There is something troubling going on in China these days, but it has nothing to do with the financial crisis or the plethora of food products that can sizzle your kidneys or give you the shakes. It is, rather, the return to the scene of one of the worst mass murderers in history.
During his rule as Chinese Community Party (CCP) leader and until his death in 1976, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) was revered as a great tactician and the father of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Starting in the late 1970s, however, the CCP began pulling down the ubiquitous statues of Mao across the country, arguing that it encouraged, in biographer Philip Short’s words, “feudal superstition.” There was also a general agreement that his policies — epitomized by the Cultural Revolution — had been a catastrophe for the country.
His successors, especially Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), dropped Maoist politics, embraced capitalism and opened China to the world, in the process distancing themselves as much as possible from the tyrant.
It is therefore odd that 30 years later, with China better integrated into the global capitalist system and portraying its “rise” as a friendly one, Mao’s image could be rehabilitated. On Sunday, state media reported that Chongqing Medical University had erected a 20m, 46-tonne stainless steel statue in honor of the man who established the PRC. Visible from 5km away, the statue was erected “to encourage and give confidence to our teachers and to instill national character and patriotism in our students,” a university spokesman said.
The man who masterminded the deaths of 30 million Chinese, for whom the end, or belief, justified the means, was also banalized by the CCP during the Olympic Games in Beijing, with large portraits of him looking on while the world feted the Olympic spirit, his past deeds whitewashed in the name of better relations with China.
Even more worrying is the fact that university students, those whose “character” and “patriotism” are to be awakened by the reemergence of Mao as part of the Chinese pantheon, are too young to be aware of what it meant to live under the tyranny that he imposed. Evil, in Hannah Arendt’s turn of phrase, is being made a banality, a means to an end, an acceptable cost in the pursuit of stronger nationalistic fervor.
For the rest of the world, this development cannot be comforting, especially for those who have long argued that China’s “rise” is a benevolent one and that the CCP — now a supposedly far more pragmatic party — is more concerned with national development and the economy than exporting ideology. A return to the past, brought about by renewed reverence for a mass murderer, is not an encouraging sign, especially for Taiwan.
Fueling nationalism is a dangerous strategy. While it can buy a leadership some time by distracting or energizing the masses, it can come back and bite with full force. Performing an endless balancing act to maintain its legitimacy, the CCP could come to regret instilling a Maoist fervor that elevates public expectations. It could force it to depart from its pragmatism of recent years to remain in power.
Odd as it seems, the world could soon be nostalgic for the days of Deng and his milder kind.