Time flies when youâ€™re not causing deaths of tens of millions of your compatriots.
Chinaâ€™s â€œGlobal Timesâ€ reports from Shaoshan where thousands of people have gathered to remember the villageâ€™s most famous son (of a bitch). Floral tributes have been arriving from around the country and some of the visitors appear to be praying to Maoâ€™s 6-metresâ€™ tall statue. Then the report goes for laughs:
Despite Western focus on Mao’s mistakes, especially for starting the devastating Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the Chinese government still recognizes and highlights his undeniable role in creating a new China from his errors.
While the mainstream public also considers Mao a great leader, within the certain limitations of his time, experts warned of the existence of extreme views about him – some still worship him as a god and try to right all his wrongs, others ignore whatever positive legacy he left.
â€œMistakesâ€ is a nice euphemism for directly and indirectly murdering around 70 million people. Example: â€œOops honey, I just wiped Great Britain off the mapâ€. The â€œdevastating Cultural Revolutionâ€ is merely the last act of Maoâ€™s butchery, part three of the trilogy of almost unimaginable horror, following the civil war and consolidation of power, and the Great Leap Forward famine of the late 50s and early 60s. The great famine saw the starvation of perhaps 45 million Chinese men, women and children in the pursuit of harebrained economic ideas, and is to this date arguably the deadliest man-made disaster in history. But itâ€™s the Cultural Revolution that only rates a mention, possibly because unlike the previous two chapters, lots of communists got killed by other communists. Only #CommunistLivesMatter obviously, which is why we can observe a similar phenomenon of selective regret in Russia, where many might begrudge Stalin only the â€œexcessesâ€ of the Great Terror, during which the revolution devoured its own children. As if the other millions, the overwhelming majority of victims, somehow deserved to get caught in the communist meat-grinder.
But letâ€™s remember Maoâ€™s â€œpositive legacyâ€ (he killed 70 million people, but look at the bright side). The problem with trying to remember positive legacies of communist leaders anywhere is that at their best they havenâ€™t done anything that others around the world havenâ€™t managed to do without mass murder, mass misery and mass denial of basic human rights and freedoms. Industrialisation? Modernisation? Education? Electrification? Sure, achieved to varying degrees by leaders like Stalin and Mao, but a tremendous human, social, economic and environmental cost compared to elsewhere around the globe. To say that you canâ€™t make an omelette without breaking any eggs is not only a small comfort to the tens of millions of eggs, but also disingenuous since the omelette in question turned out to be barely edible and vastly inferior to other omelettes made without substantial breakage. In any case, China only started to truly move ahead as a country once Maoism was progressively abandoned by Deng and his successors.
Chinaâ€™s rulers of course need to be careful in their handling of Maoâ€™s ghost. As a communist party at least in name, they cannot completely deny him, but having departed so far from his vision they canâ€™t celebrate him either. But Mao, like Stalin, can be more useful dead than alive, because the image can always be reshaped to serve whatever ends you have in mind. In fact, you can virtually wring out any ideological content of both the butchers and still end up with re-imagined strong leaders, nationalists, centralists and unifiers â€“ the Mao and Stalin that appeal to new authoritarian, great power rulers of China and Russia.
You can have your Mao, and I have mine, and he is an utter bastard.
(There are many great â€“ and hair-raising â€“ books about Mao and his China out there. My personal recommendations are Jung Chang and Jon Halliday biography, and on a bigger picture level, Frank Dikotterâ€™s trilogy of utter horror, â€œThe Tragedy of Liberationâ€, â€œMaoâ€™s Great Famineâ€ and â€œThe Cultural Revolutionâ€, whose three-chapter perspective I adopted.)