King Red

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 25, 2002 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Before the Asian financial collapse of 1997, one often heard that Asia would soon overtake the United States as the world's money center, and that we had better learn Mandarin before it was too late. A scare tactic, as it turned out - another way to motivate us to work when we would rather be enjoying the extraordinary leisure that our wealth is supposed to guarantee.

Credible people in the financial world are now saying that China, in my lifetime, will surpass the United States economically, and when I regard on a weekly basis China's steady GDP growth of 8 percent, I frown. But is this figure accurate, when totalitarian states are prone to exaggerating their progress? Two, how can a country with more peasants than America has people sustain such growth while abiding a dictatorship and a steadfast attachment to astrology? Finally, so what if it does? "A decent provision for the poor," said Samuel Johnson, "is the true test of civilization" - not the average enrichment of the whole.

Philip Short's excellent and apparently definitive biography Mao: A Life serves only to increase my skepticism. I don't know how you could read Short's book without concluding that, politically anyway, China is a basket-case; and that any economic victory it may claim in the future will be dimmed by the millions that died - or were killed - under the leadership of Mao Zedong.

To be sure, Mao had his triumphs. He unified a country beset by decades of civil war. He helped to expel the Japanese as well as the imperial Great Powers, who so lustily awaited the country's disintegration. He reduced China's feudalism and superstition, including its traditional denigration of women. He met with Nixon, thereby initiating three decades of shaky détente. He helped prevent Korea and Vietnam from becoming American provinces. And he developed a uniquely Chinese version of Marxism-Leninism that would bear his name and become the inspiration for everyone from Ho Chi Minh to today's Nepalese rebels. Marx had predicted that socialism was the necessary outgrowth of capitalism, which in turn was an advance over feudalism. Mao tried to skip capitalism altogether, to condense 500 years of development into 50. And, by and large, he failed.

Mao's projects were an early and telling example of how to lie with advertising. Jealous of the rapid technological development of the Soviet Union, as symbolized by the launch of Sputnik; and humiliated by America's overwhelming productivity and abundance, Mao devised the Great Leap Forward: little more than the establishment of certain absurd targets in grain and steel production. The policy vindicated every skeptic of the viability of a command economy, as millions of Chinese who should have been growing food for themselves instead melted down their utensils and pots and pans to meet the steel target. They meant well, and their industry was astonishing, but much of the "steel" they produced was unusable, and it came to litter the countryside, big globular refutations of Maoism. Meanwhile, people starved. Some 20 to 30 million of them.

Likewise, the Cultural Revolution accomplished little more than the feverish destruction of Chinese culture, with nothing to put in its place except "revolutionary model operas" and Mao busts. Books were burned, churches smashed, elders taunted and murdered. Industrial output plummeted. Implicitly, the goal was to protect China from the "capitalist-roaders", those suspected of wanting to sell their produce for a profit or raise a traditional family. Mao called for "an all-round nationwide civil war." And he got it.

What struck me about the Revolution was not so much its pointless violence or its inconceivable faith in the ability of children to determine the course of an ancient state. No. What struck me was its nihilism. Taliban, I thought. Blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, to no cheers and no point.

When the Americans had their revolution, I don't remember that they put a torch to the collected works of Edmund Burke or that they bludgeoned senior citizens. Even during the nightmare of the McCarthy Era, you didn't see bands of frothing youths hauling suspected Communists out of shoe shops or cauterizing them with fire irons, nor did you see copies of Das Kapital being thrown into flaming heaps.

The truth is characterized by its power to tolerate error. If you are right, there is no need to destroy what is wrong. Explain to me why Confucius is backward or wrong-headed. Tearing pages out of The Analects doesn't prove, much less explain, anything.

Perhaps the comparison is naive. The American colonists were a literate bunch, more literate in a sense than Americans are today; China's population was 90% illiterate. Mao was right to insist on testing Marxism against the "objective conditions" of China. What worked in the Paris Commune or in Moscow wouldn't necessarily work in Xinjiang or Shanghai. Mao took the unflattering view that the "the Chinese people were 'slavish in character and narrow-minded'" and that the peasantry was a "blank" to be inscribed with his ideas. He would bat away calls for democracy by saying, "The peasants want freedom, but we want socialism"; or by calling China "the people's democratic dictatorship." And many Chinese accepted this nonsensical prescription. His "Little Red Book" of aphorisms became all but holy, and portraits of him showed his "face illuminated by the rays of the sun, a motif traditionally associated with emperor-worship in China." People even prayed to him.

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Mao's China was Orwell's Animal Farm writ large. The obscene exhortations toward an exhausted and starving populace to work harder. The leadership's posh lifestyle and indulgence in those vices barred to the people. (Four times married, Mao later enjoyed sleeping with a handful of young comradettes simultaneously; he often inhabited the mansions of expelled landlords.) The leadership's pretense of identifying with the "masses" that they actually held in contempt. The employment of short and simplistic sets of rules to usher in utopia. (One of these was that all sparrows - which eat caterpillars - should be killed. The masses heeded. And the caterpillars multiplied and ate up their crops.)

