Review of China and the New Maoists in the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal has published a review of my book with Kerry Brown, China and the New Maoists.

In “China and the New Maoists,” Kerry Brown, a scholar at Chatham House in London, and Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, of the University of Sydney, don’t mince words. “As an economist, Mao was wholly ineffective,” they write, “sponsoring ludicrous programmes that chased after ideals like complete central state control of the economy and comprehensive plans that resulted in colossal inefficiency, the breakdown of the supplies of the most basic food and commodities, and entrenched poverty.” Even so, the authors observe, Mao has not lost his iconic status in China. The result is a kind of double-think in which past crimes are glossed over for the sake of national continuity. Since Mao’s death, they note, the Communist Party of China has officially claimed that Mao was right “70% of the time” and wrong “30% of the time.”

Mao’s life after death

Today marks the 40th anniversary Mao Zedong’s death.

You can read an extract from my book with Kerry Brown, China and the New Maoists, on Zed Books’ blog.

From the turn of the twenty-first century, one of the few places where one could readily see the image of the founding leader of the PRC was on its money. During Mao’s life, and into the 1990s, the very idea would have been greeted with censure. Various denominations of notes, from the tiny yellow one-fen notes, up to 50 and 100 RMB, had images of tractors, ethnic minorities, or the unindividuated representations of the forces that had made modern China – intellectuals, soldiers, farmers.

For the man who had inspired an economy where 99 per cent of economic activity was in the hands of the state, prices set and wages regulated by the government, and, for a period at least, people across the country worked in communes rendering money unnecessary, this is somewhat ironic. His face, at least as it had appeared on statues and in portraits, has been removed from many public places and is no longer even remotely as ubiquitous as it once was. But now it is in the hands of people throughout the country, on money, the very thing that has truly replaced him in the affections of the overwhelming majority of Chinese people.

Curing Mao fever

This piece originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.

For China, 2016 is a year of anniversaries. It’s been 95 years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), 50 years since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and 40 years since the death of Mao Zedong, Communist China’s founding father.

More than ever, the CCP is fighting for control over its historical narrative. This struggle is perhaps manifested most acutely in the treatment of Mao; the CCP continues to walk a tightrope of being unable to refute Mao’s legacy (given Mao’s role in legitimising the CCP), yet wanting to prevent the resurrection of his cult of personality status.

Photo by Stephan Rebernik (Flickr, 2009)

As long as the CCP continues to conveniently distort the truth about the extent of destruction enacted at the hands of Mao and silence scholarly inquiry, it risks giving ultra-nationalists license to monopolise the interpretation of Communist China’s history and glorify Mao’s legacy, including the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This would ultimately threaten the CCP’s current mandate of maintaining social stability and developing a so-called ‘moderately prosperous society’.

Despite wishing to act as the final arbiter of its history, the CCP has never completely clarified what constitutes ‘accurate’ or ‘inaccurate’ interpretations of Mao’s legacy. ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ remains enshrined in China’s constitution. The famous 1981 Resolution on Party Historical Issues, released five years after Mao’s death, states that he ‘made gross mistakes during the “cultural revolution”, but, if we judge his activities as a whole… his merits are primary and his errors secondary’.

Speaking in December 2013 to mark Mao’s 120th birthday, President Xi Jinping remarked that simply ‘because leaders made mistakes, one cannot use these mistakes to completely negate their legacies, wipe out historical successes, and descend into the quagmire of historical nihilism’.

Over the past few years, several neo-Maoist websites have attracted strong followings. The most popular of these,Utopia, is home to daily commentary from public figures extolling the virtues of Mao Zedong Thought.

In April 2015, Bi Fujian, TV personality and former host of CCTV’s annual Chinese New Year Gala, was secretly filmed mocking Mao in a sarcastic rendition of a Cultural Revolution-era song at a private dinner function. He was subsequently shamed and sacked for ‘serious violation of political discipline’.

On 2 May, a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution was staged in the iconic Great Hall of the People, where Chinese leaders deliver important addresses, political meetings are held, and foreign dignitaries are hosted as guests of the state. The concert featured a selection of 30 ‘red’ songs performed by girl group 56 Flowers. The songs included ‘Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman’, an ode to the power of Mao Zedong Thought, and were set against a backdrop of propagandistic imagery and slogans from the era.

Following public outrage at the celebration of the Cultural Revolution’s ‘ten years of turmoil’, the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre issued a statement claiming its management was duped by an organisation fraudulently using the name of a CCP propaganda office to stage the performance. However, state media in fact actively promoted the concert in advance. Indeed, it would have been impossible for the performance to go ahead (especially at such a significant venue at such a politically sensitive time) without the express approval of relevant CCP organs.

This struggle over history extends beyond China’s shores and directly affects overseas Chinese communities, many of whom experienced the devastation of Mao’s policies first hand. In response to planned Mao tribute concerts at the Sydney and Melbourne Town Halls, almost 3000 people signed an online petition to stop it from going ahead. At a small media event held by the concert’s organisers on 25 May, several angry members of the Australian Chinese community turned up in protest. The performances have since been cancelled, with the City of Sydney citing ‘concerns regarding the potential for civil disturbance’.

While Xi has warned against society’s descent into ‘the quagmire of historical nihilism’, the CCP should perhaps be more concerned about extricating itself from the quagmire of neo-Maoism. Extensive measures are taken to silence advocates of democratic reform, but conservative voices could potentially become China’s most destabilising force. The CCP is currently ill-equipped to address this possibility.

Interview for Young Australians in International Affairs

This interview originally appeared on the Young Australians in International Affairs’ Careers Blog.

1. To start, many of our readers are university students and I’m sure they would be interested to hear about your background. What did you study at university and were you involved in any clubs or societies there? What fostered your interest in international affairs?

