Friday, September 9, marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong, the father of the People’s Republic of China and the first chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Western journalists seized the opportunity to criticize both Mao and the current administration of Xi Jinping, which, ironically enough, they claimed (wrongly so) was trying to distance itself from the very man they were criticizing.
During my nine years living and working in China I never once heard anyone disparage Chairman Mao, as he is known to most Chinese. And that’s not because political dissent is oppressed in China. Many Chinese are quick to openly criticize some of the things he did, particularly the Cultural Revolution, but few criticize the man himself.
That includes my first assistant in China, a retired English teacher who was ‘sent down’ as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution to work on an agricultural commune and ‘learn’ from the peasants, just as the current leader of China, Xi Jinping, was.
She was very open about the Cultural Revolution. While she openly lamented the fact that the Red Guard stormed her family home and smashed her mother’s cherished wedding picture for being too bourgeois, and spoke matter-of-factly about the harsh life that she and her fellow teenage classmates led in the countryside, I never heard her complain about the fact that she was forced to spend several years working the fields alongside the poor, largely uneducated farmers. In fact, she and her roommates continue to return to the village where they toiled to meet with old friends and acquaintances.
I think it’s pretty simple. People don’t judge you for what you do; they judge you for how you make them feel. And on that front, Mao was right up there with Gandhi, Kennedy, Reagan, or whomever else you might idolize. He believed in the common man and woman and he was sincere. His methods may have been misguided at times, but his sincerity is never questioned by any modern Chinese citizen.
The idea that the current administration is considering moving Mao’s incredibly popular tomb from its central location on Tiananmen Square, as one Western writer reported, is absurd. I’ll wager everything I own that will not happen and is not even being seriously considered.
The Mao phenomenon – a man who is revered but whose actions are sometimes challenged – is not unique to China. Consider the current US presidential election. Nobody is ‘for’ their candidate as much as they are against the other candidate.
Clinton supporters rage about the fact that Trump supporters are so forgiving of his every gaffe, but so are the Clinton supporters. Neither candidate has really earned our respect for integrity, much less our vote, but passions nonetheless run high. Because we judge each candidate based on how they make us feel, or in this case perhaps, how the opposing candidate makes us feel.
When Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world he was taking a risk that he was fully aware of. He famously noted that “some must get rich first.” He may not have been referring to corrupt government officials, but he fully understood the dynamics of a market economy. He needed to look no further than every other market economy in the world for stark evidence of its potential for inequity.
And that risk has materialized in China, as it has in the US and elsewhere. The rich are getting richer and society is increasingly polarized between the haves and the have-nots. In the US even our values of fair play have been monetized. If you have enough money you can jump to the front of the line at popular tourist attractions, for example.
And, yes, there are many Chinese who lament this growing inequity, just as there are many Americans who have jumped on Trump’s bandwagon for the simple reason that he represents – however improbable – the possibility of change.
President Xi Jinping is among them. (The lamenters, not the Trump supporters.) His crackdown on government corruption is unprecedented in its scope. No one has been spared, unlike the US where political connections seem to trump justice again and again. (Excuse the pun.)
Xi Jinping is committed to the same values that Mao was. His methods are very different. But even though his own father was treated harshly by Mao (i.e. jailed) during the Cultural Revolution, his heart is in the same place – pride in the average Chinese man and woman and in the country’s rich and long history.
In this digital age, we have come to digitize everything, from our technology to our politics. 0 or 1. Yes or no. I love or I hate.
But we haven’t changed the human psyche. We will always judge people by how they make us feel. As Freud argued, all of life is personal.
And I, for one, believe that this reality will be the salvation of mankind. I don’t admire everything Mao did, but I do greatly admire what he stood for. So do most Chinese. So should you.
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