Editor’s note: Gao Wenqian is the author of Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary. The original Chinese version, 《晚年周恩来》, was published in 2003, and is banned in China. In October 2013, Li Jie (李捷), Vice Director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the chief official policy think tank, published an article (驳《晚年周恩来》对毛泽东的丑化,) attacking Mr. Gao’s book as an attempt to “uglify Mao.” Gao challenged Li Jie to a debate in his rebuttal, “Mao must be thoroughly criticized for China to progress—a rebuttal and challenge to Li Jie ” (中国若进步， 必须切低毛——驳李捷兼下战书) published in Shuangzhoukan, HRIC’s Chinese language biweekly. The challenge stirred a debate on Weibo—China’s equivalent of Twitter—with calls for unbanning the book so that the people “can judge for themselves” who’s right, and who’s wrong.
In 2013 in China, the ongoing debate about Mao’s legacy intensified as the Chinese authorities made preparations to celebrate the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. The debate is largely one between official mouthpieces who praise Mao, and ordinary people, who have borne deep wounds that resulted from his policies.
It is not a surprise that the Chinese authorities have continued to defend Mao’s legacy. For the three decades after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Mao’s communist revolution that “delivered” the nation from a corrupt past and his ideology of an egalitarian dictatorship of the people formed the cornerstone of China’s one-party system. Over the ensuing three decades, even as market economic reform gutted egalitarianism, its astonishing success provided a new source of legitimacy for the regime. But as a slowdown of the economy has become unmistakable in recent years—and with a free-for-all-to-those-with-power society unchecked by any moral brake—the only plausible rationale for the regime’s continued political monopoly is its “glorious” history. And as current leaders have learned, no other totem or tool is more powerful to invoke that history than Mao.
The continued veneration of such a brutal leader nearly four decades after his death is deeply troubling—it signals a staunch resistance to political reform. More immediately alarming is the resurgence, since President Xi Jinping took office, of Cultural Revolution-style rhetoric of “struggle” and tactic of public group self-criticism and confessions, which opens the path back to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution when chaos reigned.
In 1949, Mao pronounced that the Chinese people had risen. But his subsequent policies in fact brought the nation to its knees. His catastrophic economic policies caused tens of millions of deaths from starvation during the Great Famine (1959-61), and his horrific Cultural Revolution (1966-76) inflicted immense suffering on the Chinese people by tearing families apart and rubbing out decency from the entire society.
Why does Mao continue to hold a spell over the people of a nation he left in tatters?
The first reason is that Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader after Mao, took a pragmatic approach in refuting Mao’s reign. Even as the official evaluation attributed the “error” of the Cultural Revolution to Mao, the Party stressed that his “immortal” contributions far outweighed his errors, an assessment that in effect covered up his sins.
Second, after the crackdown on the 1989 Democracy Movement, reform became the prerogative of the powerful and the rich, resulting in a serious imbalance in wealth distribution and a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Many ordinary people fell victim to reform, and thus became nostalgic for the “fair and clean” era under Mao.
In reality, Mao himself was neither fair nor clean. Every consumer item he used had to be specially made for him, such as cigarettes and tea. And during the years of the Great Famine, large-scale construction was undertaken at great cost to build pied-à-terre palaces in every province for Mao to use on his travels. As a young cadre inside the system in the late 1970s, I personally visited several of “Mao’s No. 1 guesthouses” when I accompanied high-ranking officials on work trips.
But the greatest of Mao’s abuses was political corruption. During the Cultural Revolution, in order to suppress dissent among the leadership and ensure his “positive” legacy, Mao placed his wife, Jiang Qing, and his nephew, Mao Yuanxin, in key positions with enormous political power. Jiang would become the ringleader of the Gang of Four, with Mao Yuanxin among its supporters. In so doing, and in purging his former comrades-in-arm one by one, Mao was on his way to transforming a one-party state into a dynasty.
Mao changed the original course of China’s contemporary history: he created a communist China and turned the country into a testing ground for Utopia; he also led the Chinese people into an era of poverty and hunger, blood and terror. In order to avoid being blamed for the Great Famine, he plunged the country into a ten-year catastrophe—the Cultural Revolution, an event that he came to regard, along with the communist victory, as one of his major accomplishments. Mao was the instigator of all the calamities in post-World War II China. The number of unnatural deaths that occurred during his rule exceeded those in any previous dynasty in Chinese history, and in either the Holocaust or Stalin’s purges.
But for political survival, the Party has had to cling on to Mao’s legacy, however blood-soaked. And this has come at great costs to the nation. It is the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power and resource distribution that lies at the root of China’s worst social problems today: rampant corruption, soaring inequality, environmental degradation, and human rights abuses, to name a few. Fixing them requires political reform, and genuine political reform means ending the one-party system and casting off the shackles of Mao.
China is at a crossroads. Mao’s legacy is the biggest tiger blocking the path to social transformation in China. Only by telling the people the truth about Mao, can we rid China of his demon. Only by thoroughly criticizing Mao can one block the road back to the Cultural Revolution, and can China have hope.
Instead, Mao’s latest successor, Xi Jinping, has been rattling the Mao saber. Most famously, he said that the revolutionary era of 1949-1979 should not negate the reform era, which began in the late 1970s and continues to the present. That Xi, a “second-generation red” (child of the revolutionary generation), is doing this has to do with both his spiritual kinship with Mao and political necessity. On the issue of worshipping Mao, the second-generation reds currently in power have by and large sunk into a state of spiritual derangement and cognitive dissonance: their Mao-worship complex is intertwined with family tragedies of patricides and matricides during the Cultural Revolution, forming a Gordian Knot that they cannot undo.
The structure of China's current political system can be described as “Mao’s bone dressed in Deng’s skin," and the party-state system built by Mao is the greatest umbrella that protects the interests of the power elite. Xi, as the Communist Party custodian, is playing the “altar” card in order to control the political discourse, the fountainhead of political legitimacy. In addition, Xi has learned, from the rise of Bo Xilai in Chongqing, not to underestimate the populist power of the Maoist left, thus his posturing in order to harness that power. Indeed, one can say that, out of political imperative, Xi is walking the Bo Xilai line without Bo Xilai, and attempting to magnify the Chongqing Model.
But to summon Mao’s spirit is to risk a repetition of the brutal Mao years for the nation. Imagine if another careerist like Bo Xilai emerges within the Party, who puts on the tiger skin of the Mao banner to challenge the central authority, where will Xi put himself? To the left of this new politician? And if this happens, there is little chance the highly-touted far-reaching reform program announced at the end of the Third Plenum of the CPC Central Committee could go forward.
So, finally, a word of advice to Xi Jinping: Take it easy. Don’t be Mao’s grandson. Be the son of your father, Xi Zhongxun, who liberalized Guangdong’s economy and made Shenzhen China’s first “special economic zone,” which heralded China’s economic reform era. If the economic reform your father helped launch lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, it is time to implement political reform to build a civil society with basic rights for China’s 1.3 billion people. The nation needs it now.
Translation by Human Rights in China.
Gao Wenqian, senior policy Advisor of Human Rights in China, was a member of the Executive Committee of the Research Center on Party Literature of the Communist Party of China.
[*] A shorter, modified version of this article was originally published in the printed edition of The International New York Times and New York Times website on December 26, 2013, under the title of: “China Must Purge Mao's Ghost.”