I studied a Bachelor of Arts (Languages) at the University of Sydney, majoring in Chinese and Arabic. I also hold a Master of Diplomacy from Peking University in China.

In Sydney, I was a member of the Chinese cultural appreciation society and was involved in the student Arts journal, ARNA, as both a contributor and editor. In Beijing, I was active in the international student community, and pursued my interests in calligraphy and Uighur language through various societies at Peking University.

I was a keen student of history at school, and I think this played an important role in fostering my interest in international affairs. This interest further developed over the course of my undergraduate studies, as I realised the importance of linguistic skills and cultural knowledge in understanding international relations.

2. We recently published a set of articles that centred around the question of choosing to pursue post-graduate studies in international affairs. What made you decide to complete a Master’s degree and to study overseas?

During my undergraduate studies, I undertook a yearlong exchange at Peking University, where I completed an intensive Chinese language course, and some Arabic classes. It was definitely a culture shock. It was difficult to adjust at first because I did not yet have a firm grasp of the language.

Within a few months, however, my Chinese improved immensely, and I was able to appreciate the unique opportunity to immerse myself in the cultural and linguistic environment. I was experiencing the challenges and excitement of living in the world’s most populated and fastest-growing economy.

I enjoyed it so much that I went back to Peking University for my Master’s degree. Although English-taught programs were available, I decided to complete my postgraduate studies in Chinese, as it would allow me to simultaneously enhance my knowledge of international relations and develop an academic level of Chinese.

My advice to students considering studying overseas: go for it! The best way to understand a particular country, region, language or culture is by living there yourself. You will learn much more than reading about it or studying it from afar.

3. I note that you speak both Chinese and Arabic – quite an achievement – why did you choose to pursue languages and how do you think your knowledge of additional languages has shaped your career?

I started learning Chinese when I was quite young. I took it up for my own personal interest – I just wanted to be able to read and understand the writing that looked so different to English!

When it came to choosing my subjects, my degree gave me flexibility to pursue two language majors, so I chose Arabic, for several reasons. Firstly, Arabic is a very important language, but not many non-background speakers in Australia learn it. Secondly, I felt that Arabic and Islamic cultures are poorly understood in general, and I wanted to understand them for myself. Thirdly, I knew from my study of Chinese that I would really enjoy the challenge of taking up a language that is very different to English.

Without my Chinese language skills, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today in my career. I use it on a daily basis; to communicate with colleagues in China, proofread important documents, and keep up-to-date with the latest news.

For research, it is essential to be able to read primary sources; English translations of Chinese texts are often poor and inaccurate, and for more obscure topics, unavailable. Furthermore, the ability to communicate comfortably with others in their native language is a strong foundation for long-term friendships and business relationships. It saves a lot of time, stress and reduces the opportunity for misunderstanding.

4. You have co-written a book! Congratulations! How did that come about? What have been the challenges and rewards so far?

Last year, I started working on the book by completing some background research and analysis of Chinese sources for Kerry Brown, then Director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre, who had been commissioned to write the book. A few months later, Kerry said that as I had already done so much work, why not write a few chapters and become a co-author?

This was unexpected; usually research assistants are barely acknowledged in publications, if at all. I feel very fortunate, and grateful that Kerry recognised my talent and potential, and gave me this very rare opportunity to demonstrate my ability as an author!

It was challenging to manage my time between writing and doing my day job. It meant a lot of work in evenings, on the weekend, and during the Christmas holiday period. Also, before writing the book, I had very little understanding about the editorial process. The manuscript had to be finalised about six months prior to the publication date. Therefore, unfortunately I couldn’t write about any new developments in the book at a later stage. Another challenge I am facing is that, in certain circles, I am perhaps not taken as seriously as deserved because I am not an academic in the traditional sense.

Of course, it has been extremely rewarding to see my efforts come to fruition. Being co-author of a book with a prominent China scholar will undoubtedly have a huge benefit to my career, regardless of the direction it takes.

I haven’t received my copies yet, but I am very much looking forward to seeing my name in print!

5. Lastly, we couldn’t let you go without asking you what you think will be the main issues that will shape Australia’s role in international affairs in the years to come.

In my opinion, Australia hasn’t had to work very hard so far to achieve a reasonably high status in the international community. Therefore there doesn’t seem to be much incentive to learn about or engage with our region, or other parts of the world for that matter. This will have to change if Australia is to keep up with the pace of globalisation.

More about Simone’s book, China and the New Maoists:

In China and the New Maoists, Simone and her co-author seek to closely examine the vocal figures in China today who claim to be the true ideological heirs to Mao, from academics to activists. They also explore efforts by the state to draw on Mao’s image as a source of legitimacy even as the state attempts to control and sanitise his influence. China and the New Maoists provides an insightful, on-the-ground look at the current social and ideological pulse of China.

Her book can be purchased here.

Publication of China and the New Maoists

Yesterday, my first book, China and the New Maoists was published by UK-based Zed Books.

The book was co-authored with Professor Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. book cover

The book explores Mao Zedong’s enduring symbolic and political importance, and the impact of Maoist ideas in popular online and social media. It also examines the state’s efforts to draw on Mao’s image as a source of legitimacy, even as it attempts to control and sanitise his influence.

Stanford University’s Andrew G. Walder described China and the New Maoists as

… a lucid and absorbing account of the Party’s fumbling attempts, in the authors’ words, to ‘extricate itself from the quagmire of neo-Maoism.’

Julia Lovell, literary translator and lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, called the book

[a]n extraordinarily concise, informative and insightful account of the legacies of Mao Zedong for contemporary China… They have written an essential guide to one of the key political, cultural, social and economic conundrums of China today.

China and the New Maoists is available for purchase online and in bookstores.