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Traitor of the Chinese People

By Yaxue Cao, published September 17, 2011

 

You would imagine that it is easier for Chinese to discuss Mao Zedong and do so in a productive manner, now that over thirty years have passed since the death of the man and there is enough perspective for retrospection. After all, the look of China is so far removed from Mao’s era, Chinese from all walks of life are travelling all over the world studying, sightseeing, working and living, and new and abundant information has shed such light on the man as never before.

No, it is not.

Earlier this year, the Chinese economist Mao Yushi (茅于轼) wrote an article entitled “Turning Mao Zedong Back to a Human Being” (《把毛泽东还原为人》 ), calling for just that: To turn Mao from a god back to a person. In the article, Mao Yushi sketched an unflattering, if not downright evil, man based on what we had already known as well as the newly available information. Without finesse, the economist called Mao Zedong “the enemy of the people.” Mr. Mao Yushi is in his 70s, lived through the entire spectrum of Mao’s reign, and I can only assume that he is not just speaking from his head, but also from his heart.

The ensuing vitriol against Mr. Mao was, to me, both expected and surprising. Expected because, in China, there are many people—people you would think would know better—are more than ready to leap to Mao’s defense; surprising because their show of force, both verbally and visually, was a walking ghost of the Cultural Revolution, stupid to the point of being a joke.  They branded Mr. Mao a “traitor of the Hans” (汉奸,or traitor of the Chinese people, because the Chinese proper are ethnically Hans).

I know why they called him that name, but it’s better to use their own words: “Mao Yushi viciously attacked and slandered Chairman Mao, and [his attack] signaled yet another round of attacks from the west against the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party since the so-and-so-flower revolution had broken out.” Yet, they didn’t seem to feel awkward at all about not being able to utter the word “jasmine.”

So, Mr. Mao is a traitor because his “attack” on Mao Zedong is part of the west’s plan to overthrow the Party. To its credit, the Party didn’t say that about Mr. Mao, at least not directly, as far as I am aware. That said, the accusation is very much in keeping with the Party’s general pattern of argument for as long as I can remember, despite the fact that China and the US have grown so entwined in so many ways these days.

Talking about Mao Zedong among ordinary Chinese doesn’t normally rise to this pitch. It runs more or less like the one I had recently. I was at a party with a few people I went to college with, along with their spouses and kids. I don’t remember how it started, but all of a sudden, the man sitting next to me and I were in a tug of war over what good Mao Zedong did for China and for its people.

“Nothing,” I said, going through in my mind the one hundredth time the purges in the 1950s, the Great Leap Forward, the famine, the Cultural Revolution, and many more smaller but nonetheless atrocious things that should not be lost in the picture.

“No!” the man objected vigorously. “I disagree!”

So I stuck out one hand and asked him to give me five—only five—things that Mao did that were good for China.

Him: “He united China!”

Me: “Ok. Number two?”

The man paused, thinking.

Me: “Just one? Come on!”

Him: “Oh, he liberated women, encouraging equality between men and women!”

Me: “Great! I will refrain from arguing about this one. What else?”

Already, the guy was racking his brains.

Me: “That’s only two. Come on, my fingers are getting sore.”

Him: “Well, he made China a nation standing on its own feet, not becoming anyone’s colony.”

Me: “North Korea is standing on its own feet too, and it’s nobody’s colony either. Isn’t that great!”

That’s how our conversation about Mao went. Ineptly, if not stupidly.

Later, when I brought up the topic of the famine, the same guy, who came from Zhejiang Province, an area with natural abundance and a rich cultural tradition, recounted how, during the famine in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, their food was taken away as soon as it was harvested and how one of his older sisters, eight years old at the time, died of hunger. I was glad we were finally onto something concrete and meaningful, but instead of reflecting on Mao’s disastrous actions and the system that allowed this to happen, he railed, “The city people took everything away from us!”

The man, by the way, has lived in the US longer than I have, and is a university researcher on climate change, hardworking and honest. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that Mao must be kicking and laughing in his crystal casket at night because he had so successfully stunted generations of Chinese and might even have altered our DNA.

