The Cult Of The Chairman
(in translation) Far away from the plaza of the bronze statue of Mao Zedong, one can already hear the sound of firecrackers going off just like frying beans ... pow pow ... without pause. The tall and erect bronze statue of Mao Zedong was enveloped by a haze of smoke. In front of the bronze statue, a large group of people were kneeling down or kowtowing with candles or bowing with joss sticks. They all look very devout. One of the elder persons there said that he hoped Grandpa Mao would ensure that his grandchild can get into a brand-name university. Near the plaza, the vendors craned their necks and yelled out in alterntately high and low pitches: "Say happy new year to Grandpa Mao, special discounts on joss sticks and candles!"
(The Guardian) Cult of the chairman. By Ian Burama. March 7, 2001.
A miracle happened in Shaoshan, birthplace of Mao Zedong, on December 20, 1993. President Jiang Zemin had come with an entourage of party grandees to unveil a 6 metre-high bronze statue of the late Chairman Mao, looking, as the guidebook has it, "firm and steady, and glowing with health". Anyone who sees it, the book continues, "can feel the magnetic power of a great leader, a victorious leader".
December in Hunan province is a cold, dark month, with constant rain or sleet. The freezing winds won't let up until the spring. But on that miraculous occasion, just as President Jiang was pulling the sheet off Mao's shining face, the sun came blazing through the clouds and, even stranger, the moon shone brightly.
I was shown photographs of the miracle when I visited Shaoshan recently, on a typically bleak, rainy day. You could buy the picture in all sizes, the most expensive ones framed in gold. You could also buy gold or marble busts of the chairman, tapes of his speeches, fine embroideries of his countenance, and coins, stamps, ballpoints, pencils, cigarette lighters, key rings, CDs, T-shirts and teacups, all with Mao's image on. Then there were the plastic domes with Mao inside that rained gold flakes when you shook them. And the golden amulets to bring good health and fortune with - instead of the more usual images of Buddhist or Taoist holy men - engraved portraits of the former Chinese leader.
Mao Zedong has clearly entered the pantheon of Chinese folk deities, along with the Yellow Emperor and other legendary sages and heroes in Chinese history. And Shaoshan, visited by millions over the years, is the Lourdes of his cult.
This is not so strange. Humans have been worshipped as gods for thousands of years in China, and the point of Mao, in the eyes of the believers, is no longer whether he was good or bad; such categories do not apply to godmen. The point, as a taxi driver in Hunan pointed out to me when I asked him about the Mao charm dangling from his rearview mirror, is that Mao was Great, or weida . Greatness, in the sense of projecting great personal power, is much admired among the Chinese peoples; think of the continuing popularity of Mein Kampf in Taiwan.
A godman in China or Japan can still have entirely human characteristics - more so, perhaps, than Jesus Christ, whose status with some Chinese is somewhat similar to Mao's. In Changsha, the capital of Hunan, where Mao went to school and founded the regional communist party, I visited the provincial museum, where there is a lavish display of Mao's underwear. That is the interesting thing about godmen: they are both divine and very human.
Divine beings in every society promise salvation and good fortune, and where there are miracles, there is business to be done. This, too, is universal. Mao's divine status has brought a great deal of business to Shaoshan. Indeed, it has become the main cottage industry of this small but prosperous town. Restaurants offer "Mao's favourite dishes". Snake-oil salesmen sell miracle cures for all kinds of diseases. And almost every shop is a purveyor of Mao memorabilia.
Shaoshan, as a pilgrimage site, is surprisingly traditional. Not only does it have all the characteristics of Chinese folk religion, which Mao affected to despise, but of higher Chinese culture as well; for example, the ubiquitous presence of Mao's calligraphy and poetry. One of the tasks of great Chinese leaders is to carry on Chinese civilisation, and the core of that civilisation is the word, which finds its highest expression in calligraphy. No matter how much tradition Mao and his followers smashed - and they smashed a great deal - he kept the word. And so did his successors. Not only is Mao's own rather wild calligraphy everywhere to be seen in Shaoshan - on paper, on rocks, on walls, on silk - but also that of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Shaoshan, the birthplace of the greatest wrecker of Chinese tradition, has become, in many ways, a repository of it.
There is, none the less, something curious about the cult of Mao, which began in the 80s, roughly 10 years after the Great Helmsman's death. First of all, folk cults are usually suppressed by a nominally communist government which officially, in good Marxist fashion, dismisses all religion as superstition. Governement approved, so-called patriotic churches, subservient to the party, are tolerated, but spontaneous cults are viewed with deep suspicion. Secondly, memories of the famines and mass murders associated with the Mao years have not faded away, even though younger generations often know little or nothing about them.
