Thursday 4 December 2008

Sieg heil Chairman Mao?

The Battle for China’s Past: Mao & The Cultural Revolution, Mobo Gao (Pluto Press)

Mao Zedong’s legacy has recently faced a sustained barrage of revisionist demonisation - a trend epitomised by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s character assassination Mao: The Untold Story (1), that aimed at establishing him as being ‘worse than Hitler’. From the ferment this seems to be causing in grassroots China, if Mobo Gao had not written this scathing retort to the revisionist consensus, then somebody else probably would have. Gao’s work debunks the scholarship behind the revisionists’ portrait of Mao as a callous, good-for-nothing, and the ultra-conservative motivations for defaming his character and every aspect of the Cultural Revolution.

The legitimacy of the revisionist biographies of Mao and the uncritical applaud they receive from both conservatives and liberals in the West derives from an assumption that Gao immediately sets out to correct: that the current problems in China such as the CCP’s corruption, lack of democracy, environmental degradation etc. derive from a latent Maoist despotism. Quite the contrary he argues: the CCP since Deng Xiaoping has gone out of its way to denigrate Mao and the Cultural Revolution, moving a long way from the infamous ‘70% right, 30% wrong’ judgment in the early years of Deng’s premiership, to portraying Mao, and in particular the Cultural Revolution, as the root of all evil in contemporary China.

Gao starts with an emblematic discussion with a émigré Chinese businessman. Asking Mr Chen why the Chinese government – which has amassed large surpluses from economic growth and hoarded it mainly in foreign currency reserves – does not invest it in a basic form of a welfare state such as universal healthcare, Chen answers that they are ‘low quality people’ (ie. economic redistribution would be wasted on the poor). And in regard to the average wage in China of $80/month: ‘that is good enough for a peasant’ (p. 1). And in another encounter with a recently emboureoised University Professor the same sentiments are repeated; even as Prof. Huang tells him with pride that he is instigating a programme to install en-suite bathrooms for all academic offices in the University (p. 121). Needless to say, both look back upon the Cultural Revolution as an unsurpassable horror.

Gao’s portrait is of a country increasingly riven by elitism and contempt for the poor. As a recent visitor from China also told me, ‘the rich are paranoid and convinced the poor hate them, they avoid them the best they can’. This is obviously a dangerous situation for a country with a history of revolutionary violence. The possibility of the repetition of large-scale social action means that history and historical consciousness are a major site of contention. The Battle for China’s Past takes on a contemporary political significance.

The conflict may be quite alien to Western liberals. Gao claims the official censorship in China actually promotes anti-Mao scholarship and suppresses opinion warmer to his legacy: a reversal in the popular narrative of the death of Mao as signalling the glasnost of Chinese totalitarianism. This state bias translates into the fact that many Western liberals are unfamiliar with the reality that the majority of Chinese remember Mao warmly and happily, indulging in reminiscences about the ‘good old days’.

The basis of discrediting Mao and the Cultural Revolution could be said to be a uniquely postmodern one: what Alain Badiou describes as ‘the count’ (2).  The historical battle is not framed in terms of ideology – socialism vs capitalism, communism vs fascism – but in terms of the scale of deaths caused and whether they can be attributed to Mao’s intentions or other causal factors. The revisionists hype up the body count; the counter-revisionists push figures down. Although it would be easy to perceive a balance in this process, it is the sheer scale of revisionist exaggeration that has provoked revolt. For instance, the hyperbole that Mao murdered 70 million, as Jung and Halliday propose - thus in a strictly arithmetic sense making him ‘worse than’ Hitler or Stalin - is based on unfounded supposition.

As Gao reveals throughout the book, the paucity of evidence and shaky methodology used by revisionist historians and Chinese state demographers to rack up Mao’s death toll is shocking. The highest estimates of the premature deaths resulting from famine in the Great Leap Forward include the lower birth rates of the period, ie. they factor in those not even born as part of the death toll, which is absurd (p. 86). Similarly, in Jung and Halliday’s hype of the supposed Ruijin atrocity Gao, highlights the following discrepancy in their text:

‘Given that escapes were few, this means that altogether some 700,000 people died in the Ruijin base. More than half of these were murdered as “class enemies”, or were worked to death….’ The book is filled with accusations like these without any evidence or sources to back up. How did Chang and Halliday come up with a figure of 700,000 deaths in Ruijin, for instance? The Unknown Story cites two sources referring to the population drop of 20% in Red Jiangxi (p. 113). Even if these figures of population drop were true, they do not give any evidence to the claim that all these people actually died – they could have migrated to other areas because of the civil war…’ (p. 72).

