Mao, Jiang and the importance of IdealsWritten by Julen Madariaga on October 6th, 2009
Now that I am in a free internet country, I have taken the chance to look at the CDT website, and I have found this interesting question coming from al Jazira: what would have happened if Mao had lost?
I am not in principle against counterfactual history, it can be useful in many cases to see the events from a different point of view. It also makes for lively pub conversations and blog comments. But the basic condition for this kind of exercise to make sense is, in my opinion, that the chain of events analyzed had any chance to have actually happened.
For example: it might be interesting to imagine how the world would have been if Hitler was killed in the 1944 assassination attempt, or what would have happened if Mao died before the Great Leap Forward. In a similar way to an experiment in physics, by isolating later factors, we try to analyze the effects of their policies up to that point. But there is little interest in analyzing the outcome of impossible or even absurd events, other than for humorous purposes. What if Hitler had suddenly become a pacifist in 1941?
Back to the point: “What if Mao had lost?” This question treats the defeat of Jiang Jie Shi as a mere accident of history, a question of luck in which the outcome, like Hitler and the bomb, could have been decided by fluke.
But the defeat (or rather the retreat) of Jiang was not the outcome of a single battle. People asking this question forget that Jiang had the power for many years, with all the instruments of the State, the largest part of the population and territory under his control, and military and economic aid from other countries. For years, all the odds were on his side. The opportunity implied in the question “what if Mao had lost?” was already given to Jiang. And the best answer to the question is:
If Mao had lost, Jiang lost anyway
There were profound reasons that made Jiang’s system impossible. His ideology-or lack thereof-was not appealing enough at a moment when China needed a catalyzer for all its unleashed energy. Something was needed to rally the people against the oppression of the foreigners and of the local tyrants, and Jiang was not delivering in any of the two fronts. China needed something to believe in. If Mao hadn’t been there, another leader would have sold the idea, or other worse ideas, and who knows the frightful regime that might have resulted.
This failure of Jiang to inspire, together with the corruption inherent to his regime, condemned him to impose power by raw force. A scheme that worked well when he moved over to Taiwan with supporters and soldiers in large number relative to the local population, but it simply could not have worked in mainland China. It would have required a level of organized brutality that only a fanatic could accept.
So Mao won, and then what?
So back to reality: Mao won. He played his cards much better and he won by a mile. Then some years later he proved to be less gifted as a politician than as a revolutionary. Worse still-and this is really his worst sin-he fell in love with himself and with power, and he didn’t have the good sense to listen to capable advisers, nor the dignity to retire when he was still in time. The “70% good/30% bad” judgement passed by Deng was probably too generous, but inevitable: to condemn Mao was to condemn the work of his life. Deng could not do more than he did, and of those who came after him, not a single one had what it takes to even dare touch this question.
And here is, in my opinion, the heart of the matter: why is Mao still so present in the Chinese psychology? When are we going to move on? The Chairman is not just stuck on a wall, he is imprinted very deeply in the collective mind of the Chinese, and through compulsory education, propaganda and parades like last week’s, he holds to his place and no amount of economic progress can sweep him away.
Here is an example of what I mean : Recently I lent the book “Mao: The Unknown Story”, by Chang Jung -a book that is very critical of Mao- to a Chinese friend. This friend is young, and liberal to the point that he believes Dalai Lama is a good man. And yet, when two weeks later I asked him about the book, I got a reaction that shocked me. “This woman is not really Chinese” , “You cannot understand”, were among the broken phrases that he grumbled. I know this book is surely not the most balanced biography of Mao, and I was open to accept many of his arguments. But I saw there was no point in discussing further, because somehow we had landed in the territory of hurt feelings.
But the interesting discussion today is not whether Mao was 70% right or 17.5%. The past is past, and there is no use in digging up the skeletons again, except for specialists in history. The key is the present, and the reason why Mao still holds his place should be searched in the leaders of today.
The answer is simple: Mao is there because he is still needed. No matter how terrible his failures and how cruel the consequences-and most Chinese know them well-Mao is still the only one that gives some ideological content to the system. He provides the meaning to the colourful parade of last week, and to the other parade of black suited mummies that is “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. And that is the reason why most Chinese are so quick to excuse him: “He was good man used by his wife”, they say, or “it was not his fault, he was senile”.
Ideals are important for a society to believe in itself. In the West we have democracy, human rights, religion, a whole range of them to suit all the sensibilities. As often as not, they are utilized by politicians for their own selfish goals and devoided of any real meaning. But at least they are ideals, and they give us the illusion that our struggle is worth fighting. I see people discussing Obama or Bush, and whatever the real effect of their policies might be, it is obvious that they give a meaning to politcs in America.
In China, on the contrary, the only ideal since Mao died has been Deng’s “Get Rich”. Many theories have been published since, filling thick books with party rhetoric, but not a single one of them contained anything that the people could believe in, or even understand. Once and again, the actions of the party have shown that above any other consideration, the only important objective is GDP, and the maintenace of the status quo.
There is a serious lack of leadership in the communist party of China, partly due to the internal mechanisms of the party itself . Strictly materialistic objectives are quickly dissapointing, for those that achieve them as much as for those left behind, and the people naturally turn for inspiration to the only ideals available: nationalism and Mao. And so it happens that the old portrait cannot be taken down, because it is there to cover a hole. The black hole of Chinese politics.