Monday, July 07, 2008

Gao Mobo: The Battle for China's Past

Three decades of hostile mythology have lain like a fog over the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the man who initiated it, Mao Zedong.

At last, an important academic study of Mao-era China has come along, shining a light through the miasma of lies and distortions that begin with the “ten years of disaster” line of the Deng ascendancy, and continue through the publications of Jung Chang and Li Zhisui.

Professor Gao Mobo’s The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (Pluto Press, 2008) reasserts the validity of the Cultural Revolution and makes significant claims for its having benefited both China and the broad masses of the Chinese people. In the process, it dismisses the neo-liberal agenda of the restorationists inside the CCP and unmasks the reality of the growing divide between urban and rural China.

Gao claims that the rapid economic growth of the major cities in the coastal provinces, touted as a success for post-Mao reforms introduced by Deng and others, actually conceals the fact that “there are millions of people who are actually worse off since the post-Mao era reform years.” He says that gender equity has suffered setbacks after making significant gains during the Cultural Revolution, and cites education and health as two areas in which many of the rural population are now worse off than during the Mao years. And in any case, he claims, it is precisely the “enormous achievements made during the Mao era that paved the way for later development”.

Prof. Gao deconstructs the dominant contemporary Chinese elite discourse about the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s policies, showing how the elite’s identification with Western values has shaped their remembering of the past. The consequence of this is that whereas Chairman Mao pursued policies designed to narrow the gap between the cities and the countryside, between agriculture and industry, and between mental and manual labour, the current leadership is prepared to exacerbate them, to allow the Gini co-efficient to rise to crisis point, in order to benefit themselves through a pursuit of policies designed to narrow the gap between China and the West.

Gao offers scathing criticisms of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The memoirs of Mao’s personal physician, and Chang and Halliday’s Mao: The Untold Story. He does not have the space to comprehensively rebut these works that have influenced the way millions in the West now view Mao and the Cultural Revolution, but he does offer sufficient critiquing of their dishonesty and unreliability as to strip away their general credibility.

Gao asserts that it is wrong to see the origins of the Cultural Revolution in a power struggle between Mao and Liu Shaoqi; instead he reestablishes Mao’s fear that the Chinese Party might take the same path towards revisionism as its Soviet counterpart as the main determinant of his decision to launch the Cultural Revolution. Going soft on imperialism, indeed collaborating with it against the national liberation movements and revolutionary struggles of the poor; allowing the moral compass of the Party to switch from “serving the people” to that of serving the self-interest of an entrenched urban Party elite; and allowing the youth to slide into nihilism and uncertainty rather than nurturing them as successors to the proletarian cause – these were the hallmarks of revisionism and the reasons why Mao searched for a way to continue the revolution under the conditions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Far from hiding behind the curtains and plotting the downfall of Liu Shaoqi, Mao at first cautioned against targeting him and said that he should be given time to think about the direction China should take, that he should be allowed to “continue to make revolution” (quoted in Stuart Schramm’s Mao Tse-tung Unrehearsed).

Gao examines the restorationists’ suppression of any alternative to the “ten years of disaster” myth, claiming that it “deprives a probable majority of the Chinese of the right to speak up”. In two very revealing chapters, revealing certainly for the majority of people in the West who neither speak nor read Chinese, Gao examines challenges to the elite’s hegemony by way of contrary narratives in the e-media. Although the existence in China of websites espousing a positive view of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution is somewhat precarious (a case in point: from which I obtained Wu Bin’s rebuttal of the pro-capitalist nonsense of Xie Tao, has been closed) a number of them do exist, and together with online chat rooms, provide an opportunity for genuine socialists to put a different view to that of the elite.

In his concluding chapters, Gao focuses on contemporary China and the question of “imaginings of alternative models of development and other possible forms of human organization”. He is cautiously optimistic: “Now Mao’s legacy has started to be looked at a little more seriously. The past can be viewed positively now because the failure of the present is obvious even to some of the political and intellectual elite…Positive lessons…can also be drawn from the Mao era. The ideas and practices of Chinese socialist democracy should be made use of.”

Whilst this book should be highly recommended, there were, for me a couple of areas for improvement. The publishers have done the author a disservice by allowing too many proof-reading errors to pass by without correction: “full blunt” (p. 23) should surely be “full brunt”; “the world depends our way of talking about it” needs “upon” after “depends”, and so on.

More importantly, Gao refers in several passages to Stalin in terms that are reminiscent of the way that Chinese neo-liberals, whom he criticizes, refer to Mao. He lends credibility to the dominant discourse about Stalin, with statements like “Mao was not like Hitler or Stalin”. Stalin was a champion of the working class, Hitler was its scourge. The two cannot be equated. And whilst it is not within the purview of Gao’s book to make any analysis of Stalin, there might have been at least an acknowledgement of the possibility of Stalin having been demonized in a similar fashion to Mao, an acknowledgement of the possibility (for me a certainty) that history will properly evaluate Stalin and the contributions of the Soviet people and state to the defeat of fascism and to keeping alive the hopes and aspirations of the working class and of all oppressed peoples. (I am looking forward to the translation from Russian of US academic Grover Furr’s new book on Stalin, Anti-Stalinist Villainy, and hope that it will do for the great Soviet leader what Gao’s book does for Mao.)

Finally, although Gao sees capitalism with Chinese characteristics as mainly being a restoration of a comprador bourgeoisie serving transnational capital, one of its other consequences is that of finding outlets for investment of accumulated capital. Contradictions are emerging between Chinese private and sovereign capital on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the working people of countries in which Chinese capitalists and the Chinese state are becoming major investors. China has huge investments in Africa, and its giant Haier whitegoods corporation is behind the first SEZ for Chinese investors that recently opened in Pakistan. and Pakistan’s real estate market is deemed to be another profitable area for Chinese investors.

Since last year’s Australian federal election in November, applications for proposed investment from China have almost reached $A30 billion - three times the total proposed investment from China in 2005-06 and 2006-07 combined. The new Labor Government has placed restrictions on investments by Chinese sovereign wealth funds, and is closely scrutinising investments by Chinese state-owned enterprises in Australian resource companies who sell minerals to those same SOEs in China. There is at present an average of one new Chinese investment approval given by the Australian government in every nine days (Financial Review, July 5-6, 2008). On my back doorstep, here in South Australia, CITIC is a major shareholder in environmental despoiler Marathon Resources which wants to mine uranium in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.

These few qualifications aside, Gao’s book is an historic first blow at the body of anti-Mao propaganda. Whilst it will not be read by millions in the same way that the populist and sensationalised garbage of Jung Chang, Li Zhuisui and the many others of the elite who have found a Western market for their reminiscences – real and imagined –it will certainly arm the loyal supporters of late Chinese Chairman with a weapon with which to defend his great legacy.

To continue the work of this book, it is also necessary that ways be found around the language barrier so that the Chinese revolutionary e-media is made more accessible to friends of the Chinese revolution in the non-Chinese speaking world.

I conclude this review with sincere thanks to Gao Mobo for the publication of this vital study of the important legacy of Mao Zedong.


nickglais said...

Good Review - how do we get this book discussed and bought - it is ignored by mainsteam media ?

Anonymous said...

There is also an interesting review of this book over on the China Book Reviews blog, at:

The discussion in response to the review seems to be favourably disposed to Gao's book. Worth contributing to...


Bill Kerr said...

thanks for this review - you can download a pdf of the introduction to the book at the kasama site. In case you don't know the author is now a professor at adelaide uni.