To this day, Mao Zedong remains an ethereal figure in Asian politics. His giant portrait hangs ominously over the gate of Beijing’s Forbidden City like that of an emperor. His body, still lies in the grandiose Chairman Mao memorial Hall in the centre of Tiananmen Square, the granite plain that is emblematic of this country of more than 1.3 billion. His picture holds pride of place in many houses across China.
Indeed, an airbrushed iconography decorates Mao as a symbol of strength, a man born a peasant – who later developed a penchant for jump suits – who rose to lead the unity of a warring nation.
The reality is quite different. Mao’s poor personal hygiene (his failure to bathe for 25 years), his 50 odd-personal estates while others lived in abject poverty and his habit of having fresh fish delicacies transported one thousand kilometres from Wuhan simply to satisfy an Epicurean indulgence are just some of the reasons to question his pervasion into modern China.
It is worrying therefore that he has recently re-emerged as the face of resistance and defiance. More than three decades after his death, Mao’s image was carried aloft during protests against Japan over the disputed Diaoyu Islands.
One young woman from Mao’s home village in Hunan province lamented how weak she thought her country’s leaders have become and suggested that if Mao were still alive then China would just take the islands.
But despite this reverence amongst China’s would-be revolutionaries, Mao’s remains a flawed legacy, one characterized by despotism and an orgy of political violence that killed millions of innocent people. For those who see strength in his round face, others remember dread, deprivation and brutality.
China suffered during high-profile campaigns introduced by Mao, such as the “Great Leap Forward,” where millions of people died through starvation or persecution during a catastrophic attempt to modernize China between 1958 and 1961.
Another calamitous period, known as the “Cultural Revolution” aimed to revive the revolutionary chi of Communism. Millions of young people were forcibly removed from cities to learn from peasants in the countryside, viewed as ideological role models by Mao, causing massive social and pecuniary disruption.
Today, the same country that couldn’t feed itself under Mao has enjoyed thirty six years of the most consummate fiscal growth, the dictator’s death no doubt the trigger for such unparalleled economic renaissance.
With this in mind, it seems any revolutionary nostalgia that currently overshadows the Diaoyu crisis as well as China as a whole, is truly misguided by a masked memory of what Mao was really like. Regional stability in the Pacific hangs in a delicate balance over the sovereign rights of these islands, and we can only hope that the Chinese government ignores the advice of any Maoist protests.
Mao was not a liberator. He was a tyrant who hid behind the guise of socialism to carry out ultimately authoritarian aims. If China is to truly develop, it must do so by absconding from the constraints of Mao, starting with diplomacy in Diaoyu. Certainly, given the current economic situation in Japan, it seems unlikely that they will risk extending tensions with their main trading partner and Asia’s leading economy. Minister of Commerce Chen Denning is right to maintain a hard line stance on an aversion to force.
In 1985, Tiziano Terzani wrote, “At the centre of China lies a corpse that nobody dares remove.” In 2012, maybe it’s about time somebody did.