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Mao’s legacy

It is fashionable, writes Eric Gordon, to put Chairman Mao in the dock. But, he argues, that is too simplistic a reading

08 February, 2019 — By Eric Gordon

Zhang Zhenshi’s portrait of Mao Zedong

SEVENTY years ago Chinese soldiers, part of the Eighth Route Army, marched into Peking – now known as Beijing – and established the Communist regime.

Has it been a success story? Some historians will shake their heads. Some commentators will admit it has been, but at a great human cost.

Along the way the man seen as the founder of the new state, Chairman Mao, is reviled as a monster.

Somehow, all these pieces are juggled together in the Western view of China, seen down the centuries as a mystery within a mystery.

But it cannot be denied that in economic terms China has performed a miracle in economic development, turning what was the second-most impoverished country in the world in 1949 into what it is today – a rapidly developing economy that has been dragged out of poverty.

It is today more modern in many ways than Britain. I know many young Chinese visiting this country who find it sluggish compared to China – transport is faster and more sleek, military hardware is more sophisticated, high technology is beginning to outstrip Silicon Valley.

There are two super-powers in the world today – the US and China. There were signs of all this for those who wanted to see when I first went to China in 1965.

It was only 16 years after the triumph of the Communist Party but by then the country had already made enormous progress – literacy was spreading rapidly through the country, women were being treated with equality, life expectancy was going up. And all achieved with the most populous country in the world. I think China’s population at the time was around 500 million.

I am not starry-eyed about China. Though I confess I am drawn to its great philosophers like Confucius, and believe Mao was a pretty competent philosopher as well as being a good calligrapher and a poet.

He was also a dictator and could be ruthless – the attribute of great leaders for thousands of years. Churchill, thank goodness, could also be ruthless and no doubt took many moral decisions in the Second World War that an ordinary person, like me, would shirk from.

In his defence, Mao did not escape unscathed in his part leadership of the Communist army from the early 1930s until 1949. The army was really led by a fascinating man, Chu Teh, from a poor peasant family, who became a war lord, dealing in drugs, but then recanted, and joined the Communist movement.

I once got into trouble at the Foreign Languages publishing house in Peking where I worked in the 1960s when editing a book on the early days of the Red Army, correcting a line that referred to Mao as the military leader. By then a cult had developed around the man unfortunately.

Mao, who was one of the founders of the Communist Party, suffered for his beliefs, as did fellow adherents. There was a bloody purge in the late 1920s in Shanghai when thousands were executed by the nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek. This formed the subject of a visiting French novelist Andre Malraux who wrote a riveting book about it, Man’s Estate.

I actually met him in the 1960s when he was visiting China as the French minister of culture while we were both enjoying a sumptuous meal at a hotel in one of the old capitals of ancient China.

It is not widely known that in his early years Mao’s wife was captured by the nationalist forces and was hanged – her decapitated head was hung outside the gates of the city where she had been caught.

Mao married again – his last wife was an actress who had a political brain and when Mao was in his late 60s pulled a lot of wires behind the scenes as a leading figure in the committee that ran the Cultural Revolution.

Using the age old device leaders indulge, Jiang Qing began to make lots of speeches in 1967 warning the nation against “foreign spies” in order, no doubt, to divert attention from growing tensions and disastrous decision-making during the Cultural Revolution itself.

With a number of foreigners in Peking I fell victim. I was “lucky”, perhaps because I was a British journalist – Britain had more pull in those days than it has today – and was locked up in a small room in a hotel with my wife and young son – “imprisoned” for two years on a pretty poor diet, all under guard.

Foreigners I knew, however, were jailed. I was questioned about them and coward though I suppose I am, I would not say a word about it to my interrogators, much to their anger.

I met them later. In many ways their lives were ruined. But at least they were alive.

Not dissimilar purges in the Soviet Union in the 1930s led to mass executions.

I know it is fashionable to put Mao in the dock. Historians – none of whom, to my knowledge, even lived in China in the 1950s and 60s, perhaps were not even alive then – cross him out as one of the world’s great monsters.

But that is too simplistic a reading of the times.

China had never evolved the heritage of democracy we benefit from. It didn’t fall into our laps. We had to struggle for it. Those with power don’t want to relinquish it – understandably. The first steps were the Magna Carta, the benefits of the English Revolution passed off as a Civil War in the 16th century. Later came the parliamentary reforms.

All that time, China was ruled by emperors with unquestioned and unparalleled power.

Lack of fearless debate, real throbbing democ­racy, in China is its weakness.

At the moment, it has a mixed economy which Harold Wilson, maybe Jeremy Corbyn, would perhaps cast envious eyes on – part capitalist, part state-owned.

It has a rising middle-class whose demands, and need, for open debate will become clearer by the day. Unless it is heeded, China’s growth will falter.

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