Sunday, 29 November 2015

Mao: Hero or Villain?

McDonnell brandishing Mao's 'Little Red Book'
"We must learn to do economic work from all who know how. No matter who they are, we must esteem them as teachers, learning from them respectfully and conscientiously. But we must not pretend to know what we do not know."
-Chairman Mao

The image of John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, quoting Chairman Mao's 'Little Red Book', and subsequently throwing it at George Osborne has sparked controversy amongst many.

Although McDonnell has stated the stunt served only to prove a point about the Chancellor selling £5 billion worth of British public assets to China and said it was a "self-deprecating joke" (after having been accused of being too left-wing), the "joke" fell flat and backfired on the Labour politician.

This is because the historical context of the book is far more unsettling than McDonnell perhaps realises. He merely said, "yeah of course and I condemn all that” when confronted on BBC News about how Mao is responsible for 20 million deaths in China (although the actual death toll may well be up to 78 million).

These deaths were primarily caused by starvation, due to ill-fated policies such as the 'Great Leap Forward' into modernisation in 1958, which aimed to rapidly industrialise China through collectivised agriculture, yet actually backfired and caused the economy to shrink and 20 million people to starve in the Great Chinese Famine. The 'Cultural Revolution' followed in 1966, and aimed to reassert Mao's power through the destruction of any capitalist or traditional elements still remaining in Chinese society. This involved the closing down of schools, the ransacking of historical sites, and the Red Guard's public humiliation and arbitrary imprisonment of anyone suspected of opposing Mao.
Yet it is not only the vast number of deaths blamed on Mao that created such a negative stigma around McDonnell's actions, but the insensitive reminder that it caused for many Chinese of Mao's tyrannical regime, epitomised in the form of the 'Little Red Book'.

Children holding the infamous book

I asked an ex-Chinese citizen about his experience of growing up in Maoist China in the 1960s and 70s, who said "as soon as I entered primary school, I had to learn the entire Little Red Book from cover to cover. The first words I ever learned to write were "long live Chairman Mao". If you dropped a newspaper with Mao's image on, and just so happened to accidently step on it, you could be persecuted...we didn't know anything about the outside world".

This event, however, has also sparked conversation as to how terrible Mao truly was for China, Diane Abbott (another Labour politician) recently stating that Mao "did more good than harm".

In China, Mao remains an untouchable icon, and the Chinese government has said Mao's legacy consists of "70% effective revolutionary, 30% bad governance". Another defender of Mao (who wishes to remain anonymous) has said that "Westerners like to demonise Mao, and often look past his many achievements". He did, admittedly lead the country out of countless civil wars and foreign invasions following the fall of the Qing Dynasty, promoted equal rights for women and raised Chinese life expectancy from 35 to 65.

So was Mao a hero or a villain? The answer is most likely both. He was an idealist whose poorly executed plans led to the loss of countless lives, and whose power and fame eventually corrupted him. Yet his regime arguably laid the foundations for his successors to build China's economy to its current towering height. McDonnell's "jocular" statement serves to highlight how unaware people are of Chinese history and how something so seemingly innocuous as a book can actually embody a period of history characterised by decades of famine, failure and a ruthless personality cult. In Mao's own words: "Lifting a rock only to drop it on one's own feet" is a Chinese folk saying to describe the behaviour of certain fools."