By Kumar David –
A great benefit of life as a peripatetic academic is that you get to visit all manner of splendid places and I certainly have had my fill. Yours faithfully has knocked around teaching in universities in three continents (Asia three countries, Africa and North America), four if you count part-time tutoring as a PhD candidate in London. I even had the offer of a Professorship in Australia but with one thing and another I decided to hang on in Hong Kong. The point is that this has made it possible to travel to a goodly number of places relatively inexpensively – the Silk Road, the Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors, beautiful Lijiang Valley, numerous African game reserves, to sail on the Nile through the land of the Pharaohs, Taj, Kashmir, visit many great cities in Europe, India, Asia, America and Australia and of course “do” the Grand Canyon, Niagara, Monument Valley, Yosemite and all that. Many goodly sights and kingdoms have I seen that bards in fealty to travel brochures hold.
For breathtaking scenic beauty the Zhan Jia Jie National Forest Park in the far northwest of Hunan Province is hard to beat, though my Mongolian guide, for a strange reason, had her mind more on Brighton than beauty! The Park is a World Heritage Site with a five-star rating. Its outstanding feature is quartzite sandstone pillars, some over 2500 ft tall called krast formations – search me what that means, but great families of krast pillars is stunning. There is also a mountain with a huge hole high up, astonishing to stand inside; a Russian pilot once flew his MIG-21 through it! To reach the Park you transit Changsa city the capital of Hunan, the province where Mao was born in December 1893. Changsa is where he attained communist enlightenment in 1920 when working as headmaster in a school. He was one of only 12 voting delegates at the founding conclave, in Shanghai, in 1921, of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – total membership of 195. It blows the mind that membership now exceeds 80 million, though of course a great many are plain opportunists.
The Mao story in three easy paragraphs
Western folk are as extravagant in their awe of Zhan Jia Jie’s splendour as they are ferocious in assailing Mao tse-tung. Historians have studied census figures and estimate famine and hardship traceable to GLF, the Great Leap Forward, (1958-62) led to no less than 15 million deaths. Maoisim’s other great debacle GPCR, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-69), was a harebrained stab at ideological and cultural purification, leading to a breakdown of state and society. The number murdered in GPCR was in the hundreds of thousand. GLF was calculated policy and Mao was clearly clinically sane when he led the party into it, perhaps unanimously though Liu shao-chi, Chou en-lai and Deng xiao-ping may have had mild unvoiced reservations. However, in my view, during GPCR Mao was clinically insane.
It started as a straightforward power struggle but soon turned into madness. Liu shao-chi and Deng xiao-ping took state and economic leadership in 1959 and sidelined Mao who stepped down as PRC State Chairman after the collapse of GLF. The two intended to marginalise Mao, strip him of real power and restrict him to a ceremonial role while recognising his historical contributions. He fought back and after setbacks within the Party went beyond it and summoned millions of radical youth (the Red Guards) to action. On 18 August 1966 Mao and Lin Biao made several appearances atop Tiananmen to the adoration of an estimated 10 million ‘Little Red Book of Quotations’ waving Red Guards. Frenzy spread, Mao was promoted to a god like status and terminal insanity took a grip.
There was disquiet in the Party as Lin Biao, now promoted to Defence Minister, or some of his backers, initiated a plot to use the military apparatus to capture the state and confine Mao to a ceremonial role. However, the Party not the military is the true font of power in China and when news leaked in 1971 Lin was compelled to flee to the Soviet Union. His plane crashed in still mysterious circumstances and that was the end of any challenge to the supremacy of the CCP.
Mao sulked while his wife Jiang Quing and a group of three associates (The Gang of Four) rose to prominence under the umbrella of a still surviving Chairman (he died in September 1976 six years after GPCR was halted). The targets of the Gang of Four were Chou en-lai, Deng xiao-ping (Liu shao-chi had died in prison) and other moderates. Chou died in January 1976, eight months before Mao, but Deng who had been rehabilitated was gaining in prominence in these years with one brief interruption. Within a month of Mao’s death the Gang of Four were arrested and brought to trial. Deng consolidated power during 1978 and in 1979 launched his now famed opening-up and economic reforms. So, despite Mao’s ultra-left delusions, the sober line of the CCP moderates, the Liu shao-chi, Chou en-lai, Deng xiao-ping tradition, prevailed. After twenty years of costly diversions the CCP at last came home to practical reformism.
