Aside from the bland icon of the new China, there is a much more dangerous Mao, whose ideas retain their vitality
The Guardian, Tue 19 Jul 2011 19.33 BST
In 2008 in Beijing I met the Chinese novelist Yu Hua shortly after he had returned from Nepal, where revolutionaries inspired by Mao Zedong had overthrown a monarchy. A young Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, Yu Hua, like many Chinese of his generation, has extremely complicated views on Mao. Still, he was astonished, he told me, to see Nepalese Maoists singing songs from his Maoist youth – sentiments he never expected to hear again in his lifetime.
In fact, the success of Nepalese Maoists is only one sign of the "return" of Mao. In central India armed groups proudly calling themselves Maoists control a broad swath of territory, fiercely resisting the Indian government's attempts to make the region's resource-rich forests safe for the mining operations that, according to a recent report in Foreign Policy magazine, "major global companies like Toyota and Coca-Cola" now rely on.
And – as though not to be outdone by Mao's foreign admirers – some Chinese have begun to carefully deploy Mao's still deeply ambiguous memory in China. Texting Mao's sayings to mobile phones, broadcasting "Red" songs from state-owned radio and television, and sending college students to the countryside, Bo Xilai, the ambitious communist party chief of the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, is leading an unexpected Mao revival in China.
It was the "return" of Marx, rather than of Mao, that was much heralded in academic and journalistic circles after the financial crisis of 2008. And it is true that Marxist theorists, rather than Marx himself, clearly anticipated the problems of excessive capital accumulation, and saw how eager and opportunistic investors cause wildly uneven development across regions and nations, enriching a few and impoverishing many others. But Mao's "Sinified" and practical Marxism, which includes a blueprint for armed rebellion, appears to speak more directly to many people in poor countries.
It is tempting to denounce Mao as a monster, and to dismiss the Maoists of today as no less criminally deluded than Peru's Shining Path guerillas, or the Khmer Rouge. Certainly, the scale of the violence Mao inflicted on China dwarfs all other crimes and disasters committed during the course of nation-building in the last two centuries. But political and economic modernisers elsewhere also exacted a terrible human cost from their allegedly backward peoples. In the last century alone, millions died due to political conflict or hunger and were brutally dispossessed and culturally deracinated in a huge area of Asian territory, from Turkey and Iran to Indonesia and Taiwan.
Every nation state whitewashes the abominations of its founders. The influence, however, of the earliest postcolonial nation-builders is severely limited today. Hardly anyone looks up Sukarno's Pancasila for political guidance, or derive inspiration, as Nasser and Jinnah once did, from Ataturk's republican nationalism. So denunciations of Mao don't go very far in explaining his enduring appeal inside and outside China.
That said, there seems little mystery to the invocation of Mao by a new generation of Chinese leaders, who recently also tapped into Confucius as a source of ideological legitimacy. The recourse to Mao is an example of the expedient populism that insecure ruling classes resort to. As an icon of the new China, Mao seems as bland as the basketball player Yao Ming and the French Open tennis champion Li Na. But for many people outside China there is another, much more dangerous, Mao – and he isn't the rash instigator of the Great Leap Forward or the cynical perpetrator of the Cultural Revolution, either. For them, as Yu Hua writes in a forthcoming book, "what Mao did in China is not so important – what matters is that his ideas retain their vitality and, like seeds planted in receptive soil, 'strike root, flower, and bear fruit'."
Mao set out these portable ideas well before his disastrous reign as quasi-emperor of China. Indeed, his diagnosis of, and proposed cure for, China's pre-revolutionary maladies in such tracts as "Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan" (1927), "On Guerrilla Warfare" (1937) and "On Protracted War" (1938) were what gave him his decisive advantage over his many Chinese rivals.
Early in his career he identified a nexus between feudal elites in the hinterland and capitalists in the semi-colonial coastal cities as the enemy, and then successfully mobilised a "people's" army to break it. Mao's theory and praxis was always likely to have greater appeal than classical, urban-oriented Marxism in many agrarian countries, where tiny elites held down, often with foreign assistance, a population consisting largely of peasants.
Nearly half a century ago, nationalist groups in Vietnam and Cuba successfully realised Mao's strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside. Now it is economic globalisers, encircling the countryside from the cities, who provide a freshly receptive soil for Mao's theory and praxis. Far from being rendered irrelevant, they have become attractive again to many people who feel actively victimised rather than simply "left behind" by an expansionist capitalism.
A case in point is the Maoist insurgency in the forests of central India, which feeds on the Indian government's ruthless drive to open up the region's great mineral reserves to private and multinational corporations. Indian Maoists mouthing Mao Zedong's rhetoric about local "compradors" and foreign imperialists may appear to be pathetic dead-enders to those who imagine everyone will at some point settle down to loving liberal democracy and the iPad. But the Maoists, though often corrupt and brutal, have found a large constituency among millions of indigenous peoples (Adivasis), for whom even the fragile security of a subsistence economy has been destroyed by the nexus between global corporations and their Indian enforcers.
The Indian writer Shashank Kela points to a crucial fact about Indian Maoism and its Adivasi rank and file: "It is the circumstances of their lives rather than its ideology that push its followers into a desperate, last-ditch battle with the state in preference to dispossession." As Kela writes, "mining and heavy industry displaced Adivasi communities, destroyed their livelihoods, failed to give them jobs and cut them loose to join the swelling workforce of migrant labourers, a sea of impoverished, overworked human beings, reduced to accepting the worst-paid jobs in city and countryside".
It is far from clear how the Maoist insurgency, and its attempted suppression by Indian paramilitaries, who have claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past decade, will end. After their overthrow of the monarchial state, Nepal's Maoists went on to participate in elections. Indian Maoists are unlikely to give up armed resistance any time soon.
And the Indian state may find it impossible to suppress them militarily. That the benefits of economic globalisation will abruptly start flowing to its biggest victims is even less conceivable in the forests of central India than in the post-industrial cities of midwestern America. "There is not the slightest chance," Kela writes of the Maoist Adivasis, one of the peoples rendered superfluous by industrial capitalism, "that they will ever become a factory proletariat". A long and bloody stalemate beckons; and, while Maoism may be reduced to near-meaninglessness as state doctrine in China, it seems certain that many corners of the world are likely to remain Maoist for a very long time.