On the Death of Mao

The word came ominously: “Power fight is on in China. 900 million mourning Mao” (Daily News, New York, September 10).

The reporting of the death of Mao told us as much about ourselves as about China: 1) Good news is not news; only when Mao dies can we devote much space to him. 2) We focus on Mao personally, not upon the vast revolution that gave his genius its opportunity. 3) Vaguely aware that, unlike us, China has no crisis of inflation, unemployment, crime, or corruption, we find what bad news we can in the Peking “power struggle.” All bits of news can fit this interpretation. Does the Central Committee make a statement? “As if anticipating a power struggle for Mao’s mantle, the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued an appeal for unity” (CP-UPI Peking, September 9).

Are “capitalist-roaders” attacked as usual? “The simmering power struggle among his political heirs broke into the open with demands for further purges of Mao’s enemies…even as the official mourning began” (UPI Hong Kong, September 10). Evidence? The Shanghai party committee vowed to “deepen the criticism of Teng Hsiao-p’ing,” which has been going on for six months.

What is this power struggle? On examination it turns out to be a policy struggle. (Mao taught struggle, of course.) It is between factions, to be sure, but over real issues that confront the revolution, in brief, whether to persist in the effort to change the character of people or settle down to material development. Ford vs. Carter is a more naked power struggle than anything going on in Peking. The policy differences are greater between the Peking factions than they are between Democrats and Republicans. “Power struggle” fits our 1976 election process. We understand it as a legitimate contest for power, with platforms and promises tailored to get votes and win power. But the Central Committee in Peking is not holding an election. It has power already. It confronts policy problems on which honest revolutionaries disagree.

By calling the conflict between the Peking policy factions a “power struggle,” we do several things at once: we cut down dedicated revolutionaries, whose thinking condemns selfishness and personal aggrandizement, to the size of ambitious individualists of a type we know well—Chang Chun-chiao, for instance, is implied to be no more than John Connally with chopsticks. We impose our self-image on the distant Chinese scene.

Power struggle” as an explanation of what is happening also eliminates the whole field of policy options and ideology, which we therefore need not try to understand. The “who succeeds Mao?” approach sidesteps the great issues of the revolution. It reduces Peking’s problems to the level of a contest among individual competitors—Moynihan or Abzug? Who succeeds Muhammad Ali? Who will be Miss America?

The trauma of Mao’s death is real and great but we must try to see it in its Chinese setting. Unfortunately the esoteric jargon of Chinese politics befuddles as fast as it explains …

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