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Mao’s sinister legacy lives on

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‘WATCH China’, a relative was wont to say. It was the mid-1980s. Reform and Opening had barely begun. But to interested and (as it transpired) prescient observers, a sleeping giant was stirring. There was no sudden transformation; as recently as 1999 tourists like me were much-photographed by Beijingers simply for being Caucasian. (I fear my chopstick woes contributed.) But change was afoot. 

Seismic change, however gradually achieved, needs a catalyst. For the People’s Republic, it was the disaster of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. After which the CCP, which matched Stalin famine for famine, realised a new path was prudent. Class struggle was abandoned in favour of economic reconstruction and eventually that strange beast, a socialist market economy. Plus ça change, the privileged party elites ensured it was they who reaped the rewards.

Often shorthanded as ‘China gone mad’, the Cultural Revolution was a vicious power struggle between competing class interests. In The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,  newly translated into English, author Yang Jisheng guides us expertly through the maze of bureaucratic cliques and rebel factions.

What provoked the revolution? Chairman Mao Zedong was maniacally bent on upholding the republic’s foundational 1949 template. Eliminating the ‘revisionism’ of senior party officials was his quest, clearing away all obstacles to a socialist paradise of total equality. It was the heyday of Mao’s ultra-Leftist politics.

As ever with Marxist revolution, violence thrived. The demonisation of ‘rightists’ and persecution of wrong-think yielded a body-count of 1.5million. Schoolchildren beat their teachers to death; the alleged offspring of landlords were beheaded. Those who didn’t perish in mass killings were worked to death in labour camps. If your accusers were feeling lenient you might receive a public shaming, a disobliging placard hung around your neck.

As for propaganda, you think you’ve read it all – and then there’s Mao. Had Orwell and Huxley lived longer, his brain-penetrating tactics might have inspired dystopian sequels: 2024 and Braver New World, perhaps. For Maoist mass movements were sustained by bizarreness as well as brutality. Flight attendants led dances of loyalty before take-off; there were calls for the red light in traffic lights to mean go. (Green for stop has contemporary resonance, mind.)

The Mao personality cult burgeoned: ideology became religion, Mao its high priest. In 1967 alone, 369million copies of his Little Red Book of quotations were printed. Failure to own a copy, and prove you’d read it, could cost you your life. Individuality was crushed: the all-consuming end, pursued with fanatical zeal, was unalloyed communism, to ‘make China red through every hill and vale’. The ‘ten years of chaos’, as it’s officially known, ended only with the Dear Leader’s death, which prompted mass (if in many instances expedient) public weeping.

Whither President Xi’s China? As things stand, its dethroning of the US seems inevitable, not least militarily: navy-building usually trumps navel-gazing. But internal socio-economic tensions could yet muddy the Yangtze waters. Jisheng himself is unequivocal in calling for constitutional democracy to replace the one-party State. This, he argues, requires chipping away at the unsustainable philosophy of ‘Soviet learning as the base, Western learning for application’. Still resident in China, where he is under surveillance and the book is banned, he wields his pick bravely.                                                                                

For a Trump-shorn West, China’s ascent is a sobering sight. But given our own recent embrace of Mao-style authoritarianism, we’ve limited scope for moral posturing. Would the John McDonnell Little Red Book incident of 2015 raise as many laughs inside and outside Parliament today?

Even then, Government front-bench mirth was a bit rich. David Cameron had been toadying up to the CCP for years on everything from China’s funding of British universities to granting Xi a full state visit. And so, Huawei volte-face notwithstanding, it continues.

It’s not as if Xi is Mao’s antithesis. For the new generation, the party has released a Little Red Book-derived app of Xi’s speeches. As Jisheng emphasises, the revolution was repudiated by the CCP top brass; Mao and his insidious ways were not.

Whatever happens next, we’re all China-watchers now.

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Stuart Major
Stuart Major is an independent scholar based in Sussex.

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