“Mao, the False God”

Head over to China Digital Times and read this devastating piece by former Hong Kong investor Sin-ming Shaw, now a visiting scholar at Columbia University. He doesn’t hold his punches.

Should Chairman Mao’s huge portrait still hang above the front gate of Tiananmen Square? Should China’s ruling party still call itself Communist?

These are not idle questions. Unless and until China’s leaders answer both questions with a simple “No” they will continue to have blood on their hands and a tainted legitimacy. Many Chinese do not accept communist rule precisely because the Communist Party denies its past and remains unapologetic about its cruelty.

This is why the majority of Taiwan’s people want independence, and even deny that they are Chinese. The Chinese Communists insist that being Chinese means accepting the political reality of a sole Communist sovereign. Indeed, many Taiwanese think that, if being Chinese means accepting all that goes under the name of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party, they will gladly deny their “Chineseness,” self-abnegation being preferable to accepting any part in that shame.

Similarly, while a recent poll found that 70% of Hong Kong’s people are proud of being ethnic Chinese, a similar percentage are ashamed of the conduct of the mainland government. Their message to the government in Beijing is this: you cannot take away our ethnicity but you have soiled our dignity through your barbarism. For Hong Kong, the defining symbol of the Communist government is the killing of students with abandon on June 4, 1989.

And then it gets really critical. One final excerpt (though I hope you’ll read it all):

China’s communist rulers must own up to their history and drop Mao and the communist legacy. The country needs a new constitution – one that enshrines genuine democracy.

China’s people have long been ready for this. Maintaining the false label of communism while reviving capitalism and insisting that Mao, for all his mistakes and crimes, was 70% “correct” is the bedrock of the moral corruption that afflicts China today. It is as if the Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party [The Nazi’s] were still in power, with its current leaders claiming that Hitler was only 30% wrong. China deserves better; it requires better in order to reclaim the glory that was China.

That “70 percent correct argument” makes me sick. It’s a marketing gimmick, the age-old attempt to put lipstick on a pig. When a pig is as hideous and smelly as this, nothing you do can cover it up. Time to take those ridiculous portraits down and put them where they belong, on the bottom of an accommodating bird cage.

The Discussion: 40 Comments

“China deserves better”.

No need to argue or explain.

June 21, 2005 @ 6:31 pm | Comment

ouch, talk about a direct hit!
thanks for recommending this, an outstanding article!

June 21, 2005 @ 7:26 pm | Comment

I think that ‘Take down the portrait’ could be a great rhetorical slogan for proponents of democracy in China, because the authorities simply cannot do it under the present circumstances. To take down the portrait implies an abdication of any claim to authority. My experience had been that since 1989, Mao has been and continues to be rehabiltated in China. Talking to my students, he is the overwhelming choice for the greatest ever Chinese leader – I don’t think they would have responded in the same way 15 years ago. It is definitely not as simple as taking down the picture and moving on; they can’t. Mao goes, they go, and they know it.

June 21, 2005 @ 7:27 pm | Comment

Speaking of slogans, here’s one I came up with a long time ago. I think it’s time we revive it. (This was an old post, so all the comments got zapped when I switched to Movable Type.)

June 21, 2005 @ 7:34 pm | Comment

Can I court disaster by playing devil’s advocate?

None of us doubts that Mao was a monster, sadist, megalomaniac etc. Nor are attempts to rehabilitate him particularly heartwarming. I, for one, could do without the portrait, tomb, and other decrepit remainders of the cult of personality.

However, Mao has a legitmate place in history as the principal founder, for better or for worse, of the modern Chinese state. A China that I think many Chinese people see as being able to assert its place in the world after a period of servitude and domination by foreigners (even though China remained crippled and isolated during Mao’s own rule).

Furthermore, the idea of what Mao represents is still being fought over by parties with interests in representing him in different ways, whether that’s the CCP trying to reform him into the Chinese Founding Father, or Jung Chang painting him as the Greatest Tyrant Who Ever Lived. That’s a very charged atmosphere.

I am not going to be an apologist for Mao. I know too many people who suffered personally under his reign. But it seems to me, that his legacy is destined to be conflicted for some time to come, especially as long it is awash in emotionally charged debate.

