Sunday, February 11, 2007

Mao Now (Ross Terrill - The Wilson Quarterly)

Mao Now (Ross Terrill - The Wilson Quarterly)
January 22, 2007


In the early 1990s, a story circulated among Chinese taxi drivers
about an eight- car traffic accident in Guangzhou that resulted in
injuries to seven of the drivers involved; the eighth, unscathed, had a
Mao portrait attached to his windshield as a talisman. The story fueled
Mao fever (Mao re) in China, with shopkeepers offering busts of Mao
that glowed in the dark and alarm clocks with Red Guards waving Mao's
little red book at each tick of the clock. Mao temples appeared in some
villages, with a serene portrait of the Chairman on the altar.
Transmuted uses of Mao continue today. Nightclub singers in Beijing
croon songs that cite Mao's words. Youths dine in "Cultural Revolution-
style" cafés off rough- hewn tables with Mao quotations on the wall,
eating basic peasant fare as they answer their cell phones and chat
about love or the stock market.

This nonpolitical treatment of Mao Zedong (1893–1976) is an escape that
fits a Chinese tradition. When floods hit the Yangzi valley and farmers
clutch Mao memorabilia to ward off the rushing waters, it is
reminiscent of Chinese Buddhists over the centuries clutching images or
statues of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, to keep them safe and make
them prosperous. Following the eclectic nature of Chinese popular
beliefs, Mao is added to the panoply of faith.

But where is Mao the totalitarian? Each of the major nations that
experienced an authoritarian regime in the 20th century emerged in its
own way from the trauma. Japan, Germany, Italy, even Russia departed
politically from systems that brought massive war and repression.
China, still ruled by a communist party, has been ambiguous about Mao.
Although Mao's portrait and tomb dominate Tiananmen Square in the heart
of Beijing, Mao himself— unlike Stalin in Russia or Hitler in ­Germany—
has floated benignly into a nether zone as if somehow he was not a
political figure at all, let alone the architect of China's communist

The cab drivers, farmers, pop singers, and shopkeepers are really only
following the lead of the Chinese Communist Party, which does not quite
know how to handle Mao's legacy. New history textbooks approved for
initial use in Shanghai have largely brushed Mao out of China's
20th-century story. China has abandoned Mao's policies but not faced
the structural and philosophical issues involved in Maoism— and
probably won't until the Party's monopoly on political power comes to
an end. Yet unless China gets the Mao story correct, it may not have a
happy political future.

The moral compass of the Mao era has gone, unregretted. But money
making, national glory, and a veil over the past in the name of "good
feelings" are not enough to replace it. Can a society that lived by the
ideas of Confucianism for two millennia, and later by Mao's political
athleticism, be content with amnesia about the Mao era and the absence
of a believed public philosophy?

In a recent biography, Mao: The Unknown Story (2006), Jung Chang and
Jon Halliday pile up evidence that Mao was a monster to eclipse Stalin
and probably Hitler and Lenin as well. "Absolute selfishness and
irresponsibility lay at the heart of Mao's outlook" from his teens to
his dotage, say the authors. In a second influential volume, The
Private Life of Chairman Mao (1995), Mao's physician Li Zhisui portrays
the Chairman as exceedingly selfish, jealous, and promiscuous. Soon
after his book came out, Dr. Li came to speak at Harvard, and I showed
him around the campus. "Three words did not exist for Mao," the gentle
doctor remarked as we strolled. "Regret, love, mercy." These two books—
both written from outside China— explain the Mao era in China as
essentially the consequence of having an evil man at the helm.

