In 1949 China had a life expectancy of thirty-five years, had been decimated by almost two decades of war, and a minuscule proportion of its people lived in cities. Its sovereignty was wounded, and its people brutalized by international and domestic conflict which had been almost continuous for the first decades of the twentieth century. For the following three decades, the trauma would continue. In 1975, just a year before the Chairman’s death, the Shanghai radical Zhang Chunqiao, who sat on the leading Politburo and had been so instrumental in pushing through some of the most excessive policies of the Cultural Revolution, produced his final definitive statement on the evils of bourgeois capitalism, and the need to crush private enterprise and fight against the market. The country consisted of millions of work units, but its economy was ailing, its young only just starting to return to structured education after almost ten years of being ‘rusticated’ – being sent from their relatively comfortable urban lives into the rural areas to obtain a closer affiliation with and knowledge of the peasant classes. Yet, Mao lingers; his legacy haunts the Party.
Its current leaders, best represented by Xi Jinping, one of Mao’s successors as Communist Party leader (albeit as General Secretary, rather than Chairman, a position abolished only a few years after Mao’s death), must have complex feelings towards their predecessor. Under Mao’s hegemony, Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, a leader in the propaganda ministry in the 1950s, was ignominiously sacked from his official position in 1963, abused in the Cultural Revolution, and granted only one meeting with his four children over the space of nineteen years. Xi Jinping himself was sent from Beijing in the late 1960s, when barely into his teens, to work on a brigade in rural China. He left the life of the elite to become one of the legions of rusticated youths, living in the central Shaanxi province until he was twenty-one years old, before finally being granted access back to Beijing and entrance to Tsinghua University.
Xi has practised an ambiguity about the Chairman worthy of Mao himself. His comments on the Cultural Revolution, while brief, have been dismissive. But his fidelity to the memory of Mao has aroused accusations by some of his critics, inside and outside the country, that he is a new Mao.The claim is simply put. His youth, the formative period of his life, was one in which only one set of ideas was available – that of Maoism. He remains a prisoner of this ideology, despite his own misgivings and sense of personal loss through the suffering he and his family underwent during that time. In this narrative, China and the Communist Party were the victims of their founder, and the country is still recovering from that brutalization. The accusation levelled at Xi by critics like the dissident Yu Jie, or commentators based outside China, like the veteran journalist of Chinese politics Willy Lam, is that he has simply inherited Mao’s addiction to recourse to violence, concealment, duplicity and the politics of a feudal overlord.
Xi Jinping himself has settled on one specific trope when talking of the increasing disjuncture between China before and after reforms began in 1978, at least in people’s perceptions: without Mao then, there would be no China today. Without his contribution, whatever the deprivations and suffering it entailed, the China of power, wealth and a bright future today would never have come about. It is impossible to counteract this argument, so while there are many who argue against Xi’s line, the facts are stark: Mao’s China has become the super-China of today. For all the differences, it is unarguably the same sovereign entity. On those grounds, Mao was, and will always be, its chief architect simply by starting the whole project, and its leaders need to express gratitude for this.
Even as they speak the language of capital markets fluently, China’s leaders in the second decade of the twenty-first century also genuflect to the founder of their system when they deem it appropriate. The 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth, celebrated in 2013, was the most significant moment for this after the new leadership came to power just a year before in 2012 because it marked the first landmark when they could make their respect for their predecessor publicly known. Mao’s spirit may have been buried in the early reform era, but it has now been resurrected.
Few, inside or outside China, have any naive illusions about the costs of Mao’s style of leadership, least of all people like Xi. Historians have uncovered increasingly powerful and extensive proof of the sheer scale of the disasters policies he sponsored inflicted on the Chinese people. Andrew Walder’s overview of these, published in 2015, is one example of a highly impartial, accomplished historian who has looked hard at the Maoist era for over four decades. A fixation with primitive economic models largely borrowed, ill digested, from the Soviet Union was linked in Mao’s mind with the mission to industrialize the country, restore its greatness and rectify the nightmare of foreign humiliation in the mid-nineteenth century, according to Walder’s account. From 1957, a series of calamities flowed from this dogmatic stance – the Great Leap Forward with its rush to improve productivity without the management or technical means; the tragic famines of the early 1960s, which were largely the result of mismanagement and incompetence and ended up killing, directly or indirectly, as many as 40 million people; and then the era named by the writer Ba Jin as China’s ‘spiritual holocaust’ – the Cultural Revolution. Many historians have been keen to leap to moral judgements over this period, laying the blame for all of these disasters wholly at Mao’s door. On their account, Mao ranks as one of the great tyrants of the last century, alongside Stalin and Hitler.
In view of this, the reason why Mao would even feature in the imagination of China’s political elites and among a significant section of its people today becomes even more of a mystery. Persistent Chinese historians such as Yang Jisheng have forensically and courageously chronicled the human cost of the 1960s famines, with commendable objectivity. There are many other historians in China who are working on every conceivable aspect of the country’s modern history, where the faults of the Chairman are all too easy to discern. Maoism is, beyond a few, no longer a viable political philosophy. And yet, the emotional appeal of Mao is still strong. Strong enough, in fact, to be one of the main accusations made in 2012 against a Politburo member, Bo Xilai, that he was abusing the memory of the Chairman, even as he was using Maoist-style campaigns and rhetoric to burnish political capital. Evidently, for some, it is still worth appealing to Mao, despite the risks.
This is an extract from China and the New Maoists, by Kerry Brown and Simone van Nieuwenhuizen
Xi Jinping by Kremlin.ru
Mao statue by 猫猫的日记本 CC BY-SA 3.0