June 21, 2005 @ 7:44 pm | Comment

The idea of China coming to terms with its past has similarities to that of Taiwan coming to terms with its past in a previous post.

At this point, I expect Lin to come in and say “Well Shaw or June Chang are not telling the whole story.”

Will brings up the point of legacy and legacy must be examined from many perspectives; Hitler left a legacy, Stalin left a legacy etc. but could a true leader have accomplished the desired results especially with better means and in quicker times. Anyone can leave a legacy if he/she has license to wipe out dissenting voices.


June 21, 2005 @ 7:55 pm | Comment

“after a period of servitude and domination by foreigners (even though China remained crippled and isolated during Mao’s own rule).” – Will.

Will> I am not disputing your above sentence, far from it, as it’s perfectly true and I am not singling you out at all.

It is just that I consider many other countries have far more valid reasons to play the victim card than China.

India, for example, how many hundreds of years were they under colonial rule? The Indian Mutiny slaughtered far more Indians than any comparable event in Modern Chinese History. And how the Chinese whinge.

The Caribbean is populated by the decendants Africans forceably taken from their homes by Europeans mainly to be sold as slaves by, for how many hundreds of years? And how the Chinese whinge.

I am not even going to mention the Jews.

Sorry, a bit off-topic but Mao and Modern China have used their perceived victim mentality right from “The chinese people have stood up” to the recent anti-Japan protests.

A little perspective is seriously needed.

June 21, 2005 @ 7:59 pm | Comment

BTW, I am not including the Second World War when I say, the Indian Mutiny killed more Indians than comparable Chinese events. I am talking about peace-time colonial rule.

June 21, 2005 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

Gordon, I sincerely believe that, as with Hitler and Stalin, true historians looking at Mao’s legacy, at his ascension to power, at his deeds and misdeeds, will conclude he did virtually nothing positive for China. After completing Harrison Salisbury’s The New Emperors only a few weeks ago and reading the reviews of Jung Chang’s new book and the article above, I am more adamant than ever. During his first few years — “the good years” — he showed some promise, giving women their rights and establishing the barefoot doctors program. And then megalomania infected him, he became a cult leader and we all know the tragic, miserable story. I have to conclude the man had no redeeming qualities, unlike Deng, who was in many ways a great man. I give Mao credit for nothing but indescribable human misery and the slow, agonizing brain death of a once-great culture.

June 21, 2005 @ 8:05 pm | Comment


June 21, 2005 @ 8:09 pm | Comment

Have any of you living in China been asked by locals if you know who Mao was?

This has happened to me more than once. I’m left incredulous that a local who knows I’ve lived here for several years and can speak conversational Chinese could entertain the possiblity that I might somehow have overlooked The Great Helmsman.

On a related note, here in Shanghai, favorable views of Mao do not always prevail. Multiple times I have had students (usually teens or 20-somethings) openly denounce Mao in the classroom. When I was studying at a local university, one of my first Chinese teachers (an exceedingly kind woman of about 55 years) openly criticized him. If I ask IELTS students to give a two-minute answer to the question “Describe someone you really dislike”, there are often one or two students who choose Mao as their topic.

Times they be a-changin’ … 🙂

June 21, 2005 @ 11:12 pm | Comment

I wonder how many people lauding this article know that Shaw Sin-ming is associated with the Project for the New American Century. In case you’re unaware of PNAC, you can go here to see a statement of principles. Here are the opening sentences from the 1997 statement:

American foreign and defense policy is adrift. Conservatives have criticized the incoherent policies of the Clinton Administration. They have also resisted isolationist impulses from within their own ranks. But conservatives have not confidently advanced a strategic vision of America’s role in the world.

Note signatories to this statement include Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld.

Shaw Sin-ming was a signatory to a joint PNAC-US Committee for Hong Kong declaration on the then proposed new security laws (in 2002). All well and good on the surface (“If enacted, they would endanger Hong Kong’s democratic, civil rights, labor, academic and religious communities by exposing them to prosecution and imprisonment…”), it’s worth keeping in mind the larger aims of the PNAC. William Kristol was among those joining Shaw as a co-signatory on this declaration.

