Travelling to the birthplace of Mao Zedung with Tsinghua University, Horace Campbell finds himself considering the foundations the revolutionary leader laid for contemporary China, and the conflict the country now faces in balancing economic growth and environmental protection.
Last weekend, 18-22 November, our department, the Department of International Relations of Tsinghua University took a school trip to Changsha and Shaoshan in Hunan Province, the birthplace of Mao Zedong. Mao, known to many older non-Chinese as Mao Tse-Tung was one of the great revolutionary leaders of the 20th century who led the Chinese Communist Party to a tortuous victory in 1949. Sixty years ago, the writings and teachings of Mao were very popular, especially his dictum that:
'Revolution is not a dinner party, nor an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.'
As a Chinese leader who had emerged out of civil wars and revolutions, the Little Red Book of Mao had been popular in the 1960s. In a new era of revolution, (now expressed in the protracted battles in Egypt with reverberations around the world) this trip afforded us to reflect collectively on the contribution of Mao, despite the fact that his legacy is bound up with controversies on the paths forward for the transformation of China in the 21st century.
Although many in China and in the West seek to disfigure his contributions to revolutionary thought, it is important that in this era of the intellectual and political ferment unleashed by the capitalist depression, we are able to grasp the strength and weaknesses of Mao in order to build on the positive contributions that were made in relation to revolutionary theory and practice. Socialist values and the new culture that appreciates humans over commodities are now being discussed in a period of anxiety and uncertainties.
As we travelled on Lake Dongting Hu and appreciated the majestic architecture and art of the old Yueyang Lou Tower along the shore, we could see the traffic on this lake with the hundreds of barges transporting sand and coal on the water highway in the middle of China. This striking hothouse of commercial and industrial activity was an indication of the economic engine of China working overtime.
But this activity brought to my mind the realities of coal-fired energy and that China is now the world's number one air polluter. This question of CO2 emissions underlined one of the primary questions of contemporary China, that is, the energy use is part of a wider carpet that is leading to the destruction of the planet earth. I reflected on how such intense activity is forcing humans to retreat from the 'growth' and 'modernisation' mantra.
When we returned to Beijing we read the news that the government had published a 'White Paper on China's Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change.' Grounded in the language of 'mitigating climate change,' this White Paper spelt out great plans for the building of a Green Economy and creation of over 9.5 million new jobs in the next five years. This document prepared for next week's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban is comprehensive, but the plans embedded in this new direction cannot go forward without a major debate on the priorities for the construction of a society beyond capitalism. As the editorial in China Daily correctly noted on November 23:
'For such a populous developing country such as China, the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection has never been so intense. That 70 per cent of China's rivers have been polluted to different degrees reveals the propensity of many local governments to prioritize economic growth at the expense of environmental protection during the last two decades. '
On this trip we saw the practical example of the impact of the 'modernisation and industrialisation' based on 19th and 20th century technologies as we sailed on Dongting Hu in Hunan Province.
It is my contention that this trip to the birthplace of Mao was and is inscribed in the debate on what kind of society China will build as China's rise impact on Asia and the rest of the world. It is in the interest of all progressive persons to engage this internal debate in China because the politics of China will have a decisive influence on international politics in the next three generations.
OUR JOURNEY TO SHANGSHA
As we boarded the bus that took all 16 of us from Tsinghua University to the Beijing West Railway station, I could not but reflect on the values of cooperation that are still surviving in the People's Republic of China. I was looking at this assemblage of faculty, members of staff and two children and wondered if a dean in our university in Syracuse, New York would consider a university-supported excursion to the birthplace of a great US revolutionary such as John Brown, Abraham Lincoln or Harriet Tubman.
I shared this observation with my colleague Martin Jacques who was until this week another short-term visiting faculty member in the School of International Relations. I had been sharing an office with Jacques who is the author of 'When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order'. Jacques, also the former editor of British publication, 'Marxism Today' has been in China reflecting on how to update his book for the paperback edition.
