Still Haunted by the Ghost of Mao

Despite China's prosperity, the People's Republic remains in the grip of the monstrous ideology of its founder

How has China survived after the collapse of almost all other Communist regimes? A London-based professor explained why at a recent meeting on Chinese human rights. The Chinese, he said, are governed by a genuinely democratic regime that satisfies their real needs. Most of them don’t care about what Westerners think are human rights — free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly — because they have the real thing: housing, free education and medicine.

As it happens, none of these is free in China, and medical expenses are second only to official corruption when Chinese are asked about the country’s major social problems. The professor also stated that most Chinese have never heard of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was jailed for 11 years last year, convicted of sedition at what the professor insisted was a fair trial. He waved away my explanation that Liu is unknown in China because no newspaper there has reported his prize or conviction.

I was nearly overcome with déjà vu. The look on the professor’s face-grim determination and immunity to counter-argument — and his repetition of his arguments supplemented by attacks on the United States, which he contended is behind the unfair attacks on China and anyway neglects the human rights of its own citizens. The expression and dogma were what I had witnessed and sat through in Beijing during many foreign ministry press conferences for foreign journalists: the hallmarks were word for word reiterations of official positions, denial of any Chinese wrongdoing, and a counter-attack on all criticisms of China as intrusions into its sovereignty and thus “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people”.

What the professor said might be dismissed as a regurgitation of views now rarely heard (and odd, as well, from an academic who has written a book on a Chinese subject) but it is often claimed these days that not only is the Chinese economy a global sensation (although still paltry per capita) but also that the times of political persecution are over.

Unfortunately for the people of China, the persecution of enemies of the state continues, perhaps somewhat accelerated by the “jasmine revolution” pro-democracy demonstrations earlier this year. (The word jasmine is now banned from the internet.) A recent invaluable book, Mao’s Invisible Hand, argues that the deadly influence of Mao Zedong’s early revolutionary convictions continues to inspire and animate his successors today, even as they reform China’s economy in ways the Chairman would have despised and bring it into the international system.Another new book from Harvard University Press, The People’s Republic of China at 60, edited by William C. Kirby, makes this plain. For Mao, who died in 1976, and his successors there were and are ever-changing hopes, illusions and plans, ranging from agricultural communes in which all families ate together, or students were encouraged to beat and even kill their teachers, to encouraging foreign investment and manufacturing foreign cars. In the commitment to experiment, local bodies try and try again, observed by the centre, which adopts some of the new ideas. Or, equally possibly, snuffs them out. In the Thirties, for example, Mao was impressed by a party member, Deng Zihui, who consulted local people about what sort of agricultural reform they wanted. Yet in 1955 Mao condemned Deng’s policies as “Rightist opportunism”.

In short, behind any experiment or policy U-turn lies the guarantee of brutal state retaliation against “class enemies”, “Rightist opportunists”, “counter-revolutionaries” and “seditionists”. In the last two years alone, Liu Xiaobo has been locked up for 11 years for his leading role in composing Charter 08, a document signed by more than 8,000 Chinese at home and abroad calling for democratic rights and making no threat to the regime; Norway was threatened with economic retaliation for awarding Liu the prize (the professor said awarding the prize to Liu was anti-Chinese) and not a few ambassadors to Oslo stayed away from the award ceremony after similar threats; many signatories of Charter 08 were placed under preventive detention and Liu’s wife is incommunicado in their flat. The artist Ai Weiwei disappeared for months and has now been forced to plead guilty to tax evasion. Zhao Lianhai was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “provoking disorder”, attempting to organise parents of thousands of children who died or became ill from drinking powdered milk containing the industrial chemical melamine. Hundred of petitioners complaining about forced eviction from their houses, flats and fields to make way for commercial enterprises have vanished into local “black jails”, where they may be beaten or tortured; these jails are officially denied and when a newspaper, Liaowang, reported their use it was denounced for spreading false information.

In 2009 Amnesty International declined to publish the annual number of Chinese extra-judicial executions because the official statistics are unreliable, but the number has been estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000 a year, more than the rest of the world combined. Teng Biao, a disbarred human rights lawyer, has accused the judiciary of bowing to party pressure on its verdicts, which are widely reported to be written before the trial. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates there are 24 reporters in prison for “subversion” and “spreading rumours”. Although freedom of speech on the internet is officially guaranteed, those who include  words like Tibet, democracy, Taiwan or Tiananmen may expect arrest, and gay, lesbian and bisexual sites are banned; some of the technology for patrolling the internet was sold to China by Yahoo, Google, and Sun Systems. Forty parents of children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake were detained for demanding compensation and an inquiry into poor building construction. Four teachers and journalists were tried and imprisoned for “subversion” for similar demands after the earthquake. It is dispiriting to list these human rights violations — many of them accumulated from the Chinese and world press by Human Rights Watch — and many readers’ eyes will glaze over.

