The fate of Mao Zedong’s legend

By Sushil Seth  / 

Thu, Jan 23, 2014 - Page 8

It was a little surprising that Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) 120th birthday, which fell on Dec. 26, did not receive much international media attention. It was even more surprising that it was not celebrated with much gusto or on a grand scale in China, which might explain the subdued international coverage.

What might be the explanation for the less than grandiose celebrations? There have been reports that the event was going to be a grand affair all over the country, but it ended up being a much smaller — though dignified — occasion with the country’s leaders paying homage to Mao in Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) sought to put the celebration in perspective during his speech at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing when talking of Mao, as well as other revolutionary leaders, who led China’s communist revolution.

He reportedly said: “Revolutionary leaders [particularly Mao, whose birthday it was] are not gods, but human beings. [We] cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great, neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes.”

Ever since former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙來), who invoked Mao and his legend to destabilize the political transition from former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to Xi, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has wrestled to balance Mao’s deified image with facts.

While Mao was a great revolutionary leader, he was still a human being and prone to mistakes like other people.

However, those mistakes and frailties remain a mystery because China’s post-Mao generations have no knowledge of them in the absence of any discussion or debate.

Hence, Mao’s deification continues.

Bo sought to use Mao’s legend as the people’s man to promote his own political ambitions to make it to the top, but lost, was purged and is now behind bars.

Xi has been watching his back for the likes of Bo who rallied around him, like former Chinese security czar and former Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang (周永康), who is being investigated for corruption, which, in political terms, could mean anything and everything.

Xi himself was toying with Mao’s image and legend after he became president because it was a populist thing to do, judging by how Bo was seemingly doing a good job of it before he was undone by his former police chief Wang Lijun (王立軍) and his wife, Gu Kailai (谷開來), who is serving a suspended death sentence for poisoning her British business associate Neil Heywood.

However, now that Xi is feeling more secure and has decided to liberalize China’s economy, relatively speaking, by giving the private sector a greater role, he feels the need to strike a balance between Mao’s popular image as a god-like figure who could not and did not make mistakes and a human being likely to err at any time.

That is about as far as any Chinese leader will go in assessing Mao’s role.

Even former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), who like many other leaders suffered when Mao launched his Great Cultural Revolution and might be considered the father China’s economic transformation, went only as far as telling Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci that Mao was 70 percent good and his mistakes amounted to only 30 percent.

Since Mao died in 1976, his successors, starting with Deng, have turned completely from his theory and practice of “perpetual revolution” to keep the revolution safe. Deng was for “learning from facts” and was not bound by ideology.

The facts dictated a more pragmatic model of making use of capitalism to grow China’s economy.

And that is what China has done since the 1980s, with spectacular results. It has become the world’s second-largest economy and an emerging superpower. Deng was in favor of people becoming rich, though he realized that it would not lead to an egalitarian society for a long time to come, if at all.

The consequent income gaps between rich and poor, urban and rural areas, among coastal regions and the interior as well as the border areas have caused widespread social tensions, frustration and unrest. Such unrest is further fueled by widespread corruption at all levels of the CCP and the government by blurring the line between politics and economics.

For instance, reporting by the New York Times and Bloomberg recently revealed that the families of former Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and Xi had made millions through their political connections, though neither Wen nor Xi were said to be personally involved.

There is a sense among many Chinese, with new generations having grown up with no knowledge of the convulsive events of Mao’s time that when he was China’s leader, things were simple and everybody lived happily with guaranteed employment for life.

However, there were awful things happening.

For instance, Mao’s Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, which was intended to kickstart industrial development, seriously contributed to a famine that resulted in millions of deaths from starvation.

And when the CCP sought to reverse Mao’s policies, he unleashed his Cultural Revolution against the party leadership to reassert control. It was a lost decade, with Red Guards — Mao’s stormtroopers — turning on the party’s veteran political leaders who had fought during the revolution alongside Mao.

Among those hounded to a miserable death was then-Chinese president Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇). While Mao was a great leader, who spearheaded the communist revolution and helped establish the People’s Republic of China, his record in the post-revolutionary period was disappointing, to put it mildly.

It was not until after Mao’s death that Deng, who was purged during the Cultural Revolution, turned things around to build China into a successful nation by emphasizing economic growth.

However, the new China faced a new dilemma, which continues to dog it today: How can it reconcile the virtual abandonment of its communist ideology by following the capitalist mode of production while still insisting on maintaining the party’s monopoly on power?

This is where China’s post-Mao leadership finds itself in a difficult position, and where Mao’s legend (even with some caveats) is useful.

If Mao is delegitimized, his successors in the CCP who brought about the revolution, might also become delegitimized, especially in the midst of pervasive cynicism among many Chinese about the party leadership at all levels.

Xi’s speech on Mao’s 120th birthday neatly encapsulates the dilemma the party faces.

Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.