The political rot in Mao’s sugar-coated legacy

There is a great chasm between China's modern leaders, who implicitly reject Maoism, and the nation's official history, which tends to remember Mao fondly. Bridging the gap would strengthen the Party's legitimacy with its people.

While we were celebrating Christmas, many in China celebrated the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth. He was born on Boxing Day in 1893, and given that Chinese epochs are traditionally measured in 60-year time periods, the 120th anniversary carries a similar significance as the way in which Western societies make a big deal about centenaries.

However the national celebration was relatively muted compared to the public trumpeting of Mao’s achievements a couple of decades ago. To be sure, the state-run international newspaper Global Times went on the offensive and called attempts to denigrate Mao’s achievements and standing as “childish wishful thinking”. But the words from senior officials were more measured.

According to reports carried in the official news agency Xinhua, President Xi Jinping attempted to strike a balance, cautioning that “Revolutionary leaders 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.”

Even so, Xi proclaimed that “Mao is a great figure who changed the face of the nation and led the Chinese people to a new destiny”, and “neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes”.

Mao ruled China for 27 terrible years and died in 1976. The official Chinese Communist Party verdict delivered in 1989 that he was “70 per cent correct and 30 per cent wrong” doesn’t quite capture the horror and tragedy of his time in power. True, he proclaimed the modern People’s Republic of China in 1949 after a successful revolutionary war against Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan.

Mao’s role in the founding of the People’s Republic of China – or mainland China – is truly great from a political point of view. But his ill-guided and sometimes vengeful economic and social policies in the 1950s and 1960s led to the deaths of between 40 million and 70 million of his countrymen. If that only constitutes “30 per cent wrong” then the official history – always written by the victors – is very kind to him indeed.    

China’s modern leaders are well aware of the horrible consequences of the Mao years – materially and morally – and every leader since Deng Xiaoping from 1978 onwards has implicitly rejected ‘Maoism’ and driven the country forward. But the official histories, as well as Chinse textbooks and domestic media outlets, acknowledge that Mao made terrible mistakes, without offering precise details as to what these were or of the human cost of such mistakes. Any mention of the true death toll during the Mao years is generally prohibited in China (which is why this episode of The Simpsons was predictably censored in China).

It is obviously a profoundly awkward truth for a Party obsessed with its own legitimacy that the policies adopted by its (and the country’s) founder led to the greatest unnatural loss of life in human history.

One can hardly blame the horrors of the Mao years on China’s leaders since Deng, who have all conscientiously ensured that his mistakes have never been repeated. China, a materially different place now to the 1950s and 1960s, has clearly moved on. So does it really matter that its official histories continue to sugar-coat the reality of those tumultuous years?

A sizeable number of people would say no: history, by definition, is the past – and it serves no good purpose to dredge up details of such a terrible past. Better to look ahead and forward to better times.

But others, including this author, would subscribe to a different line of argument. It is not about beating up on the modern day CCP, or getting the CCP to beat itself up unnecessarily about its own terrible history. But if China’s current leaders were to openly recognise the true extent of the horror of the Mao years – and allow official histories to accurately detail the achievements and failings of those years – they could help to strengthen, rather than de-legitimise, the Party’s hold on power.

How can a Party’s horrendous past help it survive into the future? Take a piece of recent politics that was deeply damaging to the current vanguard of the CCP. The country knows that a power struggle was behind the demise of former Chongqing chief Bo Xilai, despite his conviction for what is, relatively, low-level corruption.

The political reason Bo’s opponents gave for his demise (including President Xi) is that Bo was returning to a ‘neo-Maoist’ approach to politics and economics: authority based on individual charisma and myth creation; putting the Chongqing coercive apparatus above the rule of law for the sake of ‘results’; adopting ‘New Left’ or neo-Maoist economic policies which allow an even stronger hand for the state in the name of reducing inequality; using old revolutionary songs and slogans to create a frenzy of nationalism and patriotism, etc.

For the established vanguard of China’s leaders, these were all traits that led to the disastrous policies of the Mao years during noble sounding periods such as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’. Yet the direct connection between such policies on the one hand and the true extent of the suffering inflicted on the population on the other is vastly underappreciated in contemporary China.

Chinese citizens are continually told what Mao did that was “70 per cent correct” but told little about what the other 30 per cent was all about. This means that official fear and condemnation of Bo’s ‘Neo-Maoism’ is widely seen as unjustified, issued by uninspiring officials feathering their own nests, and motivated by petty political power plays.

As a quietly-spoken Chinese student, born in the 1990s at Sydney University, said to me earlier in the year, Bo has the “purity of Mao, unlike the leaders today who don’t care about the people”. Read any number of blog sites and it will be obvious that such sentiments are common amongst Chinese citizens discussing Bo Xilai. Few understand why the country’s leaders were genuinely afraid of him – partially because Chinese citizens with a rose-coloured view of the revolutionary past are not allowed to know the true extent and reasons for Mao’s disasters.

If Mao is “70 per cent correct” and Bo is channelling the great leader, then Bo must be doing more good than bad – or so such reasoning goes. Even in celebrating the 120th anniversary of Mao, the revolutionary leader’s supporters contrast Mao’s “uprightness” and “love of the people” with today’s leaders, who are “corrupt” and “self-serving”. Perhaps revealing the truth about the tens of millions who died because of Mao’s policies might cause some overdue reassessment.

More broadly, Mao oversaw a period when the ruthless devotion to personal power, ideological purity and perpetual socialist revolution – and rejection of institutionalised power, pragmatism (based on ‘what works’) and gradual evolution of political and economic policy – created a disastrous legacy. Today’s CCP openly proclaim that it needs to openly commit itself to the latter principles that were so foreign to Mao’s time if it is to remain in power.

Yet without adequate explanation of why it is rejecting the approach of the Party’s founder, a significant number of citizens remain seduced by the falsehood of what they believe to be a purer and grander period in the PRC’s history.

We know that today’s CCP has no intention to return to the Party of Mao. It is no bad thing – for the country or Party – to honestly tell the Chinese people why.

Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow and adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra.

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