I’m not suggesting that Shaw hasn’t understood Mao (I think he has); but I am suggesting we need to take a closer look at Shaw’s agenda here. We might find it’s rather at odds with the one that finds full voice on this site.

June 21, 2005 @ 11:59 pm | Comment

from what i can see, i don’t see much of a relationship between shaw and the project besides the one hong kong letter, which i found to be pretty reasonable, but maybe i’m missing something here?

June 22, 2005 @ 12:10 am | Comment

Kevin: Yes, the letter is entirely reasonable on the surface. But let’s say you oppose new security laws in Hong Kong. Do you write a letter in conjunction with an organisation established by Jeb Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney (that has clearly stated one of its goals to be US hegemony), or do you look around for other people with aims more similar to your own? Would you have signed a letter with the PNAC?

June 22, 2005 @ 12:23 am | Comment

A lot of the people I interacted with in 79 were pretty negative about Mao. Most of them were teachers and students and had really suffered during the CR, so it’s not surprising. I wrote about this before, but I’ll always remember when Paul’s (my friends) parents (the American teachers) threw a “white elephant” party for a bunch of their students, a class of teachers and grad students bettering their English. You know in a White elephant party you bring something you no longer need as a gift to exchange with someone else. And one of these teachers brought a bagful of Mao buttons, snickered nervously, held them up and said: “White elephants.”

June 22, 2005 @ 12:36 am | Comment

Not to make light about this, but just yesterday, I was given another cigarette lighter with Mao’s mug on it. That puts my count for Chairman lighters at around 11.

Slim, that still happens to me too. Last week, a fellow Chinese teacher asked me in the main office, which was fillled with Chinese teachers, between classes, “Do you know Chairman Mao?”

“Sure, of course,” I replied.

He laughed along with a few other Chinese teachers, some repeating, “Of course! Ha! Ha! Of course”.

“Do you like him?” He asked.

“Hell NO!” I replied strongly.

“Why not?” He asked.

“Because he was a pig,” I replied, leaving it at that, and adding nothing more.

That got their attention, and they stopped laughing.

“Which Chinese person do you like?” He asked solemnly.

“Lin Biao!” I replied, knowing this would rankle them.

“We Chinese people don’t like Lin Biao!” He blurted out.

“I know,” I said, smiling broadly.

Their eyes began to dart back and forth among themselves, like homing pigeons trying to find a safe roost.

I stood up, turned around, and left to go teach my class.

June 22, 2005 @ 1:45 am | Comment

Hey, you can’t have too many singing Chairman Mao lighters.

But my all time favorite China souvenir is, get ready, a pink plastic TV with a 3-D picture of the Chairman with his then closest Comrade in Arms, the aforementioned Lin Biao.

June 22, 2005 @ 1:50 am | Comment

Why are you guys bashing China? Show some little respect, will you? I know that’s pretty difficult for an American.

June 22, 2005 @ 2:07 am | Comment

I must point out that the CCp is still essentially communist.
Basic fact is that there is now a social welfare network accessible to every local urban resident whereas there were none before 1990s, though then there have always been millions of jobless.
Some will argue that educational and medical budgets are reduced. The facts are the educational and facilities have been hugely improved, and teachers and medical workers are now among the income groups above the average.
Some here praise the merits of barefoot doctor program and education and medical care before 1990s. I will raise a doubt that you would really trust on yourselves a barefoot doctor who had only received a week’s training. I am not sure, either, if you would call a education system socialist while its college system was restricted to an extremely small number of elites, in comparison to the today’s that now accommodates almost half of the high school graduates.
I can fully understand why the CCp keep quiet on ideology. Just listen to every pro-China loby in your homeland parliarment. One of the most important argument is that “China is not any more communist, so it will not export revolution, and so it is harmless.” Indeed, in an era after the collapse of the USSR, if communists are still insisting on their political correctness, they are virtually courting embargo and direct military threat. Keep the pictures of Cuba and North Korea in your mind!