Aside from cataloging the revisionists’ claims and counter-revisionists’ rebuttals, the second major aspect of Gao’s work is his insight into the growing significance of e-media debate in China. As he describes it:

’The issue that draws most attention in the e-media is the evaluation of Mao the man…For a long time in China it has been taken for granted that the Cultural Revolution had nothing positive to talk about and “the ten-year disaster of the Cultural Revolution” had become the accepted wisdom…However, the wisdom is increasingly being questioned now in the e-media. In May 2007, a familiar e-media participant with the pen name of Jingan Jushi (2007) proclaimed: “China should objectively and historically evaluate the merits and demerits of Mao”’ (p. 117).

Gao provides us with a rare insight into the lively online debate in China, so different to the sense of consensus that dominates the intellectual class and the state. Henry Zhao also recently described the dynamic: ‘In the PRC the government is not particularly eager to listen to the worries of intellectuals; and the populace - who have the loudest voice in the new “public sphere” created by emerging Internet culture - does not seem to care much about them either.’ (3) 

However, although this defence of Mao manifests two irresistible traits: a defence of a communist icon and a rebel spirit against existing authority, Gao does not sufficiently unpick the logic of contemporary political subjectivities and how, and for what purpose, Mao is being re-appropriated in the present. The defence of Mao probably does not coincide as closely as he believes with the defence of China’s socialist heritage. For example, according to the studies of Elisabeth Perry (4), peasant unrest in inland China has manifested itself in a bizarre variety of millenarian cults, messianic leaders and religious sectarianism which, even if they march under Maoist slogans, demand nothing determinately Maoist in their political agendas. There are even some streaks of fascism in the archaic aims of the neo-Maoist peasant insurgencies. In the more moderate urban environment, the defence of Mao is often framed in purely nationalistic terms, with a conspiratorial edge.

To give a sense of the nagging doubts, Gao frequently draws from the critique of Mao: The Untold Story, by Jin Xiaoding, but what he omits is any discussion of the frame of the critique. This is how Jin concludes her piece:

In revealing the numerous contradictions and inconsistencies in JC’s book, we do not need any specific knowledge or information regarding China. Now the question is: why cannot those Western journalists and those China experts see? It is hard to believe that none of them is capable of logic thinking, or has read the book carefully. The most plausible explanation is their profound pride and prejudice towards China. (5)

It is plausible that nationalist thinking in contemporary China is associated with sublated fidelity to the nation’s socialist heritage; especially considering the fact that Westernisation is open state policy. Yet this is dangerous territory. Gao has previously defended ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ and although this may, in some contexts, act as necessary counterpoint to over zealous leftist criticism of post-Maoist China in the West, taken in its own context, it simply mirrors an ever growing nationalism. As Gao himself admits: ‘The dissenting voices in China have gathered pace since 1997 after the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade’ (p. 117) – not, by way of contrast, out of the labour movement or as a reaction against the suppression of the Beijing Spring in 1989.

Taken as whole, Gao’s work is a necessary and effective rebuttal of the anti-Mao consensus, that clashes with the widespread attempts to both flatten and condemn all of the 20th century’s utopian struggles in one blow. He reminds us that we have come a long way when can we compare the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution to the massacre of an ethnic group under the Nazis - by simply reducing it to an arithmetic scale of deaths to decide which is worse. Although, at the same time, defending history against gross, ideological exaggeration is an entirely legitimate endeavour too.

But here’s the problem: even if Mao was never a ‘Chinese Hitler’ in his lifetime, his recent appropriation by predominantly hard-line nationalists is perhaps nothing to celebrate either. The Battle for China’s Past simply doesn’t give us enough to work with to decide whether e-media defences of Mao are implicated within a populist movement that is fundamentally progressive, or whether it is only post-humously that Mao the man will become a pinup Chinese national socialist.

For an extremely positive/over-the-top take on the Cultural Revolution see the work of the MLM Revolutionary Study Group published on Kasema in
8 parts:

(1) Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. 2007. Mao: The Untold Story. London: Vintage.
(2) Alain Badiou. 2007. The Century. Cambridge: Polity – see the introduction for Badiou’s critique of the arithmetical Thermidor.
(3) Henry Zhao. 2008. Caring for the Nation. New Left Review. 54. Nov/Dec 2008 p. 158.
(4) Perry, Elisabeth. 2007. Studying Chinese Politics: Farewell to Revolution? The China Journal. No. 57: 1-22.
(5) Jin Xiaoding. 2005. A Critique of J. Chang and J. Halliday’s Book Mao, The Unknwon Story. Accessed online 27/11/08 

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