Mao Kitsch - Mass Murderer as Pop Icon


On a recent trip to Beijing, China, I visited the usual tourist spots including Tiananmen Square, only blocks from my hotel. This grand plaza, the largest in the world (my guide proudly informed me), is probably best known in the West as the place where the democracy movement was crushed by the Chinese government in 1989. It is also the site where Mao Zedong triumphantly announced the creation of the "People's Republic of China" in 1949, and where he launched the "Cultural Revolution" in the sixties, whereby he maintained the "purity" of his revolution by imprisoning, torturing, or murdering anyone with a dissenting thought or two.

One would never know the suffering this man caused his nation or how deeply his ghastly policies set it back by the odd reverence with which the Chinese still regard him. At his mausoleum on Tiananmen Square, where his embalmed corpse has lain since his death in 1976, long lines of Chinese wait hours each day to pay homage to him. Still dominating the square, the center of the Chinese cosmos, is the large portrait of the Chairman at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, just before entering the Forbidden City. It is to this quasi-altar that thousands of Chinese flock to be photographed before his paternalistic image. And there is no end of Mao memorabilia. Popular among tourists, Western and Chinese visitors quickly buy up Mao hats, watches, and key chains along with red books of his "Quotations."

While it is perhaps understandable (if still unfortunate) that Chinese society, still under Communist rule, carries on as if Mao performed admirably on its behalf despite a record of almost unimaginable cruelty, it begs one's tolerance to see Westerners who should know better, dumbly purchasing and proudly displaying Mao t-shirts, as if he were one of their heroes, too. Would they be as eager to sport apparel emblazoned with images of Hitler, Stalin, or any of history's other great mass murderers? But this phenomenon is well known in the West where other notable leftist killers and dictators (think Che Guevara and Fidel Castro) enjoy great cachet despite similarly violent records.

The lid, however, has been lifted on Mao's gruesome history in a recent volume by Jung Chang and husband, Jon Halliday, entitled, "Mao: the Unknown Story," which catalogues the sad litany of crimes and carnage the dictator unfurled upon his countrymen in the name of Marxist-Leninism - and consolidating his own power. From the very beginning, he worked hand in glove with Stalin and the Soviets. He deliberately provoked Japan into invading China to steer them from Russia and to weaken nationalist forces, paving the way for his ultimate victory. The "Hundred Flowers" campaign was a sinister ploy to expose and eliminate political opponents. The "Great Leap Forward," a disastrous attempt to impose his vision of collectivist society on an ancient people with tragic consequences including mass starvation. "The Cultural Revolution," was another heinous scheme to disfigure Chinese culture and tradition, which he despised, and to destroy his enemies. The final tally for the Chairman: 70 million dead, the worst of the twentieth century. So why would anyone want to buy a Mao key chain?

In China, the Communist Party still governs and until that unhappy reality is altered there is unlikely to be an acknowledgement or repudiation of the Mao record. Indeed, the current regime is in essence the same as Mao's - the arbitrary rule, the gulags, censorship, and police killings all persist along with the plundering of state assets by parasitic Chinese Communists who advertise great concern for the poor - and do nothing for them. But for the sake of the millions who have died at their hands - and for the soul of the nation - China should be pressured to face up to its past. And Mao, like Solzhenitsyn's landmark Gulag Archipelago for Soviet Communism, delivers a powerful blow.

In the West, Left-leaning academics, in their hypocrisy, have likewise been delinquent in exposing adequately the bloodletting habits of Mao; they have, if anything, been sympathetic. As fellow travelers only marginally critical of his tactics, they share a kinship with him and his ilk - and a general disappointment that with the demise of the Soviet Union, the Communist enterprise has fallen on rocky times. It is, after all, not bloodthirsty tyrants that preoccupy them as the central focus of evil in the world - but the US. By refusing to engage the totalitarian horrors of Mao and other leftist murderers with anything like the vigor reserved for Hitler (or the US), they have bequeathed us a generation of gullible tourists who regard the butcher as little more than a fashionable pop icon.


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