- Beijing’s raid on student activists and young Maoists reveals its anxiety about Mao Zedong’s legacy. Although Mao was dedicated to violent change, his legacy is more complex than that and he still commands respect among the Chinese
Sometimes it seems the most dangerous word in Chinese politics isn't democracy or liberalism. It's Maoism. Not that liberals get much airtime in today's China; just last month, the Unirule Institute of Economics, a noted liberal think tank, was shut down by the authorities. Equally striking, however, were arrests in the past year of idealistic, young activists on some of China's top campuses " including Peking University " who were advocating Chinese workers' rights, not in the name of liberty or civil rights, but as a tribute to the legacy of Mao Zedong.
The Communist Party saw real danger in a group of twentysomethings who decided that the current regime had twisted beyond recognition the real intentions of the founder of the People's Republic of China. That founder, Mao, is very much visible in China in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the People's Republic of China. Yet the arrests of the young Maoists in China suggest that the founder's legacy is still fluid, and subject to interpretation.
Whether in China or in the West, it's hard to make a final judgment on just where his significance lies. How should we explain his lust for violent change?
Make no mistake, Mao did not simply express regret at breaking human eggs to make socialist omelettes. Rather, from an early age he was influenced by a sort of social Darwinism that implied transformative violence was a positive good. "A revolution is not a dinner party," he observed in 1927. "It cannot be so refined."
Nothing Mao did suggested he ever resiled from that sentiment. During the rectification campaign of 1942 to 1944 in Yanan, the party's base before it took control of China, Mao and his thuggish security chief Kang Sheng (who learned his techniques from Joseph Stalin's secret police, the NKVD) forced Communist activists to abandon bourgeois or individualistic thoughts through psychological and physical pressure, including food deprivation and torture. Their Nationalist opponents used torture too.
But Mao's regime seemed to make physical coercion a virtue in its own right. Repeatedly, during the campaign that Mao launched under his rule in 1949, the same tactics of public humiliation and physical torture were used to force political enemies to come to heel. In those early years, one could see signs of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, in which millions of Chinese starved to death even though Mao was aware of their fate, and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, in which Mao turned China's classes against one another in a self-inflicted civil war.
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Mao's celebration of violence is not in any doubt. However, it would be too simplistic to suggest this fully discredited his rule in the eyes of the Chinese population. The reason for this seeming contradiction lies in the role Mao is still seen to have played in creating a China that would no longer be the "sick man of Asia", to use an expression common in the late 19th century.
As stated in the title of Mao's speech in 1949, "The Chinese People Have Stood Up". By this, he meant that China's sovereignty had been restored at least. Actually, this had already happened in 1943, when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government signed treaties with Britain and the United States to end the hated foreign territorial and legal concessions that had been forced on China after the Opium wars of the 19th century. But there is no denying that the post-war reconstruction of China, in the long term, fell to Mao's government, not Chiang's.
China had, at last, a presence on the world stage; at the negotiations on the future of Vietnam in 1954, or the Bandung Conference of Afro-Asian nations in 1955, China, represented by its suave foreign minister Zhou Enlai, played a crucial role. Of course, China was not recognised by the greatest power in the cold war, the US. Yet the refusal of the US to recognise Mao's China came to seem petulant after a while.
The refusal of the US to sign a full armistice after the Korean war was a miscalculation that enabled Mao's China to portray itself as a victim. China was a visible, charismatic and influential presence on the world stage for a quarter-century of the cold war, and Mao was at the heart of that projection of the national image. Richard Nixon would have had much less impact had he visited any other communist state; it had to be China, and Mao, for his visit to be truly transformative.
When I talk to Chinese people, including many who themselves suffered during the Cultural Revolution, they often express respect for Mao's achievements
Other aspects of Mao's legacy also seem to be separable from our image of him as a socialist firebrand. Last year was the 40th year since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping was supposed to have thrown off the shackles of the Maoist command economy and unleashed capitalism in an era of reform and opening up. However, the latest academic research suggests something rather different.
Mao's order to move significant amounts of heavy industry to the west of China in the 1960s to form what he called the Third Front may well have set the stage for industrial development in that region. Other research suggests that the collective farms set up under Mao may have been more efficient than retrospective accounts have suggested, and that the first attempts to create local markets were under way by the early 1970s, when Mao's Cultural Revolution was still in full swing.
When I talk to Chinese people, including many who themselves suffered during the Cultural Revolution, they often express respect for Mao's achievements. This adds irony to the fact that the Communist Party remains nervous about Mao's legacy, refusing to allow open discussion of his life or record in China today. Mao was dedicated to violent change, but also to the politics of mobilisation, in which people would take on active roles in bringing about social change.
Today's Chinese leaders dread the idea of political activism above all else. It's no surprise that they are so worried about a bunch of T-shirted undergraduates wanting to make a mark as new Maoists.
Rana Mitter is director of the University China Centre at the University of Oxford, and author of "A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World" and "China's War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival"
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