In April 1997, all of my siblings and I gathered, as we rarely had done because the seven of us were scattered all over the places in China and beyond, in our ancestral village to “sweep” the grave of our parents. In the evening we filled the old house with the din of voices and laughter. Again, I don’t remember how, but my eldest sister and I started arguing whether Mao Zedong was a great man or not. She is sixteen years my senior and, at the time, the chief engineer of a manufacturer of TV set in Beijing, and she took good care of me whenever I visited. The argument didn’t go well and tension quickly grew between us. My sister insisted that, because Mao had beaten all his rivals and established the new China, he was necessarily a great man; while I said, how could a man be considered great when, because of him, so many people had died, so many families had been crushed into pieces, and so many others—every one of us indeed—had suffered one way or the other. My sister and I went back and forth like that for a while, and suddenly, my sister screamed at me, “You got all of your ideas from the Americans!”

Our argument ended there abruptly, and tears welled up in my eyes. I didn’t remember when had been the last time I felt so insulted. I left the room to hide.

That night, standing on the village’s thrashing ground, where grains—wheat, corn, millet, and occasionally rice—were thrashed, dried and bagged when harvested, I saw Comet Hale-Bopp in the northwestern sky just beyond the hill on the edge of the village. It was bright and beautiful, an arresting sight, but it did little to alleviate my sadness.

 

 


40 Comments

  1. I can’t say much about this, other than that it is quite typical in many mainlanders that I know (your mileage may vary) – and not a few [younger] Hongkongers in recent times. My own take on the matter is that, if the majority of people accept (and internalise) the establishmentarian storyline about Mao Tse-tung, then I would have no choice than to conclude that Mao really had succeeded. It’s just human nature that we take on board whichever storyline that makes the EASIEST sense, regardless of veracity. I mean, we don’t have to look too far – in the easier area of law, the easiest caselaw oftentimes get taken as precedents.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s good to see some people showing their DNA who is in charge.

    IMO, no formal western account of Mao Zedong can yet be compared to Jung Chang’s +800p (but very much worth a read – or a listening) “Mao: the unknown story”.

    Breakdown from the book (source: amazondotcom)
    1. Mao became a Communist at the age of 27 for purely pragmatic reasons: a job and income from the Russians.
    2. Far from organizing the Long March in 1934, Mao was nearly left behind by his colleagues who could not stand him and had tried to oust him several times. The aim of the March was to link up with Russia to get arms. The Reds survived the March because Chiang Kai-shek let them, in a secret horse-trade for his son and heir, whom Stalin was holding hostage in Russia.
    3. Mao grew opium on a large scale.
    4. After he conquered China, Mao’s over-riding goal was to become a superpower and dominate the world: “Control the Earth,” as he put it.
    5. Mao caused the greatest famine in history by exporting food to Russia to buy nuclear and arms industries: 38 million people were starved and slave-driven to death in 1958-61. Mao knew exactly what was happening, saying: “half of China may well have to die.”
    The book is banned in China, because the current Communist regime is perpetuating the myth of Mao.

    • sinnernerious@hotmail.com says:

      Chiang Kai-shek didn’t let them, it was his Manchu lieutenant that didn’t crush the communists, its document fact.
      Also famine was not entirely Mao fault, low county/provincial official noting and thus reporting erroneous and false figures to the central authorities was a massive reason as well, it was not 100% the reason but Mao was not 100% responsible either, its document fact as well.

      • Tom says:

        As established before on this blog, Mao is held largely responsible since he created a political climate where it was impossible to report failure. Even today in China officials still grossly exaggerate their GDP and other statistics. Also had Mao reacted to the changed situation the results would not have been as bad either, instead he continued to export grain to other countries, and chose to let those in the countryside starve.

    • Miller says:

      I had the feeling reading the book that Jung would give Mao an entirely negative or selfish intention for every decision. While I think in many cases it probably was the case, I felt the speculation she added on top of the facts hurt the case of the book. That said, it was still an eye-opening portrait of the man. I believe there’s a biography written by his personal doctor that’s supposed to be a very good account (not ignoring or changing the negative bits either, according to my friend who recommended it).

  3. I really can’t stand it when Chinese people try to defend Mao. It just makes them look stupid. I know it’s part of their education and all that to border-line deify him but it’s still inexcusable to me and my liberal Western sensibilities.

  4. Baobo says:

    Many lonely men wonder why some women stay with a guy who is difficult and abusive – they get very judgmental about it. The quick way to silence him is to point out, “She would still rather be with him over you, buddy.”

    Point being, what was the great alternative to Mao? If you could magically change history and invalidate every cause as a mere excuse? Academics may judge he was bad for China, but those defending him have their reasons, despite jealous critics.

