Thu, Jul 28, 2011 - Page 9 News List

In the globalized age, Maoism still speaks to the world’s poor

Millions of indigenous peoples, particularly in central India, are returning to the ideology as the economic benefits of globalization fail to materialize

By Pankaj Mishra  /  The Guardian, LONDON

In 2008 in Beijing I met the Chinese novelist Yu Hua (余華) shortly after he had returned from Nepal, where revolutionaries inspired by Mao Zedong (毛澤東) had overthrown a monarchy. A young Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, Yu Hua, like many Chinese of his generation, has extremely complicated views on Mao. Still, he was astonished, he told me, to see Nepalese Maoists singing songs from his Maoist youth — sentiments he never expected to hear again in his lifetime.

In fact, the success of Nepalese Maoists is only one sign of the “return” of Mao. In central India, armed groups proudly calling themselves Maoists control a broad swath of territory, fiercely resisting the Indian government’s attempts to make the region’s resource-rich forests safe for the mining operations that, according to a recent report in Foreign Policy magazine, major global companies like Toyota and Coca-Cola now rely on.

And — as though not to be outdone by Mao’s foreign admirers — some Chinese have begun to carefully deploy Mao’s still deeply ambiguous memory in China. Texting Mao’s sayings to mobile phones, broadcasting “Red” songs from state-owned radio and television, and sending college students to the countryside, Bo Xilai (薄熙來), the ambitious Chinese Communist Party chief of the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, is leading an unexpected Mao revival in China.

It was the “return” of Marx, rather than of Mao, that was much heralded in academic and journalistic circles after the financial crisis of 2008. And it is true that Marxist theorists, rather than Marx himself, clearly anticipated the problems of excessive capital accumulation and saw how eager and opportunistic investors cause wildly uneven development across regions and nations, enriching a few and impoverishing many others. However, Mao’s “Sinified” and practical Marxism, which includes a blueprint for armed rebellion, appears to speak more directly to many people in poor countries.

It is tempting to denounce Mao as a monster and to dismiss the Maoists of today as no less criminally deluded than Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas or the Khmer Rouge. Certainly, the scale of the violence Mao inflicted on China dwarfs all other crimes and disasters committed during the course of nation-building in the last two centuries. However, political and economic modernizers elsewhere also exacted a terrible human cost from their allegedly backward peoples. In the last century alone, millions died because of political conflict or hunger and were brutally dispossessed and culturally deracinated in a huge area of Asian territory, from Taiwan and Indonesia to Turkey and Iran.

Every nation state whitewashes the abominations of its founders. The influence, however, of the earliest postcolonial nation-builders is severely limited today. Hardly anyone looks up Sukarno’s Pancasila for political guidance, or derive inspiration, as Nasser and Jinnah once did, from Ataturk’s republican nationalism. So, denunciations of Mao do not go very far in explaining his enduring appeal inside and outside China.

That said, there seems little mystery to the invocation of Mao by a new generation of Chinese leaders, who recently also tapped into Confucius as a source of -ideological legitimacy. The recourse to Mao is an example of the expedient populism to which insecure ruling classes resort. As an icon of the new China, Mao seems as bland as the basketball player Yao Ming (姚明) and the French Open tennis champion Li Na (李娜). However, for many people outside China there is another, much more dangerous, Mao — and he is not the rash instigator of the Great Leap Forward or the cynical perpetrator of the Cultural Revolution, either. For them, as Yu Hua writes in a forthcoming book, “what Mao did in China is not so important — what matters is that his ideas retain their vitality and, like seeds planted in receptive soil, ‘strike root, flower, and bear fruit.’”

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