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Three Ways of Looking at the PRC’s Latest Campaigns

• September 16, 2010 • 5:00 AM

The ghost of Mao can certainly be divined in China’s current anti-vulgarity campaign, but he may have to take a back seat to capitalist-roaders Chiang Kai-shek and Lee Kuan Yew.

“One can imagine Chiang Kai-shek’s ghost wandering around China today nodding in approval, while Mao’s ghost follows behind him, moaning at the destruction of his vision.” — Rana Mitter, Modern China, Oxford University Press, 2008

“The communist leaders of the world’s most populous nation are taking lessons from the small city state of Singapore. …” Asahi Shimbun, China’s Top Officials Study at Singapore’s Knee,” June 2010

For someone who’s been dead almost 35 years, Mao Zedong (1893-1976) has been getting a lot of attention lately.

In 2005, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story, which presented Mao as a demonic figure, became an international bestseller. It generated enough controversy for Routledge to publish an edited volume last year, titled Was Mao Really a Monster?, made up exclusively of academic responses to it. This year’s crop of English-language Mao publications includes another edited volume, Timothy Cheek’s A Critical Introduction to Mao, plus a pair of accessible but otherwise very different kinds of books by academic historians: Rebecca Karl’s Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History and Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, a much longer and much darker work.

In part because of this attention, it is hardly surprising that allusions to the lingering influence of Mao’s thoughts and policies crop up routinely in Western news reports. In television coverage of the 2008 Olympics, for example, shots of the giant portrait of Mao were often shown as a shorthand method for reminding viewers that, all the megamalls and McDonalds notwithstanding, the People’s Republic of China was still a country governed by a Communist Party. And a recent Los Angeles Times story about media censorship includes a reference to parallels between the current drive to purge popular culture of the “three vulgarities” (salacious, mindless and tasteless content) and “the elaborately named campaigns extolled by Chairman Mao.” One cheeky Australian writer, who also alluded to Maoist parallels, has suggested President Hu Jintao can now add the title “chief prude” to his CV.

There’s no question that Mao left an indelible mark on China (this may be the only point of agreement among the authors and editor of all the recent books about him), but as the quotations provided above and much recent scholarship suggests, the current consumerist PRC 2.0 should not be viewed solely through the lens of Maoist legacies.

To make sense of the anti-vulgarity drive, as well as the campaign-like aspects of recent mass spectacles, such as the Olympics and the World Expo underway now in Shanghai, it is useful to look back to what two other authoritarian leaders did in their heyday — Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) and Lee Kuan Yew (1923- ). Recent Chinese campaigns are similar to those that Chiang launched in the 1930s, when his Nationalist Party controlled the Chinese mainland. They also resemble those that have taken place in the Republic of Singapore, during the years that Lee formally ran that city-state as its first prime minister (1959-1990) and the period since he has retired from office (yet continues to exert a strong influence on the country). And the parallels with Singapore are hardly accidental, since the strategy of its ruling elite — who have found a way to combine one-party rule and rapid development, while stressing the importance of traditional values — has been of great interest to various post-Mao Chinese leaders, beginning with Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997).

A good place to start a comparative look at the influence on contemporary China of the Mao era, the period when Chiang was the authoritarian modernizer running the mainland (1927-1949) and Singapore in the decades shaped by Lee, is with the Olympics.

Several people living in China’s capital in 2008 have told me that they felt as though their city was in the midst of a campaign that year, thanks to such things as the constant repetition of a basic slogan (“One World, One Dream”), the continual exhortations for people to work together to achieve a goal (that of mounting a world-class spectacle), and the media’s effort to change the way people behaved (for example, the calls for an end to public spitting). Mao’s China was defined in part by periodic mass drives, and the mobilization and propaganda associated with the Olympics can be fit into a lineage that goes back to such early PRC events as the “Three Antis” and “Fives Antis” campaigns of the early 1950s.

Campaigns, moreover, have never ceased to be part of the Chinese Communist Party’s political repertoire — though, to borrow a useful distinction from a recent conference paper by Harvard political scientist Elizabeth J. Perry, there’s been a notable shift over time from “mass campaigns” (that could easily spin out of control) to “managed campaigns” (that are more disciplined and top-down in nature).