Certainly Mao's rule was destructive. Tens of millions of Chinese died
in the forced collectivization of the Great Leap Forward of 1958–59,
victims of Mao's willful utopianism and cruelty. Millions more died,
and tens of millions had their lives ruined, during the Cultural
Revolution of the 1960s. Practicing brinkmanship toward India, Taiwan,
and the Soviet Union, Mao declared that a loss of hundreds of millions
of Chinese in a nuclear war would be a setback China could readily

Yet "bad man" does not adequately sum up Mao and his legacy. To believe
so would be to embrace the moral absolutism of communism itself, with
its quick verdicts ("enemy of the people," "hero of the proletariat"),
and to repeat the manipulations of official Chinese imperial history,
in which even a flood or earthquake "proved" the evil character of the
emperor. Were the "good men" around bad man Mao blind to his failings
for so many decades? Were the hundreds of millions of Chinese who bowed
before Mao's portrait and wept at the sight of him out of their minds?

Mao made history; at the same time, history made Mao. In addition to
looking at Mao's failings as a human being, we must look at the
structures and pressures that turned whim into tyranny. At the ideas
Mao wielded. At the evaporation— in Mao's case, as in that of several
other dictators— of youthful idealism and exactitude. Above all, at the
seduction of a "freedom" bestowed from above by a party- state that
believed it knew what was best for the citizenry.

In a Jesus was dismembered for speaking out… . He who speaks out does
not necessarily transgress, and even if he does transgress, this is but
a small matter to a wise man." Immediately we face a puzzle: Young Mao
was an ardent individualist. In his years at the teachers' training
college he attended in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, Mao's
credo became the self- realization of the individual. "Wherever there
is repression of the individual," he wrote in the margin of a
translation of Friedrich Paulsen's System of Ethics (1889), "wherever
there are acts contrary to the nature of the individual, there can be
no greater crime." His first published newspaper work, written in 1919,
was a plea for the liberation of women, a passionate nine- part
commentary on the suicide of a young woman in Changsha moments before
her arranged marriage.

Mao at 24 saw the Russian Revolution of 1917 as an outbreak of freedom
for the individual that lit the way for China. A young female friend
objected, "It's all very well to say establish communism, but lots of
heads are going to fall." Mao, who had recently read Marx and Engel's
Communist Manifesto, retorted, "Heads will fall, heads will be chopped
off, of course. But just think how good communism is! The state won't
bother us anymore, you women will be free, marriage problems won't
plague you anymore." Although these words hint at Mao's later
callousness about human life, it is striking that he viewed Lenin's
revolution in terms of the "marriage problems" of individual women.

The anarchism of Peter Kropotkin, the author of Mutual Aid (1902), had
a strong hold on Mao until he was nearly 30. A great virtue of the
Russian anarchist, Mao felt, was that "he begins by understanding the
common people." Anarchism in Mao's perception was linked with
Prometheanism; Friedrich Nietzsche was also among his early
enthusiasms. The Promethean individual would prepare for his heroic
role by taking cold baths, running up mountains, and studying books in
the noisiest possible places. This prefigures the fascism to come in
Mao's Cultural Revolution, just as fascism in Europe owed a debt to
Nietzsche. At the time, however, Mao's individualism was nurtured by
the influence of a Chinese professor at Changsha who had imbibed the
idealist liberalism of T. H. Green, the late-19th-century British

Mao was a rebel before becoming a communist. The psychological root of
his rebelliousness was hostility to his father, and, by extension, to
other authority figures. The political root was dismay at China's
weakness and disarray in the face of foreign encroachment, shared by
most informed Chinese of the period. Mao's chief use for the steeled
individual was as a fighter for justice and China's salvation. "The
principal aim of physical education," he wrote in 1917 in New Youth
magazine, "is military heroism." The authoritarian strain in Mao's
individualism was already present.

Eventually, Mao's respect for individual freedom collapsed. There were
four causes. One was the powerful current of nationalism in
early-20th-century China; the cry to rescue the nation eclipsed the cry
for the self- realization of the individual. A second was the large
role of war in China from the 1920s to the '40s. Pervasive violence
made political debate a luxury and favored repression. A third was
Mao's embrace of Marxist ideas of class, central economic planning, and
communist party organization. Fourth was the hangover in Mao's mind and
Chinese society generally of a paternalistic imperial mentality.

