Maintaining the Mao myth

Jonathan Mirsky – The International Herald Tribune

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
LONDON Not long ago I wrote an enthusiastic review of “Mao: The Untold Story,” the new biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. The June issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, in which my review appeared, was promptly barred from China.
The same fate has befallen other publications containing similar reviews, and a BBC interview with Jung Chang herself (she is the author of the global best seller “Wild Swans”) was blocked.
Mao Zedong died in 1976. Why is it that almost 30 years later, in a China where freedom of speech is said to be on the rise, attacking the Chairman remains taboo?
Chang’s and Halliday’s biography is a nothing-is-sacred act of demolition. Chang says of Mao, “He was as evil as Hitler or Stalin, and did as much damage to mankind as they did.” The authors assert that Mao was responsible for upwards of 70 million peacetime deaths, including at least 37 million in the 1959-1961 famine that arose from Mao’s harebrained economic policies.
These are scarcely new facts within China. If 70 million people died before their time and many more millions suffered during the Cultural Revolution, there must be hundreds of millions of Chinese who know about Mao’s depredations.
Indeed, in 1981 the Party published an official judgment in which it said the Chairman bore the main responsibility for the epochal tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, and admitted, too, that from the late 1950s the Chairman had made mistakes and misjudgements.
But the Party concluded that Mao remained a great Marxist revolutionary. The Cultural Revolution, therefore, remains out-of-bounds for serious research in China.
And here we discover the ultimate inviolability of Mao, whose enormous portrait still gazes down onto the sacred center of China, Tiananmen Square.
Proper research within China would reveal what is already well known to China specialists in the West, and is highlighted in Chang’s and Halliday’s biography: Mao did not merely throw the switch to start the Cultural Revolution, he micro-managed some of its worst acts. And, like Stalin, Mao needed always to know the grisliest details of persecution, whether of his old colleagues or mere officials and scholars.
Then there is the myth of Mao before 1949 – the hero of the Long March who in 1934-35 led the ragtag Red Army to safety at Yanan, the guerrilla headquarters from which Mao fought Chiang Kai-shek and organized the eventual Communist victory in 1949.
As has been shown by Chang and Halliday and earlier scholars, the myth was fed by Mao to the hero-worshipping American journalist Edgar Snow in 1936 and is largely a lie.
On the Long March itself – and this is a Chang-Halliday scoop – the most heroic moment, the crossing by daredevil Red soldiers of a blazing bridge over a gorge, with Chiang Kai-shek’s forces at the other end, never happened.
Indeed, it appears that Chiang Kai-shek allowed the Reds to escape.
All that was long ago. Why, then, protect the Chairman now? Because without Mao a black hole would gape beneath the feet of the Communist Party. After all, in 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, Lenin remained. Without Mao, his heirs – for that is what they are – would be left dangling in an ideological void.
There must, therefore, be no void. Every Chinese student from primary school on receives regular lessons in what is called “political education.” In this curriculum the history of the Communist Party – its triumphs over imperialism, exploitive capitalism, landlordism, and Chiang Kai-shek – are celebrated, as are the Party’s eradication of starvation, prostitution, venereal disease and opium.
Who was the begetter of all this? Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsman, Teacher, and Reddest Red Sun in our Hearts; the near-god who on Sept. 21, 1949, proclaimed that the “Chinese people have stood up.”
So to demolish the Chairman would be catastrophic for the present leadership. These leaders, after all, continue to emphasize that “the Communist Party makes mistakes but only the Communist Party can correct them.”
But what if the Party itself is a mistake and Mao a yet greater one? China’s leaders are determined to prevent that thought from getting loose in the minds of hundreds of millions of Chinese.
(Jonathan Mirsky was formerly the East Asia editor of The Times of London. )

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