Op-Ed Contributors

Political reform and Mao today

By He Bolin (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-07-01 07:52
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China began its economic reform and opening up three years after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976). China's economic prosperity has indeed brought about a lot of changes: it has increased people's income and improved their living standards, for one. But it has also created social problems of inequality and widening income gap, prompting more and more people to yearn for the "good old days" of Chairman Mao.

Some observers say people's yearning for Mao is a sign of their unhappiness with the current social conditions. But Xiao Yanzhong, a professor in Contemporary China Research Center of Renmin University of China, says the development should not be seen in such extreme, especially because Mao is supposed to have committed some "serious mistakes" in his later years. As one of China's leading scholars on Mao, Xiao says that social scientists and political thinkers are in consensus on Mao's historical importance and status but differ when it comes to his total assessment.

The intensifying social contradictions are unavoidable problems of a developing market economy and thus should not be seen as a factor triggering "Mao fever". Mao, in fact, started re-entering people's thoughts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the "fever" reaching its peak in 1993, when his birth centenary was observed. The "Mao fever", he says, is actually the result of the slow pace of political reform in China.

Xiao, who was born in the 1950s, says his life spans the ages from when Mao was worshipped as a great leader to now when he is criticized as an authoritarian ruler. Xiao treats this paradox as an epitome of special history, which triggered and inspired his research on Mao.

It's better to start any discussion on Mao with rational reflection on and analysis of his mistakes in his later years, based on a deep, clear, and historical view of his role in China's history.

Mao has been blamed for launching "Great Leap Forward" (1958-60) and the "cultural revolution" (1966-76); the first led to famine in the late 1950s in which millions of people were killed, and the second resulted in political chaos for a decade. These painful events have become ammunition in the hands of people trying to tarnish Mao's image.

But attributing all historical tragedies to one political leader won't help us develop a sound understanding of that period and thus prevent us from committing similar mistakes. Citing Austrian philosopher Friedrich August Hayek, Xiao says the tragedies were typical of those caused by the "fatal conceit of human centralism", and the critical point for any reflection should be the factors that made a man so conceited.

Mao had challenged authority throughout his life, though he didn't let anyone challenge his authority. But then Mao was more often than not a tender and sympathetic leader, committed to the grassroots. He was an idealist when it came to making people's life better. No wonder, the people's communes had the entire array of social service organizations from schools to hospitals and almost everything in between.

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