In the end, Mao Zedong, facilitated by Stalin, put the population of
the world's largest nation under a regimen that combined Leninism, the
paternalism of early Chinese ­sage- rulers, and, by the 1960s, a
hysteria and military romanticism that amounted to fascism Chinese-

The imperative of national salvation was the first factor working
against Mao's attraction to freedom. Mao was mildly attracted to a
movement comparable in spirit to Europe's Enlightenment that sprang
into existence in China in 1919. Named May Fourth (after the date of an
initial student demonstration), it aimed at modernizing China by
embracing quasi- Western ideas of individualism, democracy, and
science. Liberated individuals would rescue China. But May Fourth soon
split in two, a left wing jumping to Marxist collectivism and a right
wing sticking with individualism. Leftists, including the 27- year- old
Mao, founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921.

Bolshevism helped Mao be progressive and anti- Western at the same
time. Opposition to the West was necessary to many young Chinese
leftists, despite the appeal of Western ideas, because of British and
other foreign bullying of China since the Opium War of 1839–42. From
Lenin, Mao learned that social justice and national salvation could
come as one package. Leninism— and to a lesser degree Marxism— joined
anarchism, nationalism, and individualism in the rag bag of Mao's
political ideas. It was Lenin who showed Mao his road to power. Anti-
imperialism was going to be for Mao, as it was for Lenin, the framework
for revolution. But this anti- imperialist— soon anti-­Japanese— nation
alism that Mao injected into the Chinese Revolution negated individual

In the 1930s, Mao argued to the semi criminal secret society Gelaohui
(Elder Brother Club) that its principles and the CCP's were "quite
close— especially as regards our enemies and the road to salvation." Of
course, the threat of enemies was the central point. In his appeal to
non- Han "minority" peoples during the Long March of 1935–36, when Mao
emerged as the CCP's top leader as the Communists retreated before
Chiang Kai- shek's Nationalist forces, Mao challenged Mon golians to
"preserve the glory of the era of Genghis Khan" by cooperating with the
Communists. Pressing the Muslims to support him, he told them that this
would ensure the "national revival of the Turks." Of course, Chinese
nationalism had turned Mao into a trickster. After the wars with Japan
and Chiang Kai- shek were over, there would be no common cause with the
Gelaohui, no freedom for the Mongolians or the Muslims of Xinjiang.

The violence that continually rippled through China was another force
militating against individual freedom. After the death in 1925 of Sun
Yat- sen, a leader in the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 and a
founder of the Nationalist movement, the gun was prominent in Chinese
public life. Sun's wavering leadership gave way to warlordism, a
violent rupture of the tenuous coalition of Nationalists and Communists
in 1927, and growing incursions by Japan beginning in 1931. Guns were
to freedom as a cat is to mice. From the time Mao used force to
confiscate the holdings of Hunan landowners in 1925, when he was just
one of many CCP leaders, his political life cannot be understood aside
from violence, both the wars he waged and those waged against him. As
he sought to organize farmers in a remote mountain region, he remarked,
"The struggle in the border area is exclusively military. The Party and
the masses have to be placed on a war footing." Mao spoke of
"criticizing the Nationalists by means of a machine gun."

A third enemy of freedom was the class, organizational, and economic
theory Mao drew from Marx and Lenin. Here Mao's story is similar to
that of Stalin, Castro, and others. Class theory has intrinsic
distortions; people often do not act as members of an economic class.
Class labeling became especially inimical to freedom when Mao was
forced to rely on farmers rather than workers as the key class in
Copyright The Wilson Quarterly

China's revolution. Anyone who pointed out this departure from Marx's
theory of proletarian revolution was stamped out as a renegade.

Eventually, class became little more than a convenient way to demarcate
friends and enemies of the moment. Hence, longtime colleague and
expected successor Liu Shaoqi was "discovered" by Mao in the 1960s to
be a "bourgeois" who had "sneaked into the Party." Never mind that Mao
and Liu had worked together as leftist organizers on and off since

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