the classic “Deng as Godzilla” poster celebrating his Southern Tour in 1992.

[7] As are debates over the body count.  When you bicker about how many millions of lives were snuffed out prematurely, does it really matter if the final tally is 10 million or 30 million or 70 million? I say no.

[8] Okay, I’m paraphrasing on the last one.