Mao Zedong -- just three parts bad and seven parts good?

A communist party veteran blasts the Great Helmsman and says that the Tiananmen students were right to demand more democracy and less corruption

By Jonathan Watts  /  THE GUARDIAN , BEIJING

Sat, Jun 04, 2005 - Page 9

His giant portrait still hangs in pride of place over the entrance to the Forbidden City, his embalmed body lies in a mausoleum in the middle of Tiananmen Square, and his visage is the only one to adorn the latest set of banknotes.

Almost 30 years after his death, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) still remains the central figure in China. While the legend and legacy of Mao is now under fresh, and intense, scrutiny overseas, there is no debate in Beijing.

A new English biography of him by Jung Chang (張戎), the author of Wild Swans, describes Mao as the biggest mass murderer in history, yet the book will not be the talk of Beijing's coffee shops and restaurants, nor will its claims fill the pages of Chinese newspapers. For the book will not be published in China, and references to it are hard to come by on the Internet.

According to a confidant of Mao -- a retired senior member of the Chinese Communist Party -- it is this refusal to confront and reassess the darkest episodes of China's past that is preventing the country from achieving its potential in the future.

In a rare interview, Li Rui (李銳), Mao's personal secretary during the Great Helmsman's most murderous period in power, told reporters that the biggest problem facing modern China was its inability to face up to history.

Few people know the horrors it contains more intimately than the 88-year-old, whose outspoken views have taken him in and out of the center of power in Beijing and the political wilderness of gulags in freezing Heilongjiang Province.

Most of the punishments were meted out by his mentor and chief tormentor, Mao, whose worst crimes are still a taboo subject.

"That's China's biggest problem," Li said. "Mao was too autocratic. He couldn't bear to hear disagreements. He had a superstitious belief that he was always and absolutely right. But Mao's problem is also a problem of the system. It was caused by the party system."

Li has yet to read the new work on his former boss, but its claim that Mao was culpable for the deaths of tens of millions of people during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution is likely to come as no surprise.

"Mao's way of thinking and governing was terrifying. He put no value on human life. The deaths of others meant nothing to him," said Li, who shook with fury when asked about Mao's personality.

"I really didn't like him," he said.

Despite his unusually blunt criticism, Li is no dissident. On the contrary, he is a party man through and through, a cadre who survived some of the roughest political turmoil of the 20th century with his reputation intact.

His Beijing home in "Ministers House," an apartment block reserved for senior communist pensioners, is proof of that.

But his fierce public comments are entirely consistent with a life history that is filled with rebellions, often at great personal cost, against those who abused their power. As a high-school student in Hubei, he led student protests against local warlords, at university he threw himself into the movement against Japan, and soon afterwards he was thrown into prison by Chang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) authorities for distributing Marxist textbooks.

Upon his release he joined Mao's communist forces in Yunan, where he wrote stinging editorials for the party newspaper, Liberation. The attention proved dangerous. After a brutal purge against "reactionaries" he spent a year in prison on charges of spying.

His independence of thought initially won him promotion to Mao's inner circle, where he held the advisory position of personal secretary. But in 1958 the same outspokenness got him thrown into a gulag for two years when he dared to publicly criticize the disastrous Great Leap Forward policy and, by extension, a leader who was starting to project himself as infallible.

"As early as 1958, Mao said the personality cult was necessary," Li said. "By the time of the Cultural Revolution, this had become an evil cult."

"Mao's methods were even harsher than the emperors of ancient times. He tried to control the minds of the people," he said.

Yet, despite this and his own suffering, Li accepts the official party judgment that Mao was three parts bad, seven parts good, because his revolutionary achievements in expelling the colonial powers outweighed his failures once in power.

Since the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, China has also changed almost beyond recognition. Its people are richer and far freer to travel and express their views in private and to foreigners, if not to the domestic public.

"Now I can talk to you. In the past, if I talked like this, I would have been killed or jailed," Li said.

Nonetheless, his poems and essays, which attack corruption, environmental destruction and domestic censorship, are published in Hong Kong. When a Chinese newspaper, the Southern Metropolitan, printed his proposals for a tripartite division of power, the authorities blocked its distribution and changed the editor.

Though the gulag is no longer a threat, there are considerable risks in speaking out. This has been shown by the frequent arrests of journalists, most recently Ching Cheong (程翔) of the Straits Times, who faces charges of spying because he tried to acquire notes of secret interviews with the late premier Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), who opposed the Tiananmen Square killings on June 4, 1989.

Li is as disturbingly and admirably frank on this most sensitive of subjects as he is on every other.

"The leadership did not understand the students," he said. "It worried that they were organized by foreign powers and were part of an attempted takeover by someone inside the party. The leadership's measures were wrong. The students' calls for more democracy and less corruption were right."

Last year, on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests, there were reports that prominent officials were calling for a review of the crackdown, which the government has always justified as a necessary measure to put down a revolt that threatened stability.

Li is one of the few to risk retribution from the authorities by going public with such a call.

"We should talk about it. We should reassess what happened on June 4. But we must do it properly, not now," he said.

"But it is hard to say if it will take five, 15 or 20 years," Li said.

One man's revolution

The Long March

Mao was among several leaders of a protracted retreat that started in October 1934 and took the Chinese Communist Party's army 9,000km. Although it ensured the survival of the party, only 20,000 of the 90,000 who started out on the march in Jiangxi Province made it to the end in Yanan in Shaanxi. As well as disease, exposure and battles with the KMT, the high rate of fatalities was a result of repeated inner-party purges.

Hundred Flowers Campaign

Emboldened after the early successes of the republic, Mao decided in April 1957 to relax censorship and invite constructive criticism about his rule. "Let a hundred flowers bloom" in the arts, he said. But such was the flood of complaints that the Great Helmsman quickly changed his stance. Within six months, 300,000 intellectuals were either killed, imprisoned, sacked or branded "rightists" in need of political re-education.

Great Leap Forward

Mao was personally responsible for this disastrous attempt to jumpstart the economy by collectivizing agricultural production and establishing smelting kilns in every village to match Britain's industrial output in 10 years. The radical experiment started with the attempted abolition of money and private property, and ended with a famine that killed between 30 million and 60 million peasants after the failure of harvests in 1959 and1960.

Cultural Revolution

An aging Mao attempted to build a new political base through the spread of a personality cult. From 1966 devoted students across the country formed Red Guard units, which spearheaded a vicious purge against Mao's opponents -- real and imagined. Anything related to the Four Olds -- old ideas, old customs, old culture and old habits -- was a target. Millions died. When the students threatened to move out of control, Mao used the People's Liberation Army to crush dissent.