How Now Mao?

Ross Terrill has a piece (may be blocked in the PRC) in the Wilson Quarterly on all things Mao. It’s a longish piece, worth a quick read. Terrill’s ideas are rather well known and won’t come as a particular shock to TPD readers who have discussed the subject of Terrill and Mao back and forth on numerous occasions.

I did find one passage however rather interesting and perhaps worthy of conversation. Terrill wants to know why the Chinese have been so quick to embrace “Mao the cultural icon” and so quick to forget “Mao the brutal dictator.” Terrill argues that it is part of a larger process by which “New Chinese Man” wishes to forget politics in general and to wish away the presence of the state as a factor in his daily life. (Terrill even goes so far as to connect this with the anti-state traditions found in some Daoist writings.) This, Terrill further argues, was part of the overall transition from the Mao to the Deng eras:

In subsequent years, the totalitarian party-state became an authoritarian party-state. Under totalitarianism, it is said, many things are forbidden and the remaining things you must do; under authoritarianism, many things are forbidden and the remaining things you may do. Today, the retention of power and economic development, rather than the pursuit of ideological phantoms, is the drive around which the political process arranges itself. With Mao’s ‘new’ Chinese man gone, the ‘old’ Chinese man of family values and entrepreneurial spirit seems alive and ­well.

The passing of totalitarianism has brought into view some tentative realms of freedom, including partial property rights and the beginnings of autonomy for lawyers, journalists, and other professionals. Above all, there now exists for most people the freedom to ignore politics. Yet the institutionalization of the new space opening up for Chinese citizens has barely begun.”

Terrill is right to be pessimistic towards the “New Chinese Man’s” wish that the state simply leave him be. But the presence of cracks, those spaces that Terrill refers to as “tenative realms of freedom,” suggest some glimmer of optimism as well. What to make of this?

Discussing the evolution of Mao’s own ideas on “freedom” Terrill writes:

Yet Mao’s impulse toward freedom was crippled at its heart. What is freedom for the individual? One viable form is freedom to act as you please as long as you do not inhibit a like freedom for others. A second notion is that an individual is free to the degree she is able to realize herself. The mature Mao believed in neither of these two concepts of freedom, though he was closer to the second than to the first. He knew the kind of citizens he wanted in China. It was not for each person to realize himself, but for all to become suitable building blocks for Mao’s Chinese update of Sparta.

So here we have Terrill defining Mao’s possible definitions of “freedom,” one of those words for which so many people have their own definition. Kris Kristofferson (via Janis Joplin) had his. I suppose one’s views of freedom’s “tentative realms” in China depends on one’s own definition of the term. I wonder, though, how the word might be defined by today’s Chinese? Would it accord with a “Western” notion (if such a thing could even be said to exist) of the word? Is China more “free” now than 10 years ago and is this a trend that is likely to continue? Let’s put it out there, shall we?

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 3 Comments

I am not even going to begin trying to answer the tough questions you pose, but I will make the observation on how it has always fascinated me how very bright Chinese people do tend to completely downplay the role of the state. I have never known what to make of this. Is this just the long-held belief that the emperor is far away? Is it just that as elites, the government reallly does not matter. Terrill might be making some very good points here.

January 29, 2007 @ 2:38 pm | Comment

Damn — I was going to post this! And then I got lazy. I liked Terrill’s piece, though I thought his connections to Daoism were pretty tenuous.

As for how people would define “freedom”: I’ve found that there’s a category of Chinese males who go over to the US and come back with their own interpretation of the American Dream, one that almost invariably involves gambling and strippers. I hear them talking about what a great country the US is, and damn if it doesn’t bring a tear to my eye every time.

January 29, 2007 @ 2:41 pm | Comment

Thanks for that link, which opens here in Beijing. What really opens, however, is a can of worms. I’ve been struggling with these questions for years.

Maybe the answer to CLB’s question about how the average successful Chinese manages to compartmentalize the state out of his conscience is that it’s a way to keep sane. If you don’t do it, wouldn’t you simply implode in misery? Perhaps it’s really the only way to keep one’s sanity, to selectively block and excise and color over.

I was going to post on this very topic yesterday but, as so often happens nowadays, I got distracted by work. It’s almost impossible for China’s elite, including Westerners here like me, to reconcile the vast divide between the “two Chinas” and other government-generated horror stories, and so a survival mechanism kicks in, allowing us to ignore and forget and dismiss. I’m not saying this is bad. I do it, too. I have to. When I try to come to grips with it, the pain is too acute and I give up. Can we carry the world on our shoulders? Lately, I’ve been amazed at my own capacity to forgive the CCP’s malfeasances and look the other way. But I have to live herem and this time I want to live here with my sanity intact. Have I sold out? No answer yet; I’m thinking about it.

January 29, 2007 @ 10:52 pm | Comment

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