"War is politics," Mao wrote. "Politics is war by other means." One can almost imagine him wearing a T-shirt bearing these words, as much of his administration of China amounted to oblique manipulations of the Party membership. About economics he knew damningly little, also science and technology. His empiricism, his reverence for "objective conditions", floated in a perpetual cloud of Teutonic abstractions and Eastern gobbledygook. At age twenty-four, he wrote:

"I say: the concept is reality, the finite is the infinite, the temporal senses are the super-temporal senses, imagination is thought, form is substance, I am the universe, life is death is life...."

And so on. Mao's tolerance of criticism and new ideas was fickle, even pathologically so. His "Hundred Flowers" campaign was designed on the typically florid premise that good ideas are flowers and bad ideas are "poisonous weeds", and that any garden will have both. Initially wary of this seeming call for free expression, intellectuals responded heartily, but were just as heartily rebuffed. Horrific as the Tiananmen Square massacre was, the obsession that has developed around it is rather baffling to anybody familiar with Chinese history. It was not an aberration - shocking perhaps only because it was televised. Political butcheries are as Chinese as pork dumplings.

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Mao came from peasant stock, and Short notes that he never adopted the use of a toothbrush: "Instead, like most rural southerners, he rinsed his mouth with tea." He was also a poet - mediocre, according to Sinophile Arthur Waley. He suffered from neurasthenia and a fierce affection for nicotine. Like Jesus making for the hills, he would occasionally remove himself from politics for months at a stretch in order to recuperate - and read. His bed was extraordinarily large in order to accommodate stacks of books. In his youth he read Adam Smith and Rousseau (how many devout capitalists read Marx?) and he was a lifelong admirer of Confucius, with references in his speeches to the ancient thinkers "far outnumbering those to Lenin and Marx". His beloved eldest son was killed in the Korean War, and he never quite fell out of love with his first - and more or less abandoned - wife. In short, he was a human being.

Philip Short justly distinguishes Mao from the other charismatic tyrants for which the previous century came to be known. Unlike Hitler, Mao did not kill his opponents for who they were but for what they believed. And the vast majority of the deaths under his rule were caused by starvation compounded by drought, while under Stalin the majority was died by premeditated and political assassination. It is true however that Mao publicly showed little remorse or admitted due responsibility for the Great Leap Forward, and that "his rule brought about the deaths of more of his own people than any other leader in history." But, as he would say, "Revolution is not a dinner-party." Small consolation indeed for those without any dinner. But if you want to make an omelet.... Oh dear.

Mao was famous for such pithy little sayings, and - apparently like many of his contemporaries - was fond of using the word "dog-shit" as a standard of value, as in "your ideas are dog-shit". The word "fart" was also popular. Bear in mind that the Chinese attitude toward bodily functions is, or was, far from puritanical, and indeed one of the reforms Mao introduced was to discourage people from defecating out in the open. People came to memorize Mao's sayings and to use them as an authority rivaling Confucius, even though many of them were half-right or wholly dangerous. War is politics, okay, but it is also economics and ideology and bullets and so on. Omelets demand eggs, but a person is not an egg and the Great Leap Forward was not much of an omelet.

Far more memorable and ingenious were Mao's contributions to military strategy and organization. He realized that whoever can control the masses could control practically anything. And that the way to win the masses over to your cause is to treat them with respect. During the civil war between the Communists and Chiang Kai-Shek's Guomindang, Mao gave his cadres a startlingly benevolent code of conduct for their dealings with the peasantry, who therefore signed on to Mao's larger design. And in the early stages of the war, when the Guomindang possessed far greater numbers and superior weaponry, Mao developed his theories of guerilla warfare, in which tactical feints and constant harassment of the enemy will eventually wear the enemy down. Ho Chi Minh would later use Mao's theories to great effect in his grueling war of attrition against the French and the Americans, whose ignorance of Mao's tactics was as intentional as it was avoidable. Pol Pot, on the other hand, misconstrued Maoism to mean that the best way to save your own country is to destroy it.

Foreigners meeting Mao for the first time often shared a sense that they were in the presence of an Ubermensch, a man unconstrained by conventional morality, a man for whom history was but a plaything. Power-worshipper Henry Kissinger was awed by his "raw, concentrated will power" and his "overwhelming drive to prevail." But he was mortal like any other man, and he died every bit as shabbily and prosaically as most of us do: "He drooled uncontrollably," for example. It remains to be seen what history will make of him, as he no doubt rolls in his grave every time China makes another small and celebrated departure from socialism. Then again, should China become an economic colossus as predicted, he will have reason to think that his life, whatever else one might think of it, was not in vain.

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Review of Philip Short's Mao: A Life, Owl Books, 2001.

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