Today’s Glitzy China, Built on Yesterday’s Graveyards
Western visitors to Beijing usually start at the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. On my first day here, I found myself at a very different site: the Museum of the People’s Liberation Army.
What a mob scene! The huge square in front of the Stalin-era museum was thronged with senior citizens disgorged from tour buses. A huge line queued at the entry point. Inside, people jostled and elbowed their way past exhibits of antique tanks and howitzers, captured Japanese sabres and Korean War-vintage jets.
Unlike other Beijing attractions, here almost every visitor except for my companions and myself was Chinese. Most looked of an age to have served in Korea themselves.
Venture beyond the great hall, and suddenly you were cast back into China’s totalitarian past: statues of Red Guard militants, Socialist Realist portraits of Chairman Mao striding into the future, explanatory wall panels (in English and Chinese) explicating the heroic history of the Communist Party.
This junk spilled over a dozen large rooms. As I wandered deeper, I noticed that I was very suddenly alone, or nearly so. Did the Mao material repel those who had endured his rule? Or did the material just bore its intended audience: old dusty legends irrelevant to modern times?
Either way, such a reaction would make sense. Everything good that has happened in China over the past three decades has come from discarding and reversing Mao’s destructive legacy.
But as the museum reminds, much of that legacy remains in effect—and none of it has been formally repudiated. Mao’s picture still overhangs Tiananmen Square, still defaces the currency. The museum-goers may turn their backs on the myth of communist heroics, but the lies depicted in the museum continue to be repeated in the school curriculum. An expert from the U.S. embassy explains that every university still houses a Department of Marxism-Leninism studies, and every university student must complete a required course in the subject.
How much influence does this indoctrination exert? Very little, it might seem. China is a land overwhelmingly devoted to money-making and money-spending. Today’s “long march” is the march through the country’s colossal glittering shopping centres.
And yet at the same time as Chinese people live raw capitalism, the only stories they hear of China’s recent past are those that represent Mao as a hero and his revolution as a triumph. How do people make sense of a world like that?
Can they somehow try to believe two contradictory things at the same time: that Mao was a great leader—and also that China has escaped poverty by repudiating everything Mao ever stood for?
Or do they deaden their minds, stop asking questions, mumble the slogans and live without thinking?
There can hardly be a living Chinese who has not suffered some horrible family loss directly attributable to Mao’s decisions. It’s plausibly estimated that Mao’s reckless rule caused somewhere above 40 million excess deaths, half of them during the terrible famine caused by Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” of 1958-61, when private farming was banned and peasants were ordered instead to make steel in their backyards.
Yet nobody is allowed to mention these things. This is a country of forcibly silenced victims. Rising prosperity is supposed to heal the unmentionable old wounds, yet everybody can see that the greatest share of the prosperity is seized by the former victimizers. Everybody can see it, but nobody may say it.
It’s a grim irony: The huge magnitude of Mao’s crimes is sometimes cited as a reason for forgetting those crimes. If this society ever allowed itself to talk about who suffered what—and who did what—it would open itself to an explosion of recrimination and revenge. The translator who asks $10 to guide you through the Forbidden City might have been a university professor if his education had not been arbitrarily halted during the Cultural Revolution. The billionaire who travels in a fleet of Mercedes limousines made his fortune from control of land that was confiscated from somebody else’s grandfather. The old peasant riding the rural bus may have beat the driver’s mother to death in a village purge; the construction worker who lives in an illegal dormitory because he lacks city residency may be the child of a city-dweller sent to a labour camp in an anti-deviationist campaign.
How do you begin to do justice in these cases? But how does a society cohere and advance on the basis of the silent disregard of such massive, horrible and unexpiated wrong?