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Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Three Ways of Looking at the PRC’s Latest Campaigns

Roundup: Talking About History




[Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, published this year by Oxford University Press. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in a wide range of academic journals, as well as in general interest periodicals such as Time and Newsweek.]

For someone who’s been dead almost 35 years, Mao Zedong (1893-1976) has been getting a lot of attention lately....

In part because of this attention, it is hardly surprising that allusions to the lingering influence of Mao’s thoughts and policies crop up routinely in Western news reports. In television coverage of the 2008 Olympics, for example, shots of the giant portrait of Mao were often shown as a shorthand method for reminding viewers that, all the megamalls and McDonalds notwithstanding, the People’s Republic of China was still a country governed by a Communist Party. And a recent Los Angeles Times story about media censorship includes a reference to parallels between the current drive to purge popular culture of the “three vulgarities” (salacious, mindless and tasteless content) and “the elaborately named campaigns extolled by Chairman Mao.” One cheeky Australian writer, who also alluded to Maoist parallels, has suggested President Hu Jintao can now add the title “chief prude” to his CV.

There’s no question that Mao left an indelible mark on China (this may be the only point of agreement among the authors and editor of all the recent books about him), but as the quotations provided above and much recent scholarship suggests, the current consumerist PRC 2.0 should not be viewed solely through the lens of Maoist legacies.

To make sense of the anti-vulgarity drive, as well as the campaign-like aspects of recent mass spectacles, such as the Olympics and the World Expo underway now in Shanghai, it is useful to look back to what two other authoritarian leaders did in their heyday — Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) and Lee Kuan Yew (1923- ). Recent Chinese campaigns are similar to those that Chiang launched in the 1930s, when his Nationalist Party controlled the Chinese mainland. They also resemble those that have taken place in the Republic of Singapore, during the years that Lee formally ran that city-state as its first prime minister (1959-1990) and the period since he has retired from office (yet continues to exert a strong influence on the country). And the parallels with Singapore are hardly accidental, since the strategy of its ruling elite — who have found a way to combine one-party rule and rapid development, while stressing the importance of traditional values — has been of great interest to various post-Mao Chinese leaders, beginning with Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997)....
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