Who Got Mao Right?

The legacy of the Great Helmsman is the source of bitter conflict over China’s future direction, argues Tim Stanley.

'Long Live the Invincible Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought!', Chinese poster, 1967Western opinion of Mao Zedong is at an all time low. Recent historical research, such as Frank Dikotter’s Mao’s Great Famine, has brought better understanding of just how much China suffered during the Chairman’s rule from 1949 to 1976. From the man-made famine of the Great Leap Forward to the political terror of the Cultural Revolution, Mao emerges as a vain Communist despot, who manipulated peasants and students to build a tyranny out of anarchy.

Opinion in Mao’s native China is a little more mixed. The recent dismissal of Bo Xilai from the governing Politburo illustrates how the dictator has become, for some people, a weapon to use against the Communist bureaucracy.

Bo was a ‘princeling’ of the revolution, descended from one of its historical leaders, led a luxurious lifestyle and even sent his son to Harrow. He fell from grace on March 15th, 2012 after a former lieutenant implicated his wife in the murder of a British businessman. But, as head of the Communist Party in the megalopolis of Chongqing, Bo was a charismatic leader who confronted organised crime and raised welfare spending. Curiously his working-class populism was expressed through a revival of Cultural Revolution Maoism. He encouraged students to go to work in the countryside and sent out text messages to the city’s 13 million mobile phone users that used quotes culled from Mao’s Little Red Book.

The popularity of Bo’s campaign contradicts the western view of Maoism as a byword for state oppression. Indeed the fact that Bo’s Maoism was regarded by conservatives within the Politburo as a political threat suggests that it can actually be appropriated as a potential force for egalitarianism. Mao Zedong would probably be pleased.

Throughout his time as Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Mao’s greatest fear was that his country would succumb to the bureaucratic style of socialism practised in the Soviet Union: inhuman and dominated by profiteering elites. Mao worried that simply declaring the Chinese revolution to be completed (which the Soviet Union came close to doing) side-stepped the necessary ‘root-and-branch’ radicalisation of society necessary to build pure socialism. How could China be Communist so long as a factory manager made triple the wages of the worker, women were treated like beasts of burden and the peasants followed orders given by distant party bosses?

Unfortunately there was a big gulf between theoretical Maoism and Maoism in practice. In order to achieve this self-willed socialism Mao had to compel people to embrace it through terror. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 he encouraged students to destroy old traditions, denounce party officials, harass teachers and reduce Chinese culture to a cruel and conformist Year Zero. Both Bo Xilai and his father, Bo Yibo, were thrown in prison. Yibo was publicly humiliated, tortured and (it is rumoured) denounced by his own son.

But the legacies of Maoism weren’t all authoritarian; its critique of the Communist bureaucracy established a new model of dissent. After Mao’s death in 1976 the Communist Party did exactly as Mao feared and combined an oppressive dictatorship with free-market exploitation. Corruption, unemployment, inflation and inequality were rampant. In 1989 it was students, again, who crowded into Tiananmen Square to demand reform. Although the protestors wanted western-style liberalism, the Politburo was worried that the country was facing a second Cultural Revolution – the young people waved red flags and drew Maoist-style posters critical of the bureaucracy. When the tanks cleared Tiananmen Square on June 3rd and 4th the world was treated to the confusing sight of an officially Maoist party opening fire on a movement that took some inspiration from Maoist thought. Who got Mao right?

The various uses of Maoism do not acquit the Chairman of his many crimes against humanity. But they should encourage westerners to see the despots of the East as historical figures with tremendous cultural power who mean different things to different people, much as the Putin regime in Russia is struggling to find a new way to interpret Stalin. If China eventually becomes democratic it will be interesting to see if Mao emerges as a non-partisan figure of unity, like Abraham Lincoln, or the epitome of ideological folly, like Pol Pot.

Tim Stanley is associate fellow of the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford University.