Who Got Mao Right? The legacy of the Great Helmsman is the source of bitter conflict over China’s future direction
Western opinion of Mao Zedong is at an all time low. Recent historical research, such as Frank Dikotter’s Mao’s Great Famine, has brought better understanding of just how much China suffered during the Chairman’s rule from 1949 to 1976. From the man-made famine of the Great Leap Forward to the political terror of the Cultural Revolution, Mao emerges as a vain Communist despot, who manipulated peasants and students to build a tyranny out of anarchy.
Opinion in Mao’s native China is a little more mixed. The recent dismissal of Bo Xilai from the governing Politburo illustrates how the dictator has become, for some people, a weapon to use against the Communist bureaucracy.
Bo was a ‘princeling’ of the revolution, descended from one of its historical leaders, led a luxurious lifestyle and even sent his son to Harrow. He fell from grace on March 15th, 2012 after a former lieutenant implicated his wife in the murder of a British businessman. But, as head of the Communist Party in the megalopolis of Chongqing, Bo was a charismatic leader who confronted organised crime and raised welfare spending. Curiously his working-class populism was expressed through a revival of Cultural Revolution Maoism. He encouraged students to go to work in the countryside and sent out text messages to the city’s 13 million mobile phone users that used quotes culled from Mao’s Little Red Book.
The popularity of Bo’s campaign contradicts the western view of Maoism as a byword for state oppression. Indeed the fact that Bo’s Maoism was regarded by conservatives within the Politburo as a political threat suggests that it can actually be appropriated as a potential force for egalitarianism. Mao Zedong would probably be pleased.