China and the Legacy of Chairman Mao


China is grappling with the legacy of Mao Zedong and the New York Times (probably a paywall of some sort) examines the surface of the debate about whether China can go forward under the spell of Mao's ideology.
Today, 35 years after Mao Zedong’s death, his corpse still lies in the grandiose Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in the center of Tiananmen Square, the granite plain that is the symbolic center of this nation of more than 1.3 billion. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people stand in line, sometimes for hours, to view, for a few seconds, the embalmed body of the man so many Chinese still revere.
Yet 45 years ago, on May 16, 1966, this same man began the Cultural Revolution, an orgy of political violence that killed perhaps two million Chinese.
Mao’s preeminence in China is linked to his role in founding the People’s Republic in 1949. Yet his controversial political legacy, of which the Cultural Revolution is just one example, is growing more, not less, disputed, with time.
At stake is nothing less than long-stalled political reform, say some Chinese analysts and retired Communist Party officials.
“An honest, earnest, serious assessment of Mao based on facts” is “necessary,” Yawei Liu, director of the Carter Center’s China Program in Atlanta, said in an e-mail.
You'll note that Yawei Lui only felt comfortable making that assessment while in Atlanta, Georgia. Given the state of repression in China, who could blame him? Chinese repression of any and all dissidents is a fact of life.

I suppose I should update my knowledge on China. I took a political science course about the Far East over twenty years ago and I think the only thing I really came away with was an understanding that Mao almost had to happen for there to even be a China right now. China was "a sheet of loose sand" and was dominated and divided by outsiders. What Mao did was nothing short of forced nation building, using the long struggle for power in China as the vehicle which brought all of the Chinese together as one people. It would be fair to say that there is some fear, reasonable or not, that if the cement that is Mao's ideology were done away with, China could fall apart.

That's not outside of the realm of possibility. The power of irredentism and self-determination and rights for minorities could eat away at the fringes of China. I think that the great unified population of China will remain a single nation but one with challenges we cannot begin to contemplate. How do you modernize a nation of a billion people without leaving vast numbers of the population behind in the race to prosperity and prominence in the world?

What would certainly help move the debate forward for China's neighbors, trading partners, allies, and competitors (is that what the United States is now? A competitor and not so much a friend?) is for an increase in the kind of information that would help assess this transformation. Miss Tatlow's article is a great step in that direction. The more people are exposed to the real debates and facts of what is going on in China, good or bad, the more people can avoid the kind of fear and mistrust (ignorance, really) that has paralyzed the debate about how to deal with China's rise on the world stage.

Much of what we know about China has been driven by a dearth of information. What I learned in college over twenty years ago leaves me remarkably inept in assessing why we cannot figure out a way to work and trade with China. The more we know, the better our decisions. The more Americans travel to China, and vice versa, the greater the understanding of wants, desires, and needs. China needs to modernize and expand and take care of a vast, restive population that is becoming better informed by the moment.