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China still shies away from the dark side of Mao

WHILE MILLIONS of Chinese peasants were dying of hunger during the famine unleashed by Mao Tse-tung's Great Leap Forward of 1958, David Crook, a British Communist, was busy setting up the English section of the Peking Foreign Languages Institute.

He, like most people living in Chinese cities, was oblivious to the famine in the countryside and didn't come up against the nasty side of Mao's perpetual revolution until the following decade. In 1967, zealous Red Guards accused him of spying for Britain and had him incarcerated in solitary confinement for more than five years.

Mr Crook was never formally charged, but his revolutionary crime was to have been in British air force intelligence during the Second World War, when Britain and China were on the same side.

He was eventually released in 1973, but he resolved to stay in China, with his Canadian wife. He still keeps a picture of Mao liberating Peking on the wall of his apartment.

As China prepares to celebrate, on Friday, the 50th anniversary of Mao's Communist revolution, Mr Crook's ambivalence towards Mao is reflected across the nation.

Yesterday in Shanghai, China's leaders were struggling to impress the most powerful businessmen and women in the world, and to gain access to the World Trade Organisation. The great leap forward they have in mind is towards a brave capitalist future. Yet the ambition is schizophrenic, for they do not want to abandon the centralised control that is Mao's legacy.

Pondering on his picture of Mao, Mr Crook said: "After I was released from prison I thought a lot about that picture and in the end I decided that it should stay because Mao Tse-tung did make some very significant achievements. It is an over-simplification to condemn it all." His ambivalence is reflected in the outlook of millions of ordinary Chinese.

Zhang Li'an, a migrant worker from eastern Anhui province, also finds difficulty in blaming Mao. She grew up with almost no relations as eight of them died in his famine. But the question of Mao's complicity in their, and probably 30 million other deaths, is not discussed. "I don't think Chairman Mao knew about the food problems. It was the local officials who took away the grain, and let people starve," she said.

It seems those who suffered from Mao's revolution can make allowances. Guo Xiangang, a historian, saw both of his parents persecuted to death by the Red Guards in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. The pair had lived through the hardships of the Yanan revolutionary base, and supported Mao for decades. But in spite of his personal tragedy, Mr Guo gives Mao high credit and swallows his bitterness.

"From the first Opium War [in 1842], China was thrown into upheavals and revolutions, one after the other. The goal of each one of these was to make China strong again, but it was only Mao Tse-tung who succeeded. That was and still is the root of Mao's popularity," he said.

China's new leaders have unleashed economic forces that have retreated from Marxism and created unprecedented wealth since Mao's death, after 27 years in power, in 1976. They have also disbanded communes and launched economic reforms aimed at privatising large sections of state-owned industry. But they have only made one attempt to define Mao's legacy, declaring back in 1981 that his achievements were in a 70-to-30 ratio of good to bad.

Crowds still make pilgrimages to Shaoshan, the village in central China where Mao was born, and flock to his mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, which is being renovated for the anniversary with the rest of the capital. Back in 1989 when three pro-democracy demonstrators threw ink at his great portrait on Tiananmen Gate, student body immediately denounced the attack as unpatriotic and turned over the perpetrators to the police. And when outraged crowds protested against the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade earlier this year, it was a strong leader like Mao that they called out for.

Much of this devotion to Mao stems from the fact that the Communist Party is still in control and will not permit a close examination of its founding father. While the Communist Party remains in charge, it will base its legitimacy on Mao - no matter how far it strays from his doctrines. So there is little incentive for further investigations into the dark side of the Great Helmsman; every reason to keep his presence in Tiananmen Square; and no immediate prospect of the schizophrenic tensions disappearing that make so many of China's great leaps forward also leaps into the dark.