  5. Andrewthegreat says:

    When I taught in Sichuan for a summer, I encountered a number of students of different ages and levels who were very open and vocal in their detestation of Mao.
    Has anyone else encountered this? Is it regional?

    • yaxue c. says:

      Andrewthegreat, there are many ordinary Chinese, old and young, who see through Mao and the party’s narrative of the man. One of these days, I might write a post to portray a Chinese like that. What I meant to illustrate here is how deeply rooted the myth of Mao is even among people who you imagine should know better, and how the idea of seeing Mao as he was has been intentionally associated with an “ill-meaning” west. So, if you are against Mao, you are against the party and against China.

  6. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Yaxue: I feel your pain. I don’t know what to say except that pyschologically speaking, we know that if trauma is not discussed, it will recurr in flashbacks and traumatise all over again. One can only imagine the trauma and psychological damage done to millions of people in China that is simply hidden and unspoken of, until a possibly minor event triggers a violent outpouring of pain and grief.

  7. Joel says:

    Once I (unavoidably) stepped in the middle of the kind of arguments you describe. I was teaching a free discussion group class. The students were supposed to talk about whatever they wanted, so long as they used English. They were all adults. One older man, a retired philosopher who’d been “sent down” for several years during the CR, started saying some negative things about Mao. A young guy, early 20’s, with the swagger of someone whose family is high up in the Party, got livid. They argued back and forth, quickly switching into Chinese, the older guy remaining calm mostly, the young guy on his feet yelling and waving his finger in the man’s face. Eventually some male students and I physically escorted the young guy out — he was out of control. A few hours later I went to talk to the young guy:

    “I don’t care what opinion you express in class, but you must be respectful of the other students.”
    “But you didn’t hear what he said about Mao!”
    “I don’t care what he says about Mao, or what you say about Mao — you can have whatever opinion you want — so long as you are respectful to each other in class.”
    “But he can’t say those things about Mao! Mao is like a god to us!”

    Those were his exact words. I didn’t know what to say.

    • Wow, that’s amazing – just like the generally uncontrollable behaviour of many other twentysomethings I’ve encountered even in Hong Kong. Imagine, in 2012, the first wave of the mainland ‘children’ with domicile in Hong Kong will start flooding in.

      Sorry, people, I don’t wish to appear facile or prejudiced at our mainland cousins, but it is true though this kind of behaviour is often more the rule than the exception when it comes to ‘political’ talk.

    • In order to avoid situations like that, I generally let them say whatever they want…as long as it’s in English. The second it gets so heated that they resort to Chinese, I step in and stop the discussion, remind everyone that the point is to practice English, and warn them that if they use Chinese again, we will change the topic. Speaking in a second language generally slows things down and since they are struggling to express themselves, most of that energy gets put into SPEAKING ENGLISH! instead of FIGHTING ABOUT _____!

  8. […] What you get called if you dare slander Chairman Mao (and thereby aid Western civilization in its quest to overthrow the Chinese civilization), like this guy. […]

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  11. Chopstik says:

    Yaxue,

    I have heard this conversation, as you have described it, both directly and second-hand more than a few times. What gets me is even people who suffered directly as a result of his decisions still hold him in such high regard that they defend him mercilessly and, in many cases when their arguments reach a level of incredulousness, end the “discussion” by stating that his critics are simply stooges whose ideas have been fogged with Western thought.

    Indeed, even friends who have more balanced opinions on Mao (meaning they can see both good and bad in his person) have been criticised as 汉奸 if they dare to suggest some of those criticisms with his supporters. From my own view, I would suggest the issue may lie with the government and its deification of Mao to the point where any criticism is tantamount to treason against the Chinese nation and people as a whole. Unless and until this is removed and open and honest debate can ensue, Mao will continue to only be a caricature of who ever he really was.

    Also, I would like to point out I enjoyed your oblique reference to the fact that people referenced the “attack” against Mao as another part of the Jasmine Revolution (allegedly a Western invention in the eyes of tyrannical leaders and their supporters) but could not actually bring themselves to utter the word itself. Irony is often lost on those whom should know better.

    • Miller says:

      Mao seems to be tied in to national identity as much as the Founding Fathers are to the States. I think it’s difficult for people to separate the two, just as in America, falling back on the assumed intentions of the founding fathers (and thereby reinforcing an idealized image of flawlessness) is a common tactic in political debates. Not to compare the two, of course. But I think the similar place Mao holds in Chinese national identity is what keeps people holding Mao above criticism.

