Yes, He Liked Huaxi Very Much! – Why Do Chinese People Like Dictators?

While I was in Huaxi another interesting topic came up which doesn’t have so much to do with this strange village, but reflects more broadly on China.

As we were walking through their hall of glorious history we noticed there were pictures of leaders from several foreign delegations on the wall. Two in particular seemed to be emphasized and we looked closer.

“It’s the king of Cambodia,” my co-worker’s husband said with a big grin, “He very much liked to visit Huaxi.”

I recognized the man in the second photo too, a small part of me was hoping we would just move on.

“And this,” her husband continued, “Is Po-er Pa-te.”

“Pol Pot?” I asked trying to make sure that this was something he really wanted to bring up.

He nodded his head vigorously. “You know, Pol Pot killed about 1/3 of his people in Cambodia,” I said.

“He was a very bad man,” my wife added.

“And he liked visiting Huaxi very much!” our friend continued.

Unfortunately in China this isn’t an isolated incident, and I feel like it has led to a number of foreigners losing some respect for China.

For example, in my hospital we have a large painting of Zhou Enlai visiting Africa; a trip which our hospital helped with. The hospital sees this as a way to show we contributed to China’s foreign affairs and helped the country gain more friends around the world. None of my Chinese coworkers seem to have any reservations about showing the painting to all our foreign guests.

However as I bring guests past the photo I often hear whispers of, “Is that really Idi Amin?”

I think this type of thing gives the impression that Chinese people are so cut off from history that they don’t know these relationships should be embarrassing. However, I think this view is too simplistic.

After further discussions with my co-worker’s husband it was very clear that he knew Pol Pot was an evil person. However, it seems to be that in Chinese thinking they have gotten very good at separating between the good parts of a person and the bad (perhaps through practice). This might be the best example of what people mean when they say Chinese people are “pragmatic”.

Perhaps in the West we are too sensitive about political correctness. When we see a picture of Pol Pot or Idi Amin we don’t see the person who inspired their countrymen and rallied their troops to win a revolution, we only see the end result.

For my Chinese readers, Westerners come to this same stumbling block when we think of Mao Zedong. We think of the hundreds of thousands that died during the famine, we imagine the Red Guard terrorizing their neighbors and waving their Little Red Books. These historical facts make it hard for us to see the way he helped women gain rights in Chinese society, or how he broke up hundreds of years of feudalistic landownership.

In the end I’m not saying these are people I would want enshrined in my own hometown, but I do think it’s important to remember there are very few things in China which happen out of ignorance. My co-worker’s husband was fully aware of the evils of Pol Pot, but he was proud that his village had been visited by a foreign leader, and to him, those two aspects were completely separate.

16 responses to “Yes, He Liked Huaxi Very Much! – Why Do Chinese People Like Dictators?”

  1. Chopstik says:

    Perhaps another interpretation of the pride of having foreign leaders visit is that it seems to confer a sense of importance that well-known (not necessarily well-liked) people (celebrities might be a better word in this case) have come and paid attention and granted them a sense of importance. By being a part of something that this celebrity did/paid attention to, it grants them a sense of legitimacy.

    That interpretation is, however, sadly not limited only to Chinese. Nor, for that matter, do I think it may be necessarily correct in all cases. But in some, yes, I have found that to be an accurate interpretation.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Separating good from evil – like the well known saying that Mao was 70% good, 30% bad. Your post is a very good illustration of the cultural gap between Chinese and Western mindset. I’m presently reading “The Chinese Have a Word for It. The Complete Guide to Chinese Thought and Culture” by Boye Lafayette De Mente and it is providing me with much thought in this vein.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for yet another great reading suggestion. I’m hoping to catch up on a couple of books in a few weeks when I head to the states.