However, the bad memories - the bloody purges, the violent anarchy of the Cultural Revolution - are officially classified as "mistakes", committed when Mao was old and no longer in control of his evil courtiers. His alleged greatness - the reason for his divinity and the thing admired by the Hunanese taxi driver - is something very traditional. Mao is supposed to have created order in the Chinese empire by kicking out the barbarians, punishing evil-doers, and restoring virtue. His great achievement in the eyes of his admirers is moral, more than political. Or rather, politics and morality come to the same thing. As the Confucian phrase goes: "Only the virtuous can rule all under Heaven." Mao's revolution, so it is believed, brought back harmony and virtue were there had been chaos and corruption. And, like all peasant messiahs, Mao promised a society in which all men would be equal.
The deification of Mao happened just as Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms once again made chaos, inequality and corruption visible in China. Deng's reforms also meant a restoration of a different kind. Intellectuals, persecuted horribly under Mao, came back as advisers to the reformist rulers. They were the modern mandarins, as it were, at the court of Deng. Tired of utopian campaigns, they knew that a degree of inequality and corruption was an inevitable side-effect of China's rush towards economic modernisation. But these side-effects can become intolerable if political freedom fails to match economic liberties. That is what produced the protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989. It is also what produced the banned Falun Gong sect - and the cult of Mao.
A professor of history in Changsha, who supports the economic reforms and is afraid of cults and popular rebellions, told me: "The more intellectuals hate Mao, the more the poor people like him." Mao's admirers think that he stood for egalitarianism and righteousness, whereas the current elite looks greedy, corrupt and contemptuous of the lower classes.
Maoism was, in fact, a lethal mixture of Stalinism and Chinese authoritarianism. Like Chinese autocrats before him, he believed that obedience had to be enforced and that social harmony is a matter of imposing "correct thinking", not of finding peaceful solutions to inevitable conflicts of interests. The moral dogma to be imposed can be Confucianism or Marxism, or Maoism, or Communism with Chinese Characteristics. Whatever the dogma, opposition to it is not just wrong, it is immoral. When class enemies are wiped out, there will be no more conflicts. And those who still claim personal interests are evil, and have to be wiped out too.
Economic liberalism, towards which China has been moving in the past 20 years, is all about interests. Businessmen in the rich coastal cities do not necessarily have the same interests as farmers in Hunan, or factory workers in the industrial northeast. And academics and party cadres might have different interests altogether. Many Chinese are well aware of this, but the one-party communist system has no mechanisms to solve these conflicts: without party politics, a free press, and elected political representation, such conflicts cannot be solved.
So whenever conflicts come to the boil - students or Falun Gong supporters demonstrating in Beijing, farmers rioting in the countryside, academics writing critical articles on the internet, or workers protesting against factory closures - the government falls back on that old Maoist mixture of dogma and tradition. People are told to cultivate correct thinking, to redouble their studies of Marxism-Leninism, to strengthen China, and to struggle against foreign imperialists and class enemies.
Perversely, the same intellectuals and businessmen who support China's economic reforms are often as fearful of political reforms as the party leaders. They may hate communist propaganda, but they tend to associate multi-party politics with disorder, selfishness, and mob rule. And so, in the name of economic development and stability, they endorse authoritarian measures to control protesters.
What they often fail to see is that cults are a direct result of blocked politics. Just as autocratic Chinese governments have always justified their monopoly of power by claiming superior virtue, peasant rebellions and religious protests have done the same thing. They were the virtuous rebels who rose in the name of all kinds of folk gurus and deities, including Mao Zedong, to fight corrupt officials and evil rulers, and restore morality. This is why the government is now so spooked by Falun Gong and the many "underground" Christian cults: they offer alternative dogmas which undermine the rulers' already shaky claims to superior virtue.
There is no evidence that any of the cults in China are about to explode in violent rebellion. Most believers, like the pilgrims in Shaoshan, hope for good health, good fortune, or just a good time. But there is much resentment over betrayed loyalties and dashed illusions. Like the neo-Maoists, many Falun Gong believers wereonce fervent communists who believed that a new moral Chinese utopia was at hand. The spectacle of party hacks and gangsters helping themselves to riches, while others languish in the margins, has bred a great deal of anger.
There are democratic institutions to contain such anger. But without the freedom to build such institutions, the Chinese are reduced once again to waiting for the next Mao, or violent messiah.