  12. Yaxue C. says:

    In the thick of it, Mr. Mao Yushi received death threat and threat of lawsuit. Of the latter, Mr. Mao and many others were all for it. Bring it on, they said, it’s time for China to have a national debate about Mao Zedong. But that’s the last thing the Party would dare. So it kept mum about it and stayed away. As Mr. Mao Yushi said in his essay, “The picture of the ultimate perpetrator of all the destruction and atrocity is still hanging on Tiananmen and printed on the currency we use everyday. This farce of China has yet come to a close.”

  13. Sadly, this is not something uniquely Chinese. Just look at how some Americans use the words “patriot”, “anti-American”, “traitor”, especially post-9/11. If Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann had been born in China, they would have been defending Mao Zedong with the same kind of disturbing fervour.

    Many so-called great leaders in the past committed what can only be described as crimes against humanity, in the West as well as the East: once the blood has been washed away, all that remains is their marble statue.

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Wu Yong, I can’t tell you how many times when I listen to some politicians or others on TV in the US, thinking, “Gosh, if this person lives in China, he (she) would be a party zealot!”, or, “That person’s mindset is just like the communists’!”

      The point is, the similarity stops right there, and it’s for most of the part merely psychological, not socially or politically. If China is a society allowing oppositing views and oppositing parties, and people are ALLOW TO KNOW, TO DEBATE AND TO CHOOSE, then I don’t have any problem with anybody defending Mao and calling Mr. Mao Yushi a “traitor of the Chinese people.” Indeed, they can call him whatever name they want as long as they recognize Mr. Mao’s right to lay out why Mao Zedong is “the enemy of the people,” as long as they stay within the bounds of the law (that is, law by the people, not by the party, in a society with rule of law).

      But that’s not the case in China. Mao Zedong has been imposed on this country of one-party rule.

      In fact, it would be very disturbing if some Americans try to shut up Shrah Palin, or anyone for that matter. Instead, the American society says, “it is okay for her or anyone to say whatever she wants to court support or votes, as long as they play by the rules of a civil society, and as long as they don’t incite violence.”

  14. sinnernerious@hotmail.com says:

    No leader in history is going to have totally 100% clean image.
    Even Gandhi had many nasty failing according to some sections.

    To the Chinese the fact that he united the country, which is an established fact,
    is more important.
    It has always been like this, Hunag Di was ruthless but he was revered and still is, in historical context because he United China.

    People who think so what, he united a country, he was responsible for many deaths, are just looking at it from a different perspective, for many people seeing a country do well is more important than anything else, and this has been shown in China, its extremely nationalistic in essence.
    Nationalism is the root cause of international conflict as well. But thats another discussion.

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  19. Walkinraven says:

    Hello, these people are anywhere around me
    这种人到处都是,在我周围。

  20. enlightened says:

    没有对权势下资本罪恶的深切感受和愤怒仇视的信仰,是不可能产生毛热这种民情的。而不能将毛热的民情转化为自主的民情,则缺少权威来建立民主自由的国家。可要流行自主的民情,就必须传播社会主义两党制,因为它既能通过两党制遏制权势的垄断,又能在“公有制占主体”的环境中遏阻资本的猖狂。同时,社会主义两党制是从政党制衡和竞争中寻找到各种力的平衡与适合位置,它将是社会主义社会找到个体与全体、自由与民主、私有与公有,以及公平与奋斗、正义与独立、共济与激励的平衡点的智慧来源。——摘自博讯百家争鸣光明在前博客

  21. Jimmy says:

    Mao Yushi was called traitor because he got a lot of fundings from US government and big companies to criticize any topic he could find in China, most of his critical comments being nonsense.

    • Tom says:

      Do you have any examples or evidence of this? links are always helpful.

      • Jimmy says:

        Mao Yushi has received fundings from Ford Fundation since 1993.

      • Tom says:

        I don’t see how this is evidence of US gov’t backing. In fact his group has also received funding from Xinhua, which is actually a Chinese state run newspaper. Perhaps he is secretly a double agent, luring the American’s into thinking he is on their side…or he’s just an academic who is tired of seeing China cover up its own history.
        China also receives numerous grants and funding from US gov’t agencies for development projects around the country…

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Everyone who cares to get to the bottom of this, please take a look at this list of all recipients of Ford grants in China from Ford’s database. Total 124 from China, and there are some well-disguised traitors over there, I am telling you, like this one “Beijing Child Legal Aid and Research Center”, “China Daily” (my favorite traitor!), and a lot of universities (traitor! traitor! traitor!).