In many ways, however, as Susan Jakes pointed out in a blog post at the time, the preparations for the Olympics were equally or more reminiscent of the most famous Chinese national campaign of the pre-Mao era, the New Life Movement of Chiang Kai-shek. Beijing in 2008 also had many features that would have seemed familiar to a past resident of Singapore, a metropolis whose 1960s cleanliness and courtesy drives and their sequels earned it the nickname “campaign city” (a catchy phrase, albeit not as catchy as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty,” which sci-fi writer William Gibson used as the title of his 1993 Wired magazine account of the “clean dystopia” of Southeast Asia). To note one specifically, both the New Life Movement and some Singapore campaigns also tried to put an end to public expectoration. More importantly, the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, a peak moment in the 2008 Beijing campaign, began with Confucius being quoted and a large contingent of performers dressed as the sage’s disciples taking the stage. Appeals to Confucian values were central to the New Life Movement and are commonly made by Singapore’s leaders, but the only way that Confucius figured in Maoist campaigns was as a vilified figure, blamed for promoting “feudal” values (such as prizing age over youth, men over women, tradition over innovation) that had held China back as a nation and caused great harm to its people.

Having recently spent a month in Shanghai, while the expo was taking place, I can attest that this mega-event is also giving the Chinese city a campaign-like feel. The slogans are different and a new wrinkle has been added to the call for a change in public deportment, with authorities targeting as immoral the tendency of some locals to wear pajamas on the streets of their neighborhoods. Still, there are many similarities with the Beijing case. And once again, New Life and Singapore analogies seem at least as apt as Maoist ones.

The anti-vulgarity drive, though, with its call for all Chinese, and particularly Internet users and popular entertainers, to eschew crass modern forms of entertainment, create art more in line with classical traditions, and value social harmony, provides an even more compelling present-day illustration of the phenomenon under consideration here.

This drive echoes nicely one aspect of the Singapore model, for the country’s ruling elite has long made “social harmony” one of its watchwords and was an early adopter of high-tech strategies for controlling the Internet and guiding popular use of the Web, in ways that resemble what the astute Beijing-based media analyst Jeremy Goldkorn has referred to as China’s “net nanny” system. And while there’s a semantic parallel between the current attack on the “three vulgarities” and campaigns of the 1950s-1970s that included numbers and the word fan (anti), there are features of it that, to borrow Mitter’s imagery, would likely make Chiang’s ghost smile but Mao’s ghost shake his head. In his 1934 speech on “The Essentials of the New Life Movement”, after all, Chiang referred to the damage that “rudeness and vulgarity” and also “social disorder” could do to a nation. This language is very similar to that used by China’s current leaders, who have jettisoned completely the strain of Maoism that insisted on the need to break from all longstanding traditions and valued struggle, not harmony, as the key to progress.

Mao, in the same famous essay which included the memorable line that “revolution is not a dinner party,” mocked the very notion of promoting “refined” forms of behavior. Now, though his successors share his desire to keep a lid on dissent, as shown by the fact that targets of the latest censorship drive have included not just tacky television shows but a famous comedian known for poking fun at officials, they’ve taken a very different approach to topics such as refinement and traditional values.

There’s a cultural conservatism among the leaders of PRC 2.0 that makes them, in some ways, more like the non-Communist authoritarian modernizers of China’s nationalist era and the people running Singapore when William Gibson visited it than they are like Mao, with his penchant for iconoclasm and fondness for campaigns that could, and sometimes all too tragically did, spin wildly out of control.

The longstanding Cold War assumption was that to understand the policies or think about the prospects of one set of Communist Party leaders was to place them analytically beside other past or present heads of Marxist organizations. This is one reason so many people predicted, erroneously, late in the last century that the Chinese Communist Party was certain to lose it grip on power in the same way that its Central and Eastern European counterparts had in 1989 and their Soviet ones had in 1991. The analysis provided here, which presents Hu Jintao and company as sharing important traits with not just Communist leaders of the past but also figures such as Chiang and Lee, will not tell us what will happen next in the protean PRC 2.0. It can, though, do a bit to help us shed some useless Cold War baggage and protect ourselves from falling into the trap of assuming that China’s political future must lead in any given direction.

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Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California-Irvine and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, an updated edition of which, with contributions by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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