Mario Esteban explains how Chinese authorities have put aside the profound divergence between Maoism and the current government of China to pay homage to Mao Zedong on the thirtieth anniversary of his death. In Esteban‘s opinion, the insistence of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in preserving Mao‘s image is due to the role he plays in legitimizing the current regime. Mao was seen as both a tireless nationalist fighter for China‘s autonomy, and as an honest leader, concerned with the wellbeing of the masses. And, in the face great social inequality in China, the popular classes and intellectuals are turning to Mao as a symbol of social change. But even now, thirty years after his death, debate on the light and dark aspects of Mao‘s legacy continues to be taboo in China.
Mario Esteban is a Doctor and Assistant Professor at the Center of East-Asian Studies at the Autónoma University of Madrid, and is a specialist of International Relations in East Asia and of the political systems of China and Taiwan. He organizes the panel of experts on East Asia of the Spanish Foreign Policy Watch Group, which is a part of the organization Fundación Alternativas (Alternatives Foundation).
THREE DECADES HAVE GONE BY SINCE THE DEATH OF MAO ZEDONG, the Grand Helmsman, who led and shaped China for a quarter of a century.
To synthesize Mao’s importance in a phrase, it would help to turn to the recent declaration of Sydney Rittenberg, who served as a translator of Mao: Mao was a great leader of historic proportions, and a great criminal of historic proportions.
LIGHT AND SHADOWS
Mao held great power in shaping modern China and his legacy is filled with both light and shadows. Among the light, the shining points of his career, is his labor as the leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC) during the second Sino-Japanese war and the civil war against the Kuomintang.
But, as Mao grew older, his megalomania and fanaticism led to the death of tens of millions of Chinese through tragic political campaigns like the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.
First is the fact that the majority of the Chinese population recognizes Mao as the protagonist of China’s conversion into an autonomous power on the world scene (after more than a century of subordination to foreign dominance).
And second, the official poll taken by the CPC on Mao’s legacy, which shows 70 percent to be in favor of his work and 30 percent to be against it, is much too generous. The statistics would be more appropriate reversed, considering that during the last 25 years of his life, his decisions led to the indescribable suffering of millions of people.
The reforms of Chinese civilization ended with Mao. Twenty five years ago Maoist totalitarianism was replaced by technocratic authoritarianism, which one by one rejected the pillars of Maoist thought: the preeminence of ideology, voluntarism, equalitarianism, anti-intellectualism, and auto sufficiency. And since Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour of 1992, the highest ranks of the regime have been vacant of all nostalgia for Maoism.
But, with the painful social inequality that China suffers today, the equalitarian aspect of Maoism has begun to rise in popularity.
The symbol of Maoism and Mao’s persona have begun to catch on among the popular classes and intellectuals who demand that social policies take on a greater importance after decades of neglect in favor of macroeconomic growth.
TOTEM AND TABOO
Despite the profound divergence between Maoism and the line of policy implemented by the current leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the Chinese government has decided to prepare a grandiose commemoration ceremony to pay homage to Mao Zedong on the thirtieth anniversary of his death. And the means of communication have not stopped singing Mao’s praises over the last few weeks.
This insistence in preserving Mao’s image is due to his importance in legitimizing the current regime. Mao was seen not only as a nationalist fighter for China’s autonomy, but as an honest leader, concerned with the welfare of the masses.
But after three decades, the legacy of the Grand Helmsman is still taboo in China.
A public revaluation of Mao and his role in Chinese history would be a sign that things are beginning to change in the People’s Republic.