What is Mao Zedong's Legacy 120 Years Later?

It’s the most wonderful day of the year…if you’re a fan of British holidays with obscure and poorly understood origins or an unreconstructed Chinese Leftist.  December 26 is the birthday of Mao Zedong, the portly gentleman from Hunan who, for 70% better and 30% ill, led China from 1949 until his death in 1976.  

One of the questions I am most asked by students is: “What do Chinese people think of Mao Zedong?” It’s a tough one. As I tell my students, if you ask ten people at random from throughout China for their opinion on Mao Zedong, you’re likely to get ten different answers.

Older people often complain about how today’s China is too corrupt (腐败 fubai). They want to recall a simpler time when people didn’t have to worry about keeping up with the latest trends and fashions, a time when everybody in the neighborhood could come together for a song or smoke, or to seize the guy down the street call him a counterrevolutionary and light his house on fire.

Those people born in the 1970s and after, too young to really remember the Mao year’s firsthand, can still recall stories their parents told them of the old days.  Many young people see  Mao as a great leader, influenced by textbooks and memorial sites which tend to ignore the Chairman’s worst errors.

(In the National Museum of China’s flagship exhibit 复兴之路 “Road to Rejuvenation,” there are rooms and rooms devoted to the post Mao years and the reforms of Deng Xiaoping.  There are hundreds of photographs and artifacts detailing the worst crimes of European and American imperialists and Japanese militarists.  There is exactly one picture, hidden behind a pillar, which obliquely references the Great Leap Forward and another, a few feet away tucked in a corner, of Red Guards in Tiananmen Square, the sole artifact remembering the Cultural Revolution.  Both are part of an exhibit entitled “Bumps on the Road to Socialism,” surely a candidate for the all-time understatement pantheon, right?)

Leftists in China see the Chairman as a bulwark against the excesses of the reform era, a symbol of world revolution and a way for them to explain to girls why hanging around Haidian bookstores beats getting a job.  Nationalists use the image of Mao as an unsubtle reminder to today’s leaders that The Chairman wouldn’t have put up with any of this crap from Japan.  Beijing taxi drivers hang him from their rearview mirror, which I guess makes Mao the patron saint of bad driving and navigational incompetence.

Others remember the bad old days.  They like the fact that under Deng Xiaoping and his successors, Chinese people are now able to do things which were not always possible under Mao’s rule, things like “traveling abroad,” “making a living,” and “eating.”

The lead editorial in today’s People’s Daily on Mao Zedong’s 120th didn’t offer anything particularly profound.  It reaffirmed the standard creation myth of modern China: that Mao was the redeemer, the one who could bring China out of the darkness imposed by the twin forces of feudalism and imperialism.  The editorial called him the founder of both the PRC (kinda true) and the CCP (less so) and credited Mao Zedong Thought with providing the political foundation for Socialism with Chinese characteristics.  It also acknowledged Mao's mistakes, although these were “mistakes such as those which are made by a great revolutionary and Marxist.”

China’s subsequent leaders have always been at best ambivalent about their predecessor.  Under Deng Xiaoping, academics came up with that 70% correct/30% incorrect breakdown of Mao’s legacy without of course bothering with any details about exactly which decisions or ideas of Mao fell into which category and there has been little effort over the decades to try and finish that task.  Even the line about “the mistakes made by a great revolutionary and Marxist” was recycled from a speech given by Jiang Zemin twenty years ago at the centennial of Mao’s birth in 1993.

Ten years later, Hu Jintao would take a different approach, obscuring Mao’s 110th birthday by smothering Mao’s legacy in a special sauce of CCP jargon.

“In his address, Hu recalled Mao's achievements, and summarized the outstanding contributions made to the revolution and the development of China by the Chinese communists with Mao as their top representative, who have developed Mao Zedong Thought, namely, Marxism with Chinese characteristics.

Hu pledged to continue taking the socialist road with Chinese characteristics, which was created by Deng Xiaoping, the core of the second-generation central leadership, and continued by Jiang Zemin, the core of the third-generation central leadership.”

This week’s observances would seem to combine the greatest hits of Hu and Jiang with a dollop of Chinese Dream to keep things current.

What is different however is that the Internet offers a much livelier space for discussion than was possible ten years ago.  Comment threads on Weibo and media websites, especially comments from China’s urban educated élite, offer snarky rejoinders to the praises paid to Mao in the state media, even as other commentators urge the more cynical to think about what China would be like without the Chairman, a kind of “It’s a Wonderful Life with Chinese Characteristics.”

But a true open and honest discussion of Mao’s life and legacy, never mind a scholarly appraisal, is not going to happen anytime soon.  There is unlikely to be a release of Mao’s diaries as happened a few years ago with the Song family donating the papers of Chiang Kai-shek to the Hoover Institute.  Mao’s notes and documents will remain off-limits to all but the most privileged of archivists and researchers.

Until that changes, the arguments over Mao's legacy will continue.