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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; one must find a middle ground to see China in English-language American terms. First of all, China is still in the shadow of an enormous, overhanging past. Mao was already a young man when the last emperor abdicated in 1912. Recently even he must have been impressed by the portent of the terrible Tangshan earthquake—so appropriate to the demise of a Son of Heaven. Mao complained of the Mao cult but I wonder if he could have avoided it. Having been the One Man for so long, in a spot set apart during 2,000 years for someone superhuman, of course he leaves a fearful hole at the apex of state and society.

China’s ten days mourning reminds us of ours for FDR and JFK—an eerie time when even our commercials stopped; having no commercials, China’s network is less disrupted. But to fill out the comparison we should add in our national cult of retrospective grief for Abraham Lincoln. The United States had only four years of our Great Emancipator who saved the Union. The Chinese have had twenty-seven of their Great Helmsman who brought unity. Few can remember anyone else at the top.

Moreover, they rely on moral personality and the slow accumulation of personal connections more than on due process to legitimize their leader. Mr. Ford would never have made it in Peking. That he did so with us testifies to our constitutional reliance upon legal procedure, which Confucians and Maoists alike have regarded askance as inhibiting true morality. China is thus more vulnerable and insecure than we are during a change of leaders. Sons of Heaven were removed only by death. So with Prime Minister Chou and Chairman Mao.

Insecurity is added by the increasing bitterness of policy disagreements since the Soviet model of national development (taking it out of the peasants) had to be discarded in the late 1950s. Going it alone in a uniquely vast, proud, and crowded land, the Central Committee has faced differences of opinion on a growing scale. Not least of its difficulties is the dedication of its members, and the crusading passion of the Cultural Revolution group among them.

Peking’s policy issues have inhered in the distinction between the industrial revolution and the social revolution. The industrial revolution of modern times applied to China has increased production in both industry and agriculture through new technology, literacy, public health, capital investment, and new forms of organization. This is the province of those we label “pragmatists” or “moderates,” whom we like to think we understand and can even identify with. (Actually they are sincere enemies of free enterprise and individualism.)

The social revolution in China has been sui generis, quite beyond our experience, a struggle against China’s most persistent heritage, the ruling-class tradition. This included the Confucian teachings of social order based on the natural inequality of status between elders and youth, men and women, rulers and ruled. The tradition was highly elitist, expressed in ancient China’s inventions in bureaucratic government, perfected by the T’ang build-up of the examination system, which for twelve centuries down to 1905 funneled Chinese talent into official life. The small ruling class produced China’s great literature and philosophy, patronized her arts and commerce, and ran her affairs both local and imperial while living off the peasantry.

The attack on China’s outworn social structure has been Mao’s province from the beginning, ever since his heterodox report of 1927 on the peasantry as the real vanguard of revolution. “Liberation” during the Yenan decade from 1936 to 1946 brought the peasant a sense of freedom, literacy, and some technology. But primarily Yenan trained new party cadres to mobilize the peasantry for production, war, and politics. After 1949 the great mass organizations and national campaigns retrained the bureaucrats and scholars, and gradually eliminated both landlords and capitalists.

But Mao found to his dismay that it was not enough to eliminate the old ruling-class leftovers. The elitist virus was encysted within the body politic. The revolution’s newly liberated peasants were not only incipient capitalists, European fashion, they also had it in their bones to rise in the social scale and make a new ruling class. Special privilege reappeared in the Communist Party apparatus, sprouting from the deep soil of China’s tradition. In the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1969, Mao tried to root it out. How especially Chinese this problem is, how exotic to America, is evidenced in today’s May Seventh Schools, where white-collar city workers from librarians to commissars regularly get their hands dirty farming like peasants. “Class struggle” thus has a special meaning in Chinese social history. “Serve the people” means no more upper-class privilege.

Yet this supremely Maoist slogan makes plain the problem it seeks to overcome. Chinese officialdom, now so extraordinarily swollen in size (the party alone is some 28 million), is heir to its own tradition of avowedly benevolent manipulation of the masses. In updating this upper-class responsibility to “bring order to the empire,” Mao as sage and teacher has led in a process of tutelage, bringing the masses into political life, setting them upon the road of self-reliant development. The need for tutelage, to nurture self-government among a politically inert though often rebellious peasantry, was obvious to reformers like Liang Ch’i-ch’ao at the start of the century. Sun Yat-sen made tutelage central to his program. Mao has put it in other terms, but his would-be egalitarian order is still managed by an elite party. Travelers in the People’s Republic are struck by the strong sense of hierarchy still remaining as a necessary component of social order and by the party cadres’ sense of duty to “serve the people” as a special calling.

In short, Mao’s revolution for the people could not be led originally by the people. Democratic participation had to be organized and distributed to them. Mao has been the Great Distributor—of peasant rights, women’s emancipation, public welfare, scientific technology, self-respect, national pride. But distribution has its price. In filling up the valleys it tears down the peaks. The effort to change the character of the people has imposed orthodoxy and conformity, limitation of knowledge, suppression of individuality. Intellectuals are starved for books and cowed by doctrinaire organizers. Higher education was suspended for five years outright and has revived mainly as technical training. But some Chinese distributionists argue that even higher technology can be imported when needed. They see no need for “pure science,” only “applied.”