How the Chinese people see Mao today
I made you read three paragraphs that you probably know all about only as an introduction to the interesting topic that is the title of this essay. How do Chinese people today look upon Mao and his legacy? The answer is more complex than people who have not visited China think. To keep it brief, I will emphasise only two points. Mao is not seen as a villain but a great leader who did make a few mistakes, and secondly it is the agony of GPCR, not the much greater losses suffered in GLF, that lingers on in people’s minds. (June 4 1989 in Tiananmen Square, by the hurricane standards of events in China’s 4000 year long history, is a storm in a teacup).
I can drive the first point home with plenty of anecdotal evidence, apart from obvious objective data. In parks or museums where Mao statues, like the huge one in Changsa stand, I have seen foreigners trying to tease Chinese students about Mao: “Isn’t he a bad man? Didn’t he do this or that?” The reaction of the locals was very defensive of Mao: “Great man; founder of PRC, our great leader” and so on. There was a real rush and gush of nationalist emotion. Onetime a girl in her early twenties brusquely turned and led her student companions away saying “Oh they are trying to criticise Chairman Mao”. Older people are more guarded but to separate Chinese nationalist pride and Chairman Mao is impossible.
There is no public or even subterranean private desire to, for example, remove the huge portrait of Mao that hangs on the Tiananment wall, or do away with the numerous statues and busts of the Great Helmsman. In Russia, in contrast, there are some people at least who question the need for a Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square (it’s still Red though!) and Leningrad has reverted to its historic (October 1917) and historical (Peter the Great) name Petrograd. The CCP’s position, after its numerous revaluations, is that Mao is a great chap who was right 2/3 and made some mistakes, 1/3. Not quite sure whether I got the latest numbers right.
But there is a point to it all. Without the Chinese Revolution, without the PRC, without the liberation of the peasantry (land question), without the liberation of women (they hold up half the heavens), and without the unification of the country and a strong and stable sate, there would have been no place for Deng xio-ping to do his market opening experiments, and no rising global economic superpower to capture headlines today. Fate moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.
I attribute the greater residual pain felt about GPCR than GLF, though in respect lives lost and economic damage GLF was an order or two orders of magnitude more destructive than GPCR, to two factors. The intellectuals who were sent off to the countryside for a year of hard labour, the school teachers and university professors who were humiliated and paraded in public in dunce caps, the generation whose graduation was delayed by many years, they are all still here. You can meet them, talk to them and get the bare details; they are too reserved to tell you about the depth of humiliation or hardship in the remote countryside. The wounds of GPRC have snot healed in the minds the 40+ year old generation – it may have been fathers or mothers who were sent away.
Memories of GLF are different. I have not come across anything anecdotal, personal or familial among friends and students; it’s all in books and statistics. And I think the reason why it is blurred is not only because it happened a decade earlier. It is also because it blends into the background of the myriad famines, civil wars and dynastic struggles of China’s millennial story. There have been about 1000 recorded famines in Chinese history; the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1873) took 60 million lives; the fabled Ming Dynasty (1364-1644), and others, collapsed due to famines and disasters. Chinese people, at least middle-aged and older, see their history through different eyes.
There is contemporary relevance to my waffling. It is not only economic success under a Stalinist regime, once removed, that makes the adult population of Hong Kong laid back about snails pace progress to universal suffrage. They take a long view; what’s the hurry. That story about Chou en-lai, Henry Kissinger and the French Revolution must be true; it makes sense to me. It also explains why there is so little sympathy in the Mainland for HK’s Democracy-Now plea; what’s the hurry! It explains why Hong Kong’s youth are different; it’s an outward looking globalised world that counts now, no point looking inwards or northwards. It will be a long road with frequent setbacks and more twists, but eventually modernity and internationalism will win out.