  3. Rick says:

    When I made my last business visit, my host gave me a commerative medallion with the likeness of Chairman Mao. He presented it with great pride and (apparently) no thought of how anyone might perceive the negative attributes of the Chairman’s Cultural Revolution. My sense is that this is a relatively normal cultural “blindspot”, although that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with in real time. On the upside, most of the Chinese don’t know about “Jersey Shore” or judge America based upon that reflection of our society – yet.

    • Tom says:

      let’s hope nobody starts selling Jersey Shore medallions for our taxi cabs. I think with they are aware of the evils of other leaders, but China is still very very sensitive about Mao’s legacy, and it is not something that can actually be questioned yet.

  4. Tim says:

    You bring up some really good points here. But still, I’m always dumbfounded (even after more than 3 years in China) how people can say, with a straight face, that Mao “made some mistakes” but he was “basically good”. Being responsible for the deaths of 30-50 million people doesn’t make you “basically good”, it makes you basically, the worst leader ever. It makes everything else you did worthless.

    It would be curious to ask your friend how he would reply if you bragged about the Dalai Lama visiting your country. I bet the words “evil person” or “terrorist” would come up. I wonder how he would feel then. You should also ask him to take a trip to Cambodia – to the Killing Fields, to S-21; and then ask him what he thinks of Pol Pot. I tire of the tolerance of evil that abounds in many places in the world, but seems more apparent to me here. Maybe I’m jaded or maybe I just need to show a little more patience and love and grace to others. I love talking to myself via blog comments…

    • Chopstik says:

      History is bound to be repeated when it is not learned from. Surely the current situation in China is reminiscent of the 50’s… Yet no one can see it.

      But part of your issue regarding the generally “good” Mao is context. Most Chinese are taught of the century of shame that preceded the rise of the party and Mao and that he erased all of that and restored a sense of pride to China. In that light, his transgressions (it was “only” a few million who died) are viewed differently than they are by non-Chinese.

      • Tim says:

        I see your point with that. It is, however, amazing to me how much face and shame and honor are integrated into Chinese society. They are so deep that people will do horrific things or overlook horrific things all in the name of receiving, giving, or restoring face.

      • Tom says:

        Just the other day my co-worker was telling me that she thought the hospital we work for wasted too much money on saving face. Then she mentioned that the gov’t also thinks face is very important too.

    • Tom says:

      I’m starting work on a short post looking at whether or not China is rich because of the Party or in spite of it. As far as I can tell Mao held the country back for 30 years, and Deng Xiaoping turned the whole thing around.
      If you ask students who they like more Deng or Mao they will usually say, Mao is the founder of our country, and Deng made us rich. Mao’s noteworthy accomplishments seem to stop around 1949…

  5. Allan says:

    Just by coincidence i had a class the other day when we were talking about people you admire, and the usual suspect were mentioned Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping. Then one student piped up “Hitler!” When quizzed about why, he stated that “Hitler was good at war and a good speaker!”

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for helping add another anecdote to this post. I had a friend who met a student whose English name was Hitler because he was such a great speaker.

  6. Ryan says:

    Great series Tom, really enjoyed it. Can’t say I’ll be rushing to Huaxi anytime soon, but was fascinated to learn about it.

    Also, great point and discussion here in the comments about the separation of a person’s celebrity, positive actions and overall consequences of their existence.

    • Tom says:

      Like I said at the start of the series, it’s amazing how a single weekend can provide a full week of material.
      In a side note Huaxi is only about an hour and a half ride from Suzhou, so there is still a chance you’ll be able to visit there when ever you come back to visit friends.

  7. jixiang says:

    When I visited Nanjiecun in Henan province, the last Maoist commune in China, there was a large billboard in the main square. It contained quotations from famous people about Mao Zedong, all of them extolling his virtues of course.

    One of the quotations turned out to be from Bokassa, the ex-president of the Central African Republic, one of Africa’s most ridiculed and despised lunatic dictators, on a par with Idid Amin. At the time I assumed that the local authorities who made the billboard simply didn’t know of his reputation. Now I wonder if it’s more that they didn’t care.

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