Thus among the 16 people on the trip, there were faculty and staff from differing ideological and political persuasions, from free market (cut taxes) ideas of the US conservatives to old line cadres of the party school of the Chinese Communist Party. Both Martin and I grasped the importance of the intellectual leadership of Shi Zhiqin, professor and chancellor of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and dean of the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University. During the journeys it was clear that here was a scholar who wanted his school to be built with the understanding of differing intellectual traditions in the current world, yet one who supported a new internationalism and solidarity with peoples of the world.
We travelled overnight by train to Shangsha Railway Station in Hunan Province. Hunan Province, situated in the Yangtze River valley area of China, is famous for its rich agricultural traditions; its name ('South of a lake') is derived from the geographic location in China, lying to the south of Dongting Lake, one of the three largest lakes in China. Bordering five provinces, it was one of the strong revolutionary bases in the anti-imperialist struggles from 1931-1949. We learnt from our colleagues the importance of this province in Chinese history and culture.
Separated into different cabins, sleeping four to a cabin, the wide-ranging discussions reflected the optimism of people who lived in a society with a project. This project, one which is to transform China, has been built on the thousand year's history of China with the most recent foundations of the Maoist period of China. Whatever the intellectual and ideological view of our group, we shared the view that Mao Zedong was an important historical figure and our pilgrimage was a testament to this fact.
Some played cards, the children played games and the train rolled on through the night. When the lights were turned on there was the discussion on the birthplace of Mao and the contribution of Mao to building the present Chinese society. Our two young Chinese colleagues who were in the cabin with Jacques and I preferred to sing revolutionary and nationalistic songs. The song that was sung with gusto was 'Liuyang He', the popular Chinese song with a theme that relates to the Liuyang River and nearby village of Shaoshan where Mao Zedung was born. We learnt that this was a song sung all over and is a praise song celebrating Chairman Mao's great contribution to China. Africans are accustomed to praise songs of leaders, but it is rare to have such positive and strong support for leaders after they leave power, even more so when they depart this mortal life.
After singing a number of songs, our Chinese friends asked Jacques and I to sing some songs. Our efforts could not compare to the healthy numbers offered by our colleagues. Jacques sang the 'Internationale'; I could only muster a brief rendition of Bob Marley's 'One Love'.
The singing ended as night rolled in, with the train rushing into a new day after a 13-hour journey. We checked into a hotel near the train station in downtown Changsha and after a brief and quick breakfast and freshening up we were on the bus to Shaoshan, the birthplace of Chairman Mao.
SHAOSHAN, THE BIRTHPLACE OF CHAIRMAN MAO
We boarded a bus to go by road from Shangsha to Shaoshan City in Hunan Province, 104 kilometres away. One could see along the way the reality that China is still predominantly a peasant society. All along the 100 kilometres one could see peasants toiling in the fields. Discussion continued on the bus and the excitement was palpable as we approached Shaoshan City because again our colleagues broke out in song. There were many songs but the song 'Liuyang He' was again the one that stood out. Martin and I sang the Internationale again and as the bus approached the bronze statue of Mao, we were both singing the Internationale in English while our Chinese friends sang along in Chinese.
MAO ZEDONG BRONZE STATUE SQUARE
After this short journey we arrived at the Mao Zedong Bronze Statue Square. This square was built to mark the occasion of Mao's 100th birth anniversary in 1993 and it is located in the centre of the core scenic area of Shaoshan. Our party joined in the queue to pay our respects with the rituals associated with paying homage to Mao. There was another big party of young soldiers from the People's Liberation Army who were paying their respects. Local party officials from the town had come out to welcome our group from Tsinghua and we lined up behind two soldiers who were slow marching with a big wreath. Our group followed the established ritual with the obligatory bowing and genuflecting before this statue of Mao Zedong.