What is worse is that this is a mere sample of such depredations since 2009. Two decades earlier, in 1989, the regime unleashed a national purge on the hundreds of thousands of students and workers who had demonstrated across China in more than 300 cities, from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to Inner Mongolia; some of those detained remain behind bars. As Benjamin Liebman of Columbia Law School observes in Mao’s Invisible Hand, “Legal reforms largely reflect state interests rather than the rights of individuals. They have not been designed to impose significant limitations on the state.”

But since much the same could be said of the Communist regimes that collapsed after 1989, how has the People’s Republic not only survived but prospered? The editors of Mao’s Invisible Hand contend that the secret is “guerrilla policy-making,” which began in the party’s 30 revolutionary years before its 1949 triumph. The Communist forces were forced to adapt to survive as they moved about China’s hinterland —including their nearly disastrous Long March of 1934-3 — while resisting the forces of Chiang Kai-shek, the Japanese, and Chiang again during his American-aided civil war with Mao from 1945 to 1949.

Elizabeth Perry and Sebastian Heilmann write that in the decades after the Communist triumph, continuing “secrecy, versatility, speed and surprise”, bear the “signature Maoist stamp that conceives of policy as a process of ceaseless change, tension management, continual experimentation, and ad hoc adjustments”.

And violence. In his terrifying and detailed chapter on crime and punishment, “Turning Rubbish into Something Useful” in The People’s Republic at 60, Klaus Mühlhahn writes: “A fundamental distinction needed always to be made between ‘us’, or  ‘the people’, and ‘them’…enemies of the people’ [who] were subject to ‘democratic dictatorship’…counter-revolutionaries needed to be killed because, in the words of Mao, they were ‘deeply hated by the masses and owed the masses heavy blood-debts’.” Mühlhahn estimates 800,000 “counter-revolutionaries” were executed. That is frightening enough.

Then Mühlhahn writes of the following decades: “The crucial question…was how to determine who is an enemy. In retrospect, the trajectory over the course of the 1950s was towards greater vagueness and increasing breadth of targeting.” In his introduction to Kirby, Roderick MacFarquhar summarises these violent decades: the killing of hundreds of thousands of landlords, the campaigns against intellectuals and counter-revolutionaries, “the greatest man-made famine in world history”, 1959-1961, when more than 40 million starved to death, and the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976, in which he says the number of dead remains unknown. What seems to me to be the party’s default position, the elimination of internal and external enemies, is a Maoist weapon inherited by his successors. It was Mao, not yet the party’s supreme leader, who, beginning in 1930, included party members on his enemies’ list, with the “anti-Bolshevik campaign” that murdered thousands of those Mao deemed “objectively counter-revolutionaries”. In 1957 Deng Xiaoping, thought of in the West as the great reformer, oversaw the anti-Rightist campaign, in which hundreds of thousands were purged, and in 1989 ordered the slaughter in Tiananmen Square and the national terror that followed.

Perry and Heilmann contend that Mao, the master of “guerrilla policy-making”, emphasised that “war and politics were to be played according to the same rules”. Deng Xiaoping and his successors instituted economic reforms (which Mao would have condemned), an experiment with wide approval even from the now middle-aged urban Chinese who in 1989 crowded into Tiananmen Square and shouted “Down with Deng Xiaoping” and “Down with the Communist Party”. Many of those demonstrators paid with their lives for that fatal experiment, but the survivors are better off economically than they were in 1989, and the chances of another Tiananmen soon are remote. “To get rich”, the party has trumpeted, “is wonderful.”

But to draft and sign Charter 08, which proclaimed, “The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government”, was an experiment too far. For this, Liu Xiaobo, whom I saw exhorting students in Tiananmen in 1989 to call for democracy (for which he served three years in prison) attracted the wrath of the Chinese Communist Party. “The policy style that emerges from these [Maoist] stratagems”, conclude Perry and Heilmann, “is fundamentally dictatorial, opportunistic, and merciless. Unchecked by institutions of accountability, guerrilla leaders pursue their objectives with little concern for the interests of those who stand in their way.”

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