June 22, 2005 @ 2:08 am | Comment

Does ‘China-bashing’ mean saying anything about China which does not include one or more of the following:

‘China invented everything’
‘I love China’ and/or
‘The Chinese economy is awesome man’.

Just asking.

June 22, 2005 @ 2:32 am | Comment

I think China is neat, neat, neat! It’s cheap and the girls sure are purty.The food is wonderful. China also has the best political system in the world. The people are kind AND honest. Oh, and the environmental awareness! Also, those Brits got nuthin’ on the Chinese in the manners department.You can spit ,steal, lie,cheat, etc…. It’s like paradise on earth.I am formally renouncing my Americaness. I would be a fool not to.That wasn’t so difficult afterall. I can only hope in 4800 years America will acheive such greatness. Actually San Francisco has better egg rolls.Oh,I’m sorry for the China bashing.

June 22, 2005 @ 2:59 am | Comment

American Man

Ha ha! Wicked, you wicked man you!

I’m with you on the lying and cheating. In the China business-world you can say, do, don’t do, promise to do something when you clearly have no internion of doing it, lie about anything you like, grab as much money you like, cheat, deceive, the list goes on….and it’s called being a clever and astute businessman!

Re Mao, I think in schools people are taught to revere him as being responsible for throwing off the yolk of the Japanese (not true), liberating China from the evil foreign aggressors (again not true), establishing a strong and proud PRC (laughably untrue) and putting China on the road to it’s current modernisation (!!!!!).

Remeber that for us to talk abotu Mao as I just did above is easy but to mainland Chinese, they have heaps of emotional and cultural baggage to carry with them as well as it’s their motherland.

I think therefore that the subject of Mao in history for Chinese people is extremely complicated for these very reasons.

June 22, 2005 @ 3:14 am | Comment

Mao is great because Mao won. It’s as simple as that. He is “wei da”. Look at Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty … even the historian of the age hated him, and pretty much everything we know about him comes from Sima Qian’s slanderous work … yet today, he is always remembered as one of China’s great rulers. Why? Because he lasted a long time, and he expanded China’s borders. He might have emptied the state’s coffers, and impoverished its people, and made government control of the people more oppressive … but what they hey … he was a great man, after all.

June 22, 2005 @ 3:46 am | Comment

I was being serious. Everyone knows Americans don’t “Do” sarcasm.

June 22, 2005 @ 3:47 am | Comment

From Other Blogs Around The Horn…

In other words, what I’ve been catching up on…
The Daou Report has been redesigned. Still great, and even better looking now.

June 22, 2005 @ 5:28 am | Comment


I admire your courage in offending your collegues. I don’t think average American employees would dare to do that in their daily work.

June 22, 2005 @ 8:12 am | Comment

Speaking of showing respect, I wish zhj had shown a little by reading a few posts here before tossing a drive-by “china-basher” bomb. Sheesh.

But that’s nothing compared to the damage to my funny bone inflicted by “Kid Gloves” Hank and the American Man. Oy! 🙂

Okay, time to slouch back to my crude barbarian hut to eat some hamburgers.

June 22, 2005 @ 8:22 am | Comment

I think that ‘Take down the portrait’ could be a great rhetorical slogan for proponents of democracy in China, because the authorities simply cannot do it under the present circumstances. To take down the portrait implies an abdication of any claim to authority. My experience had been that since 1989, Mao has been and continues to be rehabiltated in China. Talking to my students, he is the overwhelming choice for the greatest ever Chinese leader – I don’t think they would have responded in the same way 15 years ago. It is definitely not as simple as taking down the picture and moving on; they can’t. Mao goes, they go, and they know it.

Posted by: rwillmsen at June 21, 2005 07:27 PM

Support you,rwillmsen

June 22, 2005 @ 8:25 am | Comment


I don’t recall anyone bashing China, zhj. Unless you feel that Mao=China. I see a lot of Mao bashing, but I would hardly say you can single out Americans for Mao bashing. I have known Chinese who would do the same.

June 22, 2005 @ 8:47 am | Comment

In China dey eats da funny bone.