From the square we travelled to two cottages in the nearby mountains to Di Shuidong where Mao had come to retreats twice while he was the head of state, once for ten days in 1966 and another time in 1973. The two cottages, now called the Di Shuidong Museum, carry a distinct political message with the memorabilia associated with the simple and humble life that Mao followed, even while he was the head of the Communist Party of China. We walked through this museum with the modest rooms where Mao slept and hosted local party officials. One of the striking pictures on the wall was a picture of Mao with the poor peasants of Shaoshan. There was one peasant who was barefooted and Mao wrote that he wanted to be in this picture to send back a message to the party leaders about the suffering of the peasantry. This picture reminded one of one of the popular quotations of Mao, 'Let the people speak up. If they have good arguments, we listen to them; if they don't, we refute them.'
One could also see from these two cottages how the Chinese had lived in the shadow of war, as we travelled through an underground bunker that was built to protect the Chinese leader.
Of the pictures of Mao with foreign leaders, one was a picture of Mao with former President Kaunda of Zambia in 1974. I reflected that Mao would be saying I told you so, when people now speak of the sweat-shop conditions of workers in Zambia who worked in enterprises owned by contemporary Chinese capitalists.
GOING TO THE BIRTH HOME OF MAO
After lunch we went across to the other side of Shaoshan where Mao Zedong was born on 26 December 1893. Our privilege as visitors from Tsinghua University was manifest by the fact that our local party officials enabled us to escape the two-hour line to get to walk through the home where Mao grew up. Here then, our team walked through the exhibits of the conditions in which Mao and his family grew at the turn of the 20th century.
It was the home of a peasant, with rooms for pigs, cows and poultry. There are 13 and a half rooms in the former residence, which include one and a half central rooms, a kitchen, a dining room, three family bedrooms and a guest room. Within the rooms are various personal effects of Mao and his parents, as well as photos from Mao's life. This tour reinforced the importance and centrality of work in the founding worldview of Mao. There is the kitchen, where Mao often helped his mother to do housework in his childhood. Leading from the kitchen was Mao's parent's bedroom. There are two photos of Chairman Mao's parents on the inner wall, and it was in this room that he was born. There are also pictures of the brothers of Mao, Mao Zemin and Mao Zetan. Both brothers of Mao Zedong were killed in warfare, one in 1935 and the other in 1943. Both were also members of the communist party.
There was a small pond on the property. The size of the house was a clear sign that Mao was not from the poor peasantry. If one could reflect back on that time, this was middle or close to rich peasant family that from time to time employed other peasants to work, especially during harvest time. We learnt that as a youth, Mao was a voracious reader. At age 13, after five years of education in the local primary school, he was forced by his father to leave school and return to the farm. Mao continued to study on his own and at age 16 left home to complete his elementary school training in Changsha, the capital of Hunan.
It is from this visit to the farm and the land where one could discern how Mao could appreciate the importance of the peasantry in revolutionary struggles. In Europe, Marxists had determined that it was impossible to mobilise the peasantry and that the peasants were like a sack of potatoes, but Mao appreciated the fact that the China that he was growing up in did not have a large working class.
GROWING UP IN A REVOLUTIONARY ERA
From Shaoshan we boarded the bus back to Shangsha to visit the 1,000 year-old Yeulu Academy, which had been founded in AD 976 (Song Dynasty). We toured this academy, which is now part of Hunan University. When the Xinhai Revolution against the Qing Dynasty broke out in 1911, Mao joined the Revolutionary Army in Hunan. In the spring of 1912, the war ended, the Republic of China was founded and Mao left the army. Mao went back to school and finished his schooling by 1918. From our tour of Yeulu Academy we walked through the room where Mao lived and planned with Cai Hesen. The inscription said that both Mao and Hesen had planned to go to France to study but were caught up in the intellectual and revolutionary ferment of the May Fourth Movement. Mao moved from Hunan to Peking and worked briefly in the library of the University where he was introduced to the ideas of Marxism and revolution. Although he was not a student at Peking University he expended his energies on reading, writing, and talking about revolution. By the time he was 27, Mao was already a seasoned nationalist who now gravitated towards ideas of socialism. Earlier in my visit to Shanghai in August of this year I had visited the place where Mao had attended the first session of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai in 1921. Two years later when he was only 29, he was elected as one of the five commissars of the Central Committee of the Party during the third Congress session.
