NEW YORK - With world attention focused this week on the phony `missile crisis’ with Iran and Germany’s dull as sauerkraut election, China’s upcoming birthday bash has so far been largely ignored. We should pay attention to this very important event.
October 1st marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Beijing’s mammoth birthday fete will include China’s largest ever military parade showcasing new weapons, and an Olympic-size gala. Ninety percent of the weapons to be shown are said to never before have been shown in public.
With typical Communist Party grandiosity, efforts are even being made to improve Beijing’s weather.
Off in Washington, party pooper US Defense Secretary Robert Gates just warned China’s growing military power `threatens our freedom of movement and narrows our strategic options.’ Translation: the US Seventh Fleet can no longer operate with impunity off China’s coast or be certain of defending Taiwan from a Chinese invasion.
China is reasserting its historic sovereignty. It seems inevitable that China will relentlessly push US power back into the Pacific. But this strategic development became inevitably with the return of China to the major power status it had enjoyed until 1800, when this great nation fell into a grim era of self-isolation, political weakness, and revolution.
I first came to China in 1975 during the madness of the Great Cultural Revolution. During my travels across China over the ensuing three decades, I saw China transformed from a giant, dimly-lit prison camp into today’s booming nation, which just surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy.
This is the most remarkable event I have seen in my life.
Much of the credit goes to China’s late leader, Deng Xiaoping, one of the 20th century’s greatest men. He ended Marxist dogma, releasing the energy of his long-suffering people whose nation had been raped by western and Japanese imperialism, then ravaged by brutal civil wars and destructive Marxist policies.
But a ghost will haunt this celebration: the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong. What to make of him?
I have long struggled to understand Mao. Was he modern history’s greatest revolutionary and an earth-shaker, or a demented mass murderer who nearly destroyed China, as his critics claim?
Great times produce great men. Mao rose from the chaos of 1920’s China to lead the newfound Communist Party. He fought Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, an assortment of powerful regional warlords, and, later, Japanese invaders.
China suffered some 15-20 million dead from 1928-1949.
Mao was an accomplished poet, writer and historian, a profound thinker, and a superb military strategist. His works on guerilla war sit on my desk. Mao crushed the US-backed Nationalist’s 4.3-million strong armies in a series of titanic battles.
Mao gave the Communists political and strategic direction. Aiding him were a group of outstanding generals – the `Ten Marshals’ – among them Zhu De, Lin Piao, Peng Dehui, Chen Yi and Nie Rongzhen – who crushed Chiang Kai-shek’s armies. Most westerners know nothing about China’s epic eight-year struggle against Japan, or its long civil war.
The Great Helmsman united fractured, war-torn China for the first time in centuries, restoring its pride and self-confidence after two centuries of humiliation. Mao thwarted both Soviet and US efforts to turn China into a client state, and built up China’s military power.
But Mao’s crackpot economic notions, notably the infamous 1958 Great Leap Forward, created famines that killed 20-36 million Chinese peasants. `Red Emperor’ Mao was prodigal with his people’s lives, and, according to aides who were close to him, was shockingly indifferent to their suffering. Many senior officials worried about the deification of Mao and its effects upon the Great Helmsman.
Mao horrified even brutal Soviet leaders by saying he was prepared to lose half his people to emerge victorious from a nuclear war.
When the Communist Party resisted Mao, he tried to destroy it by unleashing the Great Cultural Revolution. China was plunged into chaos and civil war. China’s brilliant, much under-rated premier, Zhou Enlai, curbed some of Mao’s worst excesses, thwarted the party’s hard left, and rescued China by engineering Deng Xiaoping into power.
Deng crushed die-hard Maoists known as the Gang of Four, and restored order. His sweeping economic reforms revitalized China, unleashing its latent economic power. But Deng’s great achievements – and this week’s huge birthday party in Beijing - would not have been possible without Mao’s unification of China and imposition of an all-powerful one-party state.
So, as with many Chinese, I’m uncertain how to qualify Chairman Mao. I stand in awe of his achievements and brilliance, but cannot forget the suffering he inflicted on China.
Like Stalin – once called `half man, half beast’ - Mao appealed as much as he repelled. Most Chinese now regard Mao as their nation’s beloved, respected father -but who went dangerously senile before his death in 1976. The egos of old dictator and king can be very dangerous.
I suspect as time goes by, Mao’s misdeeds, like Stalin’s, will fade away and he will again be glorified as China’s greatest modern ruler. The glowing image of the Great Helmsman will continue to hang over the gate of the Beijing’s Forbidden City.
China will continue its real Great Leap Forward.