      Go to: http://www.fordfoundation.org/Grants/Search, search by country.

      • NiubiCowboy says:

        Thanks for the list Yaxue! Yes, apparently Beida, Renmin University, China Daily, the CASS, and the Shanghai Institute of Planned Parenthood Research have all been given money to…criticize China?

  22. Good article. This article explained one reason I discriminate Chinese mainlander

    • Yaxue C. says:

      It is easier to discriminate against people but much harder to try to separate ideas and see where they come from. In any case I find your discrimination too sweeping, and, while I thank you for your praise, I don’t take comfort in encouraging it inadvertently.

  23. JZ says:

    I am an American and have studied modern Chinese history (in college, graduate school, and beyond) for the last 20 years. I have taught Chinese history for the last 15 years. Ask any American scholar about Mao, and he/she will give you a balanced perspective on Mao. Mao did indeed do some important things for China (not least of which was create a political and social climate that made reforms during the 1980s possible!). I’ll speak for that poor man who couldn’t articulate Mao’s accomplishments: (1) he created a strong central authority after decades of political, economic, and social malaise since 1911 Rev.), (2) he proved China had stood up by getting most of the world to officially recognize China and putting China in the “strategic triangle” of China, US, and USSR, (3) he moved China toward the creation of heavy industry and imported modern technology (Note that he saw the tendency of these policies to move toward an rural-urban gap and creation of inequalities, so he did his best to try to prevent this. The urban-rural gap and income gap in China today is an enormous problem.), (4) he created massive institutional structures to run China (gov’t, party, military). Now, scholars will tell you that he tended to undermine many of his good policies and accomplishments with his various campaigns. And they will also tell you that Mao went through different phases throughout his leadership in the 1920s-1970s. The reality is Mao’s legacy is mixed. And, while there are many people in China are are very critical of Mao (and Jung Chang’s book on Mao has been heavily criticized by very well-respected Western scholars), there are many people who hold him in very high regard, in part because they are being screwed by the leaders who have created what many experts consider an unsustainable economic model. Anyway, my point is that it is wrong of people to focus entirely on the Great Leap and Cultural Revolution. Everyone considers these bad events and bad policies with Mao almost solely to blame. But, what requires some more intellectual consideration is what is the rest of the legacy of Mao.

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Thank you for you input. I want to throw in a few questions:

      “(1) he created a strong central authority after decades of political, economic, and social malaise since 1911 Rev.)”

      While it was a great thing for China to become one piece with a central authority, does the nature of that central authority and the way it rules matter in the larger picture?

      “(2) he proved China had stood up by getting most of the world to officially recognize China and putting China in the “strategic triangle” of China, US, and USSR.”

      By its sheer size, anyone/any party who united China will be recognized by the world. It’s just a by-product of China being one piece, and I don’t think by itself this aspect is particularly significant.

      “(3) he moved China toward the creation of heavy industry and imported modern technology.”

      An overwhelming portion of the heavy industry you refer to is military industry and very little of it was for improving the quality of people’s life [just like what North KoreaI is still doing]. I grew up in a small town, and there were two large military factories, each with over 10,000 employees, in our mountains and one of which manufactured bombs. By “imported modern technology,” you mean imported Soviet Union technology? Well, even that wasn’t exactly an accurate description of what was going on and needs further deliberation.

      “(4) he created massive institutional structures to run China (gov’t, party, military).”

      All the “institutional structures” you refer to were really one structure: the Party, unless for you, the word “institution” means roughly the same as “ruling machine.”

      Finally, I don’t understand what you mean by “not least of which was create a political and social climate that made reforms during the 1980s possible!” However, on pure veral level, I agree with you: Mao had driven China to such an abyss by the time he died, his successors had to do something, and anything they did would be better. My brother used to joke: Even if the Gang of Four took power, they would have to reform too! These days among Chinese opinion leaders you often hear such argument: The one good thing about Mao is that he made it so categorically clear that the way he ran China didn’t work and should never be repeated.

      Sorry, I don’t have 20 years of study and scholarship about Chinese history behind me, and my approach tends to be human-feeling-common-sense-based and sometimes housewifely.

  24. Yaxue C. says:

    Correction: on pure verbal level

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