This is not the place to spell out the details of the life of Mao and the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party, from the period of the Long March, the struggles against the Kuomintang, the anti-imperialist wars and the eventual victory in 1949. Last week I reflected on the anti-imperialist war and the impact of the Japanese invasion. Suffice to say, it was Mao, from the humble peasant background of Shoashan, who emerged as the leader of the party and led China from 1949-76. There are still deep differences on the exact meanings of the initiatives of Mao such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Inevitably, as we moved from place to place, the full implications of the long career of Mao as a revolutionary leader came up in the discussion. There are varying opinions with the emphasis of the 'mistakes' of Mao when he became the leader of the Party. For some there is an elaborate formula on whether he was 50 per cent good and 50 per cent bad, or whether he was 20 per cent good and 80 per cent bad. It became apparent in small discussions, that the degree to which his 'mistakes' outweighed his contribution, depended on whether there was support for the idea of building a socialist project in China, a mixed market socialism or simply a recomposition of capitalism. For the Marxists from the Party school, the confusion about the place of Mao was most evident. The official line about market socialism and prosperity had taken such deformed paths that one could not have a clear discussion on the real challenges facing the building of a society with the real implications of financialisation and militarism in the midst of a capitalist depression. Whatever the balance sheet, there is universal agreement that Mao's idea of a cultural revolution had been an unmitigated disaster for the Chinese people.
The cult of the personality that had been fostered by some elements in thepParty shut down serious debate and for those Africans who were following, the ideas of Mao on Soviet Social Imperialism had implications in the foreign policy area leading to opportunists such as Jonas Savimbi proclaiming himself as a follower of Mao in opposition to the MPLA because the MPLA received support from the-then Soviet Union. One other major discussion that continues to rage is the real meaning of the impact of Stalin on the Bolshevik Revolutionary project and the relationship between Stalinism and Mao ZeDong's thought.
Today, there are still avid Maoists in Nepal and parts of India. Some of these Maoists are waging legitimate struggles but the era of debate of revolutionary struggle has diminished considerably. As an avid reader of Mao back when we were growing up in the 1960s, I consumed voraciously the ideas of Mao, especially his essays 'On Democracy,' 'On contradictions' and his ideas about 'Protracted War'. If one were to go back to read and reflect on these writings, it is most important to place these writings within the state of knowledge of the world at that time. Because China was basically a poor peasant society, the complex writings were broken down into simple maxims in the Little Red Book and there was for some the reverential attitude toward Mao as if he were a super human.
Undoubtedly, Mao had weaknesses and there are those who will highlight these, but for younger people, it is important to study the works and ideas of Mao Ze Dong, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Amilcar Cabral and the other great revolutionaries of the 20th century. Today in the new period of revolutionary change it is urgent to study the meaning of revolution and the idea that 'A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another'.
The new revolutionary moment in world history is testing the idea that revolution must be an act of violence. In this era, there are now protracted revolutionary struggles that will not go away and one can interrogate Mao's dictum that, 'Every just, revolutionary war is endowed with tremendous power and can transform many things or clear the way for their transformation.'
I would exchange the word war for movement today to say that every revolutionary movement is endowed with tremendous power and can transform many things or clear the way for their transformation.
CLEARING THE WAY FOR TRANSFORMATION
Since the revolution in 1949, Chinese society has been going through the zigs and zags and twists and turns of a society that has undergone revolutionary change. One fundamental outcome out of these struggles has been a rise in the standard of living of the ordinary Chinese. Every international body has acknowledged that under socialism, China has lifted the largest number of persons out of exploitation and 'poverty.' The elements of raising the standard of living include near universal access to primary education and free education for all levels in society, up to university, seeking to ensure universal housing, abolishing unemployment and inflation, increasing health care access, and dramatically raising life expectancy.
