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Mao Zedong: hero or villain?

By Peter West - posted Friday, 9 September 2016


For some time there have been plans to commemorate the life of Mao Zedong in Sydney and Melbourne. It's forty years since China's leader died. But at the last moment, concerts and other celebrations were cancelled, Fairfax journalist Peter Hartcher says. Chinese leaders in Australia were afraid that there would be too much harmful controversy and too many protests which had been planned by those condemning human rights issues in China. Better to keep the relationship flowing smoothly along, China's cheerleaders felt, so that 'soft power' wins the day. I touched on Chinese disdain for Australians and their culture in an earlier article on Chinese-Australian relationships.

Mao Zedong was the leader of the People's Republic of China. He died forty years ago on 9 September, 1976. Our universities have many Chinese students. There are many people living here from Malaysia, Taiwan, and other places whose people identify as Chinese or as Chinese-Australians. Should they be celebrating Mao's anniversary? And how important is China to all Australians?

Mao's life and achievements

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Mao was born the son of a wealthy farmer in Hunan. When at Beijing University he decided to become a Marxist. Marx' main idea was "workers of all countries, unite". This – and Mao's promise of land- were attractive to many in a country invaded by Japan in the 1930s. Mao helped found the Communist Party and in 1949 founded the People's Republic of China. His enemies, the Nationalists, were forced to retreat to Taiwan, where they remain. Whether China is one country or several remains a big issue in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Mao is a controversial figure. He's seen as one of the most important people in modern world history, and is also known as a theorist, military strategist, poet and visionary. Supporters acknowledge that he drove out the 'foreign devils'. He brought China into the modern era. He was remarkable for promoting the status of women; he said they ' hold up half the sky'. He modernised education and improved China's basic health care.

In mainland China, Mao is still celebrated as "Founding Father of modern China". Mobo Gao in his 2008 book The Battle for China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, credits Mao for raising the average life expectancy from 35 in 1949 to 63 by 1975. He brought "unity and stability to a country that had been plagued by civil wars and foreign invasions", and lay the foundation for China to become one of the great global powers.

Mao's critics.

But Mao has many Chinese critics, both inside and outside of China. Students in Chinese institutions are told not to speak to foreigners about any issues such as independence for Tibet, issues of freedom for workers, or the future of Hong Kong. Thus it's difficult to know what students in China, for example, really think about Mao and the Communist regime. Without him, it's hard to imagine China's people making any progress. But progress at what price? In a famous conversation with Sian-yu, Mao once was asked what is more important: freedom, or freedom from hunger? Mao replied, 'When people are starving to death, they are not going to meditate on their moral development'. Mao has been condemned for destroying libraries and ancient relics and the death of thousands or millions during the Great Cultural Revolution.

China's long shadow

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China and its influence have become important issues in Australia. In early September it became known that Labor Senator Sam Dastyari had accepted money from Chinese interests. Then, at a news conference for the Chinese community in June, it was learnt that Dastyari had promised to support China's claims to the South China Sea. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: "is the Labor party's foreign policy for sale? Was this cash for comment?" Labor's Senator Conroy said the Coalition had its own explaining to do. He said the Australian political system was "under siege" because we are getting so much money given to us from countries like China.

Should we allow various high-placed Australian spokes-people to spruik China's own ideas about its place in the world? The roles of Dastyari and Bob Carr in spreading China's own interests seem pretty amazing, given they are members of a party supposed to represent Australian workers (Carr is a former Labor Premier who heads up a Chinese-Australia research centre at University of Technology Sydney). Dastyari's activities are now being carefully examined. The Greens have joined Cory Bernardi in demandingaction, ideally that Dastyari resign as a Labor front bencher. Apparently Dastyari's links with the Yuhu Group go back many years. Debates about foreign donations look set to remain a top issue in Australian politics. As The Guardian's Katharine Murphy argued, the whole system needs urgent action.

Assessing Mao's legacy

So how should we see Mao? Should we celebrate him as a great man who made China strong? Or should we be wary of kow-towing to someone whose ambition was to make China a powerful giant among nations? Many years ago a wise man said: 'Let China sleep. For when she wakes, she will shake the world'. Who said that? Napoleon Bonaparte. If that saying was prophetic, it's largely due to Mao.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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