Books: Cultural Amnesia — Mao Zedong |
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The full evil of Mao Zedong (1893–1976) is continually being rediscovered, because it is continually being forgotten. In 2005 it was rediscovered all over again when Jung Chang, previously the author of Wild Swans, the book that blew the gaff on the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, brought out, together with her husband, an account of Mao’s career that pitched the body count of innocent civilians where it belonged, far beyond the total achieved by Hitler and Stalin put together. Jung Chang’s Mao biography was greeted as ground-breaking in the Western press. But with due credit for its passion, there was little about the book’s factual material that was new. Most of it had been in the previous book that rediscovered Mao’s perfidy, Philip Short’s Mao: A Life, published to wide acclaim (“A ground-breaking biography”—The Sunday Times) in 1999. As one who thinks that Wild Swans is an essential twentieth-century book for which Jung Chang deserves our unending gratitude, I nevertheless think that Short’s book about Mao has the edge on hers, mainly because it is ready to contemplate the awkward possibility that Mao’s thirst for blood might have been acquired over time, rather than inbred. Short, whose languages include Russian and Japanese as well as Chinese, is also much sounder in the field of foreign policy. As to the bottomless squalor of Mao’s personal behaviour, especially in his lethal old age, Jung Chang is pre-empted by The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994), a stomach-turning memoir by Mao’s personal physician, Zhisui Li. None of this means that Jung Chang and her husband do not deserve credit for their long endeavours. But the idea that they stand at the beginning of a studious tradition, instead of at a further stage in one well established, is itself a straw in a sad wind. Why doesn’t this story stick when told?

Those of us who were at university in the 1960s can remember the vociferousness with which otherwise sane and sweet-natured students professed to believe that the Cultural Revolution was a message to the corrupt West. Yet the facts about Mao’s China had already, at that stage, been rediscovered several times. Quite early on after Mao took unchallenged power, the true situation could easily be deduced from the way that useful idiots like Edgar Snow endorsed the regime’s official lies. Always, however, the rediscoveries were succeeded by a further forgetting, and the same holds true today, not just in the West, where the pseudo-left has too great an investment in anti-Americanism to admit that there can be a reason for evil independent of Washington’s control, but also, and tragically, in China itself, where Mao’s image is still not to be mocked without penalty. Eventually Lenin’s statues went the way of Stalin’s, to the scrapyard. But Mao might well stay up there forever, simply because there is such a thing as horror so great that it can’t be assessed even when the facts are known. The truth sinks down when it sinks in, leaving the mind free to operate a more tolerable economy. From the art lover’s viewpoint, this might even be a good thing. The catchy opera Nixon in China, for example, could never have been written if its authors had fully realized that the picure they were painting of Nixon’s relative lack of dignity vis-à-vis Mao was hopelessly compromised by the real discrepancy between the two historic figures. Nixon, when he killed innocent people, did so as the price of political success. Mao killed them as the condition of it, and killed more by many, many times. Why Mao should have been the more difficult one to despise is a key question for an as yet untapped academic subject: the sociology of the international intelligentsia.

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Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.

THE PRETTY RUBRIC looks so harmless even today, now that we have some idea of what it cost. Halfway between a poem and a slogan, it is a small thought that would fit on a big T-shirt. It doesn’t even sound wrong. Mao designed it to sound right. For the trick to work, millions of people had to believe the words meant what they said, even though the Party, within long memory, had never rewarded a contentious voice with anything except torture and death. Anyway, the suckers fell for it. The flowers bloomed, the schools of thought contended, and Mao’s executioners went to work. The slogan had the same function as the Constitution of the Soviet Union, which Aleksandr Zinoviev tellingly defined as a document published in order to find out who agreed with it, so that they could be dealt with.

The hideous outcome of the Hundred Flowers campaign is described in Philip Short’s book about Mao, a political biography from whose long march of horror no student should excuse himself a single step. You can get the essence of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans in a few chapters, although you owe it to yourself and the author to read the whole thing. But Short’s book has no essence; or, rather, it is all essence; you need to ponder the whole lot. For one thing, Mao was not the same man in the beginning as he was later on. Hitler and Stalin both were: in the early days, all they lacked of their later, epidemic awfulness was the power to exercise it. But Mao, who ended by killing a greater number of innocent people than both of them put together, started off as a benevolent intellectual: a fact which should concern us if we pretend to be one of those ourselves. Mao was no Marxist when he began. He scarcely could have been: Marx was not translated into Chinese until 1918, and Mao had no foreign languages. Nor, it seems, did he have a violent streak. He seems to have believed in a sort of peaceful anarchism. When he took up communism, he was the first Communist leader to break out of the orthodox view about the revolution depending on the urban proletariat. He saw the importance of the peasants, and in 1927 published a thoughtful document on the subject, Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan. When the fighting started, he made his troops behave well, apparently in the belief that a measure of decency would earn credit for the movement.

His first attack on his own Party members did not occur until 1931–1932, by which stage Stalin was exterminating whole populations. Mao was a long while cranking himself up to anything on that scale, but when he really got going he kept up the tempo. The Hundred Flowers campaign was rare only in that it depended on a trick. At all other times, the state just went steaming on with its permanent purge. It didn’t need trick questions, because nothing a potential victim thought of saying could possibly be of any use anyway. At the time of the Cultural Revolution, when Liu Shaoqi published his How to Be a Good Communist, it was greeted as “a big anti-Marxist-Leninist and anti-Mao-Zedong-Thought poisonous weed.” No good Communist could be good enough. Liu was sixty-seven years old when he was driven to his death by the Cultural Revolution, after a dedicated lifetime of carrying out Mao’s homicidal orders to the letter. All this was happening while some of my fellow undergraduates in Cambridge were under the impression that Western values were being challenged by whatever was happening in China. They were indeed, and I, for one, had sufficient suspicion of absolute power to guess in what way: but I nowhere near guessed the full horror of the reality. The only explanation is that Mao had even less imagination than we did in the matter of fatalities occurring among Chinese. There are so many of them, so how much does it matter when a few hundred thousand of them go missing?

Perhaps our best hope of understanding what was going on in his mind is to suppose that it was a version of what goes on in ours. Old men continue in their sins because to stop would be to admit them. But to concentrate on Mao’s late-flowering monstrosity is surely a misleading emphasis. His early-flowering humanitarianism is a much more useful field of study. When it became clear that there were no democratic means by which it could attain its object, he started thinking about the undemocratic means. The message seems to be that when the possibility of critical discussion is withdrawn, anything can happen, and everything is altered. Among the things altered is logic itself. As Swift foretold and Orwell analysed in detail, totalitarian obsession distorts the logical element within language, cancelling and even reversing its power to specify. Towards the end of Mao’s reign, when there was—as there had to be by then, with the whole country in ruins—yet another version of a Leninist New Economic Policy, it was once again discovered that “small scale production engenders capitalism.” Any moves towards rehabilitating the unjustly condemned were attacked as a “right deviationist wind of reversing correct verdicts.” Correcting reversed verdicts would have been more like it. When Zhou Enlai died, there was true grief: at least he had not been insane. When Mao died, the grief was mainly feigned, except among the young, who knew nothing. It needs to be remembered, however, that to have some idea of what had gone on it was not enough to be older, and to have survived. One needed information, and Mao had so organized his colossal abattoir of a state that information rarely travelled further than a scream could be heard. But that was inside China. Outside China, the story went everywhere, and there was never any excuse for not hearing it. The idea that there was is part of the lie—the part fated, it seems, to last longest.