China Power

Mao (Still?) Tears China Apart

Recent Features

China Power

Mao (Still?) Tears China Apart

A blog post critical of Mao Zedong is a reminder of how divided China remains over his legacy.

An interesting recent incident involving a Chinese academic has shined a light on how conflicted China is over one of its towering historic figures—Mao Zedong.

Mao Yushi, an 82-year-old economist, penned a blog entry that was strongly critical of Mao, suggesting he should be held responsible for the deaths of 50 million Chinese citizens during the 1960s. The economist also noted his reputation as a womanizer who made decisions for his own benefit, rather than for the greater good of China’s development.

Unsurprisingly, the entry captured the attention of the media, academics, senior government officials and ordinary citizens. But when I tried to access the original entry, I found it had already been removed (although it can still be found on the Internet, having been copied and posted elsewhere before the authorities could delete the original).

Mao Yushi already isn’t well-liked by the Chinese authorities. This is partly because he has participated in a number of political activities that have upset the government, including  signing a petition in support of detained activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Sources have told me that Mao’s phones are tapped, including the one he uses for media interviews. His family, meanwhile, say they have been receiving death threats.

There’s clearly no chance the authorities will allow Mao Yushi’s article to be published. First and foremost, such criticism of Mao Zedong is tantamount to dismissing the Chinese Communist Party itself, and the historical foundation on which it survives. A second reason it won’t be published is that the government fears that openly tackling such a sensitive subject risks prompting a chain reaction of events that could spark instability.

All this comes at a time when Chinese views of Mao are still split. Some see him as something akin to a religious icon, who shouldn’t be condemned even if mistakes were made because he was doing everything for the sake of the people. Those who despise Mao, in contrast, believe he was a hypocrite who set China down the wrong path.

These contrasting views seem to reflect the thinking of two groups with very different views of China today. Those who praise Mao are typically those with vested interests, party officials and many scholars. Those who dislike Mao are often drawn from the country’s cultural elite, are liberal scholars or are those who subscribe to Western ideals.

In many ways, Mao Zedong still looms over China, decades after his death. His portrait is hung in Tiananmen Square and his image appears on the country’s currency. Yet Mao Yushi’s blog might finally open up discussion on what is still largely a taboo issue. Either way, it was a remarkable act of daring to publish this piece in the first place.

Some on the left have told me that we shouldn’t expect this to be the last effort among opponents of Mao’s legacy to force debate on the issue. The battle lines, it seems, are being drawn ahead of the crucial 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party next year.