The debate of Chinese rise and economic transformation is raging in all parts of the world but I am partial to the interventions of Samir Amin who has studied the impressive growth of China. In an essay on Post-Maoist China, Amin noted:
'Without the achievements and foundations of the Maoist period, the contemporary miracle would have been unthinkable. Besides, it is precisely because India has not undergone similar reconstructions, in spite of being far more capitalist and open to the world order than China, that it has not fared so well and continues to fail to do so at all the levels in terms of efficiency as well as in terms of social justice or independence.'
Samir Amin is communicating to a younger generation that whatever the direction of China, it cannot escape the achievements and foundations of the Maoist period. Indeed, one could see both the achievements in the impressive infrastructure of China today as we travelled the next day from Changsha to Lake Dongting, the second largest Lake in China. The Lake itself is a beehive of activity and the traffic between the Lake and the Yangtze River with the massive coal industry using this artery brought home the realities of the kind of pollution of the rivers and water supply system in China. One of the fundamental challenges of Chinese society is to transform this fossil fuel economy to the new green economy.
As we travelled on the bus back to Shangsha, there was a discussion on why the Left in Europe has been decimated by neoliberalism and the post-modern trends.
Old-style Marxist ideas of the 'development of the productive forces' and industrialisation have found fruition in China, even with the new directions on 'reform' that were offered by Deng Xiao Ping. The current global crisis, including the financial and environmental crisis is clearing the way for new transformations. One direction could be seen in the content of the new White paper on Climate Change that was put out on November 22. The party leadership continue to hide behind the statistics that on a per capita basis, the average Chinese emits just 3.5 tonnes of CO2 per year, whereas Britons emit nearly 10 tonnes and North Americans 20 tonnes each. What these statistics cannot communicate is that the Planet Earth cannot support 7 billion people emitting one ton of CO2 per year.
China's climate change efforts are on paper laudable, but there is an inherent contradiction between the ideas expressed in the White paper on Climate Change and the current rush to industrialise and modernise China in the image of North America and Western Europe. The impressive research and investment in alternative energy resources places China in a commanding position to beak from the fossil fuel trap. Indeed, with the present energy mix in the society with massive application of solar technologies, China is in a position to take off in a new direction when the people are mobilised to beak from party dogmas about harmonious development and peaceful rise.
LEARNING FROM THE DEBATES
In this moment of revolution and great possibilities in the 21st century, the energy revolution will speed up the possibilities for transformation beyond capitalism. China is at present the anchor of a dynamic East Asia region. After visiting the old magnificent architecture of the Yueyang Lou tower on the lake, we discussed at great length the military triggers that are everywhere present in this depression There was agreement that President Obama's speech on the deployment of US troops in Australia was an unnecessary provocation that is being dressed up under the so called Trans Pacific Partnership. Undoubtedly, there are many of the neighbours of China who have become nervous about the rapid rise of China but the main challenge for the people of Asia will be to test and engage the Chinese on the precise meanings of 'harmonious and peaceful development.'
Africans can learn a lot not only from China, but also from the rest of East Asia. The principal lesson is that none of these societies have been able to lift the standard of living of the people without clear and strong intervention by the state to direct resources. These Asian societies eschewed the crude and vulgar ideas of neoliberal capitalism, and even if they followed a capitalist path, insisted on following paths consistent with their cultural realities. Mao Zedong was a leader who had embarked on a socialist project. Those sections of the political leadership who opened up to the West so that China became a reservoir of cheap labour are now faced with the daily information of the deepening depression and the rise of conservative and semi-fascist individuals and parties all over Europe. There is still a left section of Chinese society and it is my view that the trip to the birthplace of Mao was embedded in that ongoing debate on the paths for China in the 21st century.
Horace Campbell is professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University. See horacecampbell.net. He is the author of 'Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA' and a contributing author to 'African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions'. He is currently a visiting professor in the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China.