A statue of Mao Zedong dominates the hustle and bustle of Tianfu Square in Sichuan, China. Amongst the buzz, a camera is whipped out and a group of Chinese tourists clamour over each other for the best spot next to the Chairman. But a peculiar irony pervades the scene: Gucci-clad, sporting Lacoste shirts and armed with the latest smartphones, this vignette of modern-day middle-class China seems far away from the vision of Mao.
Communist-hardliners and middle class tourists make for awkward bedfellows. Mao sought collective ownership, outlawed private property, shoehorned farmers into communal outfits, burnt thousands of books, halted migration and installed officials to reach into every nook and cranny of life. China’s modern middle class, however, own homes, choose their own professions, enrol in top universities, migrate from inland to the perkier coast and enjoy anonymity and privacy online.
But Mao is back in vogue: the airwaves in Chongqing are laced with the wisdom of the Great Helmsman; “Red” has been weaved into the names of hundreds of schools, hospitals and offices; and nothing seems to pluck at the heartstrings of the Middle Kingdom more than a cheerful dose of Red Songs.
So, why does the romanticism about Mao continue? That is the question Niall Ferguson grapples with in the second instalment of his new documentary series on the Middle Kingdom.
First, Ferguson focuses on Mao’s successes. When the communist party assumed control in 1949, Mao closed the chapter on a China ravaged by civil war, crippled by Japanese occupation and on the brink of starvation. He unified the populace around grand projects and set about rebuilding the greatness of China.
However, Mao simply led the nation from chaos to catastrophe. The party implemented the Great Leap Forward - a process of rapid industrialisation and collectivisation, aiming to transform China from an expanse of farmland into a modern communist society. The policy ended in 35 million deaths, many due to severe famines. “Gargantuan Fall Backward” seems a better fit, as Ferguson quipped.
Mao’s follow up, the Cultural Revolution, was even bolder. Large swathes of the Party elite were purged. Historical relics, cultural sites and religious shrines were destroyed. Youths were mobilised in the Red Guard. Families were torn apart as young urbanites were forced into rural agricultural work. And intellectuals were demonised and harassed.
Mao’s reign was disastrous. Misty-eyed sentimentalism can go far – but it would be impossible to scrub away the memory of a decade of bloody upheaval. So the Chairman’s popularity must have another source. Perhaps the fondness stems not from what Mao did but what he made possible.
The Great Helmsman revamped the old civil service: party cadre swept into every city, town and village across China. Membership of the Chinese Communist Party exploded and Mao soon wielded an army of administrators, supervisors and local champions. The Cultural Revolution excited a generation of the disillusioned youths, immersing them in the political scene.
Mao had built an unstoppable machine with the capacity to ignite panic or prosperity. Under the aegis of Mao, this system crippled China. When Deng Xiaoping took over the reins in 1978, he proved the right pair of hands to unleash the machine’s full potential. Deng fused Mao’s state goliath with a capitalist profit motive. The fairytale which follows is well known: China has grown from the doldrums of poverty into a global powerhouse.
Memories may fade but legacies endure. The last 30 years have been a slow catharsis for the Great Helmsman. It seems the turmoil under Mao has been overwhelmed by the prosperity he made possible. And while China’s economy continues to awe and inspire, the fond nostalgia for Mao doesn’t seem likely to depart any time soon.