June 22, 2005 @ 8:49 am | Comment

Oggy!,Oggy!,Oggy!,Oink!,Oink!,Oink! Oggeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, The Ogmonster.

June 22, 2005 @ 9:03 am | Comment

Will the witch who turned Gareth into a pig please change him back so we can understand what the **** he’s talking about?

June 22, 2005 @ 10:11 am | Comment


We appear to have a large British contingent on The Peking Duck.

Gareth is referring to ‘The Office’ – a BBC spoof sit-com TV programme. ‘Gareth’ is one of the characters in the show and one of his friends is called the Ogmonster.

June 22, 2005 @ 10:25 am | Comment

Well done Martyn, But I Am Actually American Man.Bring on the irony, my British brothers. Gotcha!

June 22, 2005 @ 11:37 am | Comment

Thank you Luke, but this isn’t the average American workplace with average American colleagues. Hence, my unusual response–I wouldn’t call it courage. Just exercising reciprocity in retorting–but maybe that’s not average here–especially when it disagrees with the majority. Perhaps I should hop on the bandwagon of revisionism.

June 22, 2005 @ 5:41 pm | Comment

why single out americans in regards to “going with the flow” at the office? I’m not sure it’s an American trait. Luke, have you had lots of experience with American colleagues being overly anxious not to offend colleagues with wayward or different political opinions? I feel like that’s more a Japanese stereotype than an American one. Please do tell.

June 22, 2005 @ 7:37 pm | Comment

“Perhaps I should hop on the bandwagon of revisionism.” – Hank

Haha, I can’t see it mate. I just don’t think that’s “you” somehow!

June 22, 2005 @ 8:36 pm | Comment

I’ve seen a couple of episodes of the office … but these references are going straight over my head …

June 23, 2005 @ 4:40 am | Comment

Hank, Lao Wai,

My comment was just based on my six year experience in America. I just feel average Americans are polite and respect each other’s opinion and eager to make friends. It might just that my sample is too small.


June 23, 2005 @ 7:49 am | Comment

Luke, your point is a valid one, and I hope that you didn’t see my reaction here in China as a rude one or a threatening one; it’s just that sometimes, I am torn between taking a passive role to everything around me–to be polite, or taking a more reactionary position. The later postion isn’t done to be rude, but merely to offer an opposing viewpoint, one that I feel strongly about, so much so that I express it.

I feel quite a lot of times here that an opposing viewpoint especially if it’s postulated by a foreigner, isn’t held in high regard if it goes against the very grain of what’s been instilled and commonly held as fact here by the majority of mainland Chinese.

I do realize that sometimes, at least from my foreign point of view, that Chinese are also torn between a great deal of inferiority and superiority which tends to be exacerbated by their media and education here on the mainland.

Again, my own education back home in the states can be guilty of the same influence– that is, we tend to examine everything through an analogous comparison with our own democratic system with no forethought about history, demographics, or a country’s own endemic programs.

So, the following is perhaps a good example of my own inculturation:

I find that when one asks me what I think about Mao Ze Dong, when I see his picture on Chinese money, lighters, and statues and still highly regarded here in the culture, I began to wonder WTF? As Richard pointed out in his article the man led some incredibly insensitive programs that led to the starvation, torture, and execution of Chinese people.

Americans tend to express their opinions openly and they can certainly be very diverse in their point of views, and even if they agree, they still don’t necessarily agree about everything. I think, however, you were perhaps wondering if what I posted was wise in light of the workplace here–that maybe I was in danger of alienating my Chinese colleagues with an opposing point of view because they would have tended to take my opinion as rude. Maybe this is a big difference between cultures, but it’s hard to say, at least it is for me. They asked. I told them. I didn’t candy coat my answer. Maybe I should have, but I couldn’t. I know from my own wife’s family experience what was done to them. I won’t share details. So, I took liberties as a foreigner in a highly closed culture to express my opinion.

The real fact is, most didn’t give two hoots about what I said. If I had said it in the US, I dare say the reaction would have probably been the same.

You asked a valid question, and a question that gave me a great room for thought.

Thank you, Luke.

June 23, 2005 @ 9:22 am | Comment

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