Here is a tip for anyone wanting to deflect unwanted attention at Chinese banquets: just throw out the question “Was Chairman Mao mostly good or mostly bad?”
Then you’ll see the other diners pounce like hungry dogs fighting for a juicy bone, and nobody will pay you any more attention.
This trick is highly effective – I have seen friends who were perfectly amicable minutes earlier yelling at each other as soon as the topic turns to Mao.
How to assess Mao is one of the most polarising topics in modern day China. Mao’s detractors often put him in the same league as Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, citing his responsibility for the death of tens of millions of Chinese and his role in the near total collapse of the country’s economy and cultural heritage. However, to many other Chinese, including some of my friends and relatives, he is a symbol of charisma, courage, wisdom and good luck.
The reasons that people defend and even worship Mao even in today’s age are multi-faceted: firstly, the Communist Party made its official assessment of Mao as “70% good and 30% bad” in the late 1970s and it has stuck to this line ever since, prohibiting attempts at revision; secondly, the economic boom unleashed by Deng Xiaoping’s reforms has created huge disparity between the haves and have-nots – and some of those who have missed the “get rich quick” bandwagon have grown nostalgic for the Mao era when everyone was poor but more or less equally so; thirdly, the government-controlled education and propaganda apparatus has influenced a new generation of nationalistic Chinese that believes that the wider world is ganging up against China and that only leaders like Mao had the courage to stand up to the “Western imperialists”; and finally, some superstitious folk truly believe that Mao is a demigod who can bring good luck and justice to “grass people’s” lives (during China’s long history of imperial rule, the commoners were called “grass people”).
My own opinion of Mao also divides along the 70/30 line but I believe he is probably 70% bad and 30% good. I acknowledge that he was a dynamic, charismatic and inspiring leader. I also credit him for some of the country’s achievements in the early years of the People’s Republic, including the promotion of national unity and social equality, the eradication of corruption and prostitution, the war on drug abuse, the halt to arranged marriages and the elevation of women’s status in Chinese society (hence his famous phrase that “Women hold up half of the sky”).
But unfortunately Mao’s deep-rooted emperor complex and pathological craving for political mastery and manipulation allowed him to accumulate unrivalled power, destroying much of the nation’s cultural and social fibre as a result.
Millions of the best and brightest Chinese suffered immeasurably too. His infamous Anti-Rightists Movement in the early 1950s, the Great Leap Forward later in the same decade, and the years of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 were some of the darkest times in China’s modern history.
For those who don’t know much about China under Mao’s iron fist, just look at North Korea today and you will get some of the same idea.
Although the father of China’s current leader Xi Jinping was once a victim of Mao’s political purges, few expect any changes to the official line on Mao in the foreseeable future, simply because it could bring the Party’s credibility and legitimacy into question. And as long as the official standpoint doesn’t change, we are likely to see Mao’s gigantic portrait remain in Tiananmen Square and his image stare out from all of the country’s banknotes.
Mei grew up in northeast China, attending an elite university in Beijing and graduate school in the US. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China in the media and at two investment banks. If you’d like to ask Mei a question email her at [email protected]
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