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Mao's ghost

The spirit of the chairman haunts the Beijing Olympics
By EDITORIAL  |  August 8, 2008

Photo illustration by K. Banks.

When the 21st century is old enough to support a sense of historical perspective, the date 8/8/08 may well be more significant than 9/11. The Olympic Games, which begin today, mark China’s modern coming of age.

Beijing 2008: Special issue: China, Tibet, and the Olympics

“Modern” is an important qualification. As the planet’s oldest civilization with a recognizable sense of continuity, China has seen glory before. Gunpowder, paper, printing, and the compass were all products of its ancient genius. But for much of modern history, China was a nation on the margins: misunderstood and discounted, shamelessly exploited by Western powers and brutally pillaged by the Japanese.

Chairman Mao Zedong changed that — though it takes a strong constitution to stomach the murderous nature of his achievement.

Mao brought China neither peace nor prosperity. His Soviet-inspired agricultural policies led to famine; his Cultural Revolution transformed the country into a massive concentration camp. Median estimates of the total number dead as a result of Mao’s will and whim float around 50 million — give or take 10 million. Whatever the body count, most historians agree that Mao was the greatest mass murderer of all time.

It was Mao’s perverse achievement to forge in the smithy of the ancient Chinese soul the makings of a reconstituted superpower. Whether the nation’s ascendancy is because of Mao or in spite of him is almost irrelevant. The DNA is too tight to unravel, the duality too synthesized to deconstruct. Mao, or a version of him, is China. China, in some manifestation, is Mao. Mao’s embalmed corpse on display under glass in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square taps into the Confucian ideal of ancestor reverence, and yet also transcends it. Mao, the great helmsman, washes all other ancestors with his wake.

The cult of Mao is a form of zombie politics; it is part of the voodoo employed by the shrewd, sophisticated bureaucrats who command the Middle Kingdom. They are, by Mao’s standards, faceless. The art of ruling the world’s most populous nation is to be one of a crowd. (During the terror of the Cultural Revolution, only Mao’s favor could save one from the chaos; to survive, the individual had to melt into the mob. Its memory disciplines the masses.)

China today is a dragon with a capitalist head and a communist heart. It is a living, breathing, thriving contradiction. Because the dragon is rising (the metaphor is no less apt because it is melodramatic), its momentum tends to mask its weak spots.

All things considered, however, China has ridden its momentum to exceptional advantage. It has, from a narrow and admittedly selfish American point of view, promised much (or appeared to promise much) and given little.

The vicissitudes of domestic politics aside, when President Richard Nixon knocked on China’s door 36 years ago, America had little to lose by recognizing the reality (denied — ironically — by people like Nixon) that China was in fact Communist.

More problematic for the average American worker was China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. It is hard to see how this benefited the average American. Yes, there are lower prices for an increasingly huge number of consumer goods made in China. But that appears to come as a direct loss of American jobs with little return in terms of access to Chinese markets.

The real winners of this development have been the multinational conglomerates that moved to China, and the financial institutions that backed them. Both of the presumptive presidential nominees, John McCain and Barack Obama, are curiously tight-lipped about future China policy. The reason for that may be simple: both are advised by people who make their livings outside of electoral politics, counseling multinationals that make mega-bucks in China.

Since Nixon approached China, the argument has gone that engaging the country economically would provide political leverage and ultimately result in liberalization of the repressive Chinese regime. According to the US State Department, China is still among the world’s nastiest governments — so much for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s “iron law” that economic liberation will lead to political liberation.

Seeking raw materials and favors that sharpen its economic might, China sponsors terror in the Sudan and Zimbabwe and props up dictatorships in Myanmar (Burma) and North Korea. Its rape of Tibet has intensified, as has its crackdown on internal critics and dissidents. So secure is China in its ability to play on the hopes and avarice of the West, that it has — against all expectations (foolish though they might have been) — barred meaningful Internet access to the legions of journalists covering the Olympic Games.

Engagement was the reason China was awarded the Olympics. As a rule, cities, as opposed to nations, are awarded the Games in an effort to downplay international rivalries and accentuate the efforts of individual athletes. However, there have been two exceptions: the Berlin Games in 1936 were awarded by contract to Hitler’s Germany and the 2008 Games were awarded to the People’s Republic of China. The distinction may appear small and legalistic. But in each instance, the International Olympic Committee fractured its own protocols to massage egos that were as internationally aggressive as they were domestically repressive.

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Re: Mao's ghost


Boston Phoenix


Mao Zedong: Not Fairytale "mass-murderer" but greatest liberator of the mid-20th Century


The Phoenix editorial "Mao’s Ghost: The Spirit of the Chairman Haunts the Beijing Olympics" is filled with so many lies, half-truths and distortions, the editors should consider starting to run a disclaimer box on the editorial page: "Warning: fact checkers need not apply". While the purported purpose of the editorial is a critique of US leaders, whose avarice makes them willing to make a deal with the (Chinese) devil, the real target of the editorial is squarely on the accomplishments of the Chines people during the period of socialism and the revolutionary leadership of Mao Zedong, whom the editors blithely (and wrongly) characterize as the "greatest mass-murderer of all time".


Facts tell another story altogether. During the Mao years of 1949-1976, China went through a tremendous transformation. During that period it is a fact that life expectancy for the Chinese people more than doubled from 32 to 65 years. It is a fact that the literacy rate went from less than 15% to over 80%. In Shanghai in the ‘70’s the infant mortality rate was lower that in New York City. It is a fact that by 1972 China was self-sufficient in agriculture for the first time in its history and that the centuries old strangle hold of cycles of floods and droughts leading to the periodic deaths of millions had been broken. It is a fact that Mao’s agricultural policies were shaped, to a large degree, by summing up the shortcomings and weaknesses of the experience in the Soviet Union. This led to the tremendous advances that took place in agriculture during the Mao years and the deep love and enthusiasm the Chinese peasantry held for Mao and the revolution.


It is a fact that during the Mao era there was also tremendous social change. Take the role of women. Prior to the Chinese revolution, foot-binding (the excruciating process, where, from an early age, a woman’s foot was tightly bound so as to stunt and distort the foot to the point where she was effective bound to her husband for life) was outlawed as was the common rural practice of female infanticide. Women were guaranteed the right to divorce and women’s rights to full participation in all aspects of society were actively promoted.


These are all verifiable facts.


It is also a fact that the current rulers in China, while upholding Mao Zedong in name, have ruthlessly and systematically worked to undo every economic and social advance to the point where the economic "miracle" of China is today being fueled by vast infusions of foreign capital, the displacement and impoverishment of literally hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants, where a public health plan that once covered 90% of the population now covers less than 4% and where the practice of foot-binding has been replaced by the more acceptable commodifaction and exploitation of women. All while contributing to an ecological disaster of global proportions. If Mao’s ghost is not haunting China’s current elite, it should be -- but not in the way the editors of the Phoenix seem to wish. All these are fact and I encourage readers to go The Project to Set The Record Straight" website at for more on where these facts come from.


Lastly this gem from the editors: "Whatever the body count, most historians agree that Mao was the greatest mass murderer of all time." Not only is this simply not true but it promotes a dangerous logic: "All the experts agree that ‘Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction’", "all the experts agree, dropping the atomic bombs on Japan saved lives". In other words: "readers take your thinking caps off because all the unnamed experts agree." Unspeakable crimes have been committed with that kind of logic. Shame on you Phoenix.


Stan Laurence

Revolution Books


By stan lawrence on 08/10/2008 at 1:42:20

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