This reflection came on the back of a discussion I had heard on Radio Four that morning. The debate was about a new book about China’s supposed "Golden Age". An era that started in 1949 with the founding of the People’s Republic of China. An era that also unleashed massive economic and social reforms. An era that brought us Mao Zedong. There were two people in the studio; one was the author of the book, a British man. The other one was a Chinese woman who had carried out interviews with people who had lived through those years. The British man argued that the Golden Era in China had never really happened. The woman countered his point with empirical evidence that it had.
|Mao: did he really preside over a "Golden Age"?|
One similarity that came to my head straight away was their historical timing. Not that they had anything to do with it. I guess that history is sometimes arbitrary. Mandela’s timing was slow-burning (after all, he spent 27 years in jail), but that contributed towards having a more positive impact on its long-term goals. Mao’s timing was more fortuitous. The PRC came into being after a century of pillaging and ravaging in China. Mao found a population craving for change and willing to do anything to bring about stability. With this in mind it is not hard to understand why so many people heeded his call to Leap Forward.
But, is understanding Mao the same as condoning his atrocious acts? Are we not excusing evil behaviour when we attempt to look beyond the pile of dead bodies his dictatorship left behind? And if it’s evil, then is it not human?
As far as I know Mandela has never overseen the extermination of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of his compatriots. I don’t even think he has ever ordered the execution of a fellow human being. It would be easy, but too simplistic in my opinion, to say that Mao Zedong was evil and Nelson Mandela is a good human being. To me the real difference, but, also similarity, paradoxically, is how they both used their inner self-worth and the cultural and spiritual factors, prevalent in their respective societies, to advance the socioeconomic cause of their countrywomen/men. Where their paths parted was on the methods they used. Mao sought to wipe out Chinese people’s individuality in order to turn it into a homogenous mass that served the interests of the new state and oligarchy. Mandela, on the other hand, wanted to wipe out the shadow that apartheid had long cast over black South Africans. He didn’t just want a fairer (or rather, fair) society, but also equal opportunities for all, black and white.
This might explain why China’s so-called Golden Age was followed by a dark period of famine and devastation. Whatever Mao’s achievements were, he forgot about empathy. And without empathy, the dignity of many Chinese took a blow. Mandela, on the other hand, wanted not just black people to empathise with other black people, but also white people to look at apartheid for what it was: a hideous system based on the supposed superiority of one race over another.
There is not right or wrong about my reflection today. Maybe you believe that Mao was right to do what he did and how he did it. Somehow, though, I have always felt when I read about his excesses, that the more you focus on the idea, the more you disregard your fellow humans and the links that bind us together.
Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 2nd October at 11:59pm (GMT)