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.’”
Mao set out these portable ideas well before his disastrous reign as quasi-emperor of China. Indeed, his diagnosis of, and proposed cure for, China’s pre-revolutionary maladies in such tracts as “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” (1927), “On Guerrilla Warfare” (1937) and “On Protracted War” (1938) were what gave him his decisive advantage over his many Chinese rivals.
Early in his career he identified a nexus between feudal elites in the hinterland and capitalists in the semi-colonial coastal cities as the enemy, and then successfully mobilized a “people’s” army to break it. Mao’s theory and praxis was always likely to have greater appeal than classical, urban-oriented Marxism in many agrarian countries, where tiny elites held down, often with foreign assistance, a population consisting largely of peasants.
Nearly half a century ago, nationalist groups in Vietnam and Cuba successfully realized Mao’s strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside. Now it is economic globalizers, encircling the countryside from the cities, who provide a freshly receptive soil for Mao’s theory and praxis. Far from being rendered irrelevant, they have become attractive again to many people who feel actively victimized rather than simply “left behind” by an expansionist capitalism.
A case in point is the Maoist insurgency in the forests of central India, which feeds on the Indian government’s ruthless drive to open up the region’s great mineral reserves to private and multinational corporations. Indian Maoists mouthing Mao’s rhetoric about local “compradors” and foreign imperialists may appear to be pathetic dead-enders to those who imagine everyone will at some point settle down to loving liberal democracy and the iPad. However, the Maoists, though often corrupt and brutal, have found a large constituency among millions of indigenous peoples (Adivasis), for whom even the fragile security of a subsistence economy has been destroyed by the nexus between global corporations and their Indian enforcers.
The Indian writer Shashank Kela points to a crucial fact about Indian Maoism and its Adivasi rank and file: “It is the circumstances of their lives rather than its ideology that push its followers into a desperate, last-ditch battle with the state in preference to dispossession.”
As Kela writes, “mining and heavy industry displaced Adivasi communities, destroyed their livelihoods, failed to give them jobs and cut them loose to join the swelling workforce of migrant laborers, a sea of impoverished, overworked human beings, reduced to accepting the worst-paid jobs in city and countryside.”
It is far from clear how the Maoist insurgency, and its attempted suppression by Indian paramilitaries, who have claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past decade, will end. After their overthrow of the monarchial state, Nepal’s Maoists went on to participate in elections. Indian Maoists are unlikely to give up armed resistance any time soon.
And the Indian state may find it impossible to suppress them militarily. That the benefits of economic globalization will abruptly start flowing to its biggest victims is even less conceivable in the forests of central India than in the post-industrial cities of the US’ midwest.
“There is not the slightest chance,” Kela writes of the Maoist Adivasis, one of the peoples rendered superfluous by industrial capitalism, “that they will ever become a factory proletariat.”
A long and bloody stalemate beckons and, while Maoism may be reduced to near-meaninglessness as state doctrine in China, it seems certain that many corners of the world are likely to remain Maoist for a very long time.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of Temptations of the West.
For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s “century of humiliation” is the gift that keeps on giving. Beijing returns again and again to the theme of Western imperialism, oppression and exploitation to keep stoking the embers of grievance and resentment against the West, and especially the US. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that in 1949 announced it had “stood up” soon made clear what that would mean for Chinese and the world — and it was not an agenda that would engender pride among ordinary Chinese, or peace of mind in the international community. At home, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) launched
The restructuring of supply chains, particularly in the semiconductor industry, was an essential part of discussions last week between Taiwan and a US delegation led by US Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Keith Krach. It took precedent over the highly anticipated subject of bilateral trade partnerships, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) founder Morris Chang’s (張忠謀) appearance on Friday at a dinner hosted by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for Krach was a subtle indicator of this. Chang was in photographs posted by Tsai on Facebook after the dinner, but no details about their discussions were disclosed. With
To say that this year has been eventful for China and the rest of the world would be something of an understatement. First, the US-China trade dispute, already simmering for two years, reached a boiling point as Washington tightened the noose around China’s economy. Second, China unleashed the COVID-19 pandemic on the world, wreaking havoc on an unimaginable scale and turning the People’s Republic of China into a common target of international scorn. Faced with a mounting crisis at home, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) rashly decided to ratchet up military tensions with neighboring countries in a misguided attempt to divert the
Toward the end of former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) final term in office, there was much talk about his legacy. Ma himself would likely prefer history books to enshrine his achievements in reducing cross-strait tensions. He might see his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore in 2015 as the high point. However, given his statements in the past few months, he might be remembered more for contributing to the breakup of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). We are still talking about Ma and his legacy because it is inextricably tied to the so-called “1992 consensus” as the bedrock of his