In a curious way that is still unstudied, today’s protagonists of moral principle (redness) over material technology (expertness) are reminiscent of nineteenth-century scholar-officials who decried Western material inventions and espoused the imperial Confucian tradition of government by men of rectitude and virtue. Those impassioned conservatives wrapped themselves in Confucian righteousness and obstructed China’s modernization for a whole generation. I am not suggesting a lineal descent from them to Mao (Chiang Ch’ing is no Empress Dowager) but merely a resonance of style. Militant denunciation by standards of absolute morality is an old Chinese as well as a Marxist custom. There is more history behind today’s politburo diatribes than is visible to the gimlet-eyed astigmatism of American political science.

Peking’s policy struggle of today thus has echoes of Peking’s past at the same time that it arises over hard practical choices—how far to continue Mao’s crusade against the elitism and special privilege of the past, how far to stress a necessarily elitist build-up of modern technology and expertise. “Red versus expert,” moral-political qualities versus technical-productive abilities, will continue to be an issue. There are many other issues that outsiders can only dimly perceive through the veil of secrecy.

One is the issue of secrecy itself. How long can the Central Committee act like a palace guard immune to scrutiny? How long can the world press be treated as spies and reduced (or elevated?) to the Chinese practice of studying obscure poetic references and indirect historical allusions in order to understand policy? Probably this can go on for a long time. After Anglo-French gunfire secured in 1860 the right of Western diplomats to stay in Peking, it was another seventeen years before Chinese diplomats were stationed in European capitals. We cannot judge China by ourselves. But we try to every day.

Our handicap is our public ignorance of the secretive China we are dealing with. (Find a China specialist who does not feel ignorant and you have a fool.) To rely on “power struggle” as the key to understanding Peking is simplistic, a cheap way out. Underlying the competition for leadership, which may indeed produce disruptions at any moment, are policy problems so stark as to make Washington’s seem like peanuts. And if, as seems not unlikely, our problems prove largely insoluble with or without peanuts, we can only begin to imagine those that burden the Central Committee in Peking. Mao and Chou with all their faults may look better and better as time goes on.

How to judge Mao Tse-tung will inspire a large literature among us. He was not a small man. Look at his treatment of the United States. Nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Americans in China did much to stir up the great revolution, but when it came to power in 1949 we opposed it. We fought the Chinese quite unnecessarily in Korea: after MacArthur landed at Inchon, and before he went for the Yalu to conquer North Korea, Chou En-lai explained to us that China could not let a friendly buffer state be supplanted by an avowed enemy on the border of her Manchurian industrial base. In Korea we shot a million Chinese casualties. We later compounded this by bombing North Vietnam with many invasions of Chinese air space, a humiliation to all patriots. But Mao stayed out, and in the end—because we had become less of a problem than the Russians—he invited the leader of our defeat to visit Peking. Plainly he would sup with the devil for raisons d’état.

With help from Chou En-lai and some millions of others, Mao has led the People’s Republic through a phase of history that has now come to an end. Will we be able to achieve any greater understanding of China’s problems now that he and his generation are gone? The new generation will be equally absorbed in domestic issues, as usual in China, and we shall have to understand them largely by our own efforts through barriers of language and ideology. Mao-and-Chou were a brilliant team, and we shall need to emulate their foresight, patience, and tenacity if we are to bring about normal relations by recognizing Peking’s sovereignty over Taiwan while also ensuring the stability and autonomy of Taiwan.

But we have wasted the generation of opportunity afforded us in the aftermath of our period of activity in China up to 1949. The Chinese revolutionary leadership, when it came to power, had already had extensive contact with Americans and American ways. Chou En-lai had negotiated with General Marshall. Chou’s director of information had attended a Shanghai missionary school; her sister had worked with Mrs. Roosevelt. China’s first envoy to the United Nations was a graduate of Tsing Hua, the university supported by Boxer indemnity funds that America returned to China. His successor at the UN had attended Yenching University, the leading American missionary college. Edgar Snow was Mao’s biographer. More Americans than Russians had got to Yenan when the People’s Republic was in gestation there. The catalogue could go on and on.

Precisely because the American influence was so strong in China before 1949, the communist revolution felt compelled to wipe it out, just as the Americans felt a “loss of China” as a result. But in the contradictory dialectical way so characteristic of Mao’s thought, the Americans, though on the wrong side in Chinese history, were nevertheless a known quantity with whom relations could be resumed, as they have been.

Now the generation that knew us has departed. The many American-trained Chinese professors and scientists are either dead or retired or close to it. In the last thirty years of estrangement since the failure of General Marshall’s mediation in 1946, those who made the great revolution, and who knew Americans as one-time allies against Japan, have trained up a new generation, who know the Americans only as copybook capitalist-imperialists, the defeated bombers of Vietnam. The heritage of positive Sino-American relations before 1949 has been dissipated, not used when it might have been used to help achieve more constructive contact with Peking. The end of the Mao-Chou era has not eased our way toward peace and progress in Chinese-American relations.

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