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The Curious Case of the Disappearing Mao Statue

I think the events of the past week, in which a massive 120-foot tall statue of Mao was unveiled and then quickly destroyed, are a nice microcosm for the larger discussion/debate on Mao Zedong's place in contemporary China. These are some preliminary thoughts, but I think we can tease out some conclusions even from the fragmentary information that's come from early reporting and online commentary.

Sometime around January 4th, photos emerged online showing the construction of a 36.6 meter tall statue of Mao Zedong in the village of Zhushigang (朱氏岗), Henan Province. According to reports in the Chinese media, the statue was built with RMB3 million ($465,000ish) in donated funds from local villages and several entrepreneurs (企业家), and was constructed out of steel-reinforced bar and cement with a gold paint job for an added flourish. Further reporting by the New York Times revealed that the idea of, and the funds for, the statue came from a Sun Qingxin, the head of the Lixing Group, and someone described by a local resident as "crazy about Mao."

This news was quickly picked up by the foreign media and a pattern emerged in their coverage: first the irony of a statue costing nearly half a million USD being built in one of China's poorest areas. Many pieces quoted one Weibo user who complained "They can do whatever they want with their own money. It is worth commending if they built a statue of their ancestors. But if the money was from the public pocket, a thorough investigation is needed." Second, and as captured by a headline in the Huffington Post's "Weird News" section, "Giant Chairman Mao Statue Erected Where Millions Died." The BBC noted "The province was the centre of a famine in the 1950s resulting from Mao's policies."

And then, just as suddenly as the statue had emerged, it was gone. Sometime during the late hours of January 7th, men in olive-colored coats arrived to begin the dismantling of the statue. Grainy photos emerged on Weibo and Wechat showing Mao's covered head and partially-destroyed legs. Hu Yanglin (胡杨麟) of the website 正声网 supported the dismantling of the statue in a post on Weibo, stating "...with a statue this big, safety can't be assured if it's not approved, and it's destruction is for the safety of everyone...." The well-known Maoist commentator Sima Pingbang (司马平邦) argued that if the 老百姓 weren't able to build their own Mao statues, they would be forced to carve his visage into the side of cliffs, as had been done with Buddhist images for centuries in Henan Province. "Do you [stupid officials] think you're tearing down one mere Mao statue? What you're doing is digging your own grave," he warned.

It's to some extent curious why this one particular statue elicited such controversy, as the absolute number of Mao statues has been fluctuating for decades. For the first few years after his death in 1976, untold number of Mao statues were brought down as the country officially purged itself of Maoism to clear the way for economic modernization. Perhaps the most poignant episode was the nighttime destruction in 1988 of a four-story-tall Mao statue at Peking University, the country’s most prestigious educational institution and young Mao Zedong’s former employer. One professor, who had helped originally erect the statue in 1967, told an AP journalist it was “a symbol of an era, and that era is over. Taking it down is only natural.” 

Yet after two decades of official "de-Maoification" (去毛化), the statues began to reappear. First, at Chongqing Medical University, where a 20-meter high statue was erected in 2008.  In 2009, the southern city of Changsha, where Mao attended primary school, erected a 32 meter-high statue of Mao, the then-largest ever constructed. This was followed by metropolis of Shenzhen, which unveiled a $16 million gold statue of Chairman Mao to commemorate his 120 birthday. According to a 2011 piece in the China Daily, “Mao statues fashionable again after four decades.”

So what's different now? For one thing, we're in a "Maoist Moment" -- interest in Mao, his legacy, his influence on Xi Jinping's governing style, his rehabilitation in the Party's propaganda apparatus, etc. have all contributed to the heightened interest in the Chairman. As we try to figure out where Xi is taking China (is he Deng? Mao?), both Chinese and non-Chinese are extra sensitive to seemingly isolated data points such as the Henan statue and its subsequent disappearance. We saw something similar in the 2009-2011 Bo Xilai era, when we in the West were again surprised by the outpouring of "redness" -- spontaneous or otherwise -- emanating from China. In the early 1990s there was the brief-lived "Mao Fever" (毛热), when, in the wake of 1989, the CCP was again forced to drag Mao out from the dustbin of history to revive its flagging legitimacy. Visits to Mao's hometown of Shaoshan, near Changsha, soured as cadres and employees at SOEs were "encouraged" to make a pilgrimage.

But second, I think this incident tells us something important about the complicated relationship between the CCP and its most important founding father, Mao Zedong.  Mao is at the same time the most important long-term guarantor of the CCP's legitimacy, but also its greatest threat. I think the oft-heard claim from the neo-Maoists that "without Chairman Mao there is no New China" is indisputably true, and one can hold this opinion without minimizing the atrocities that occurred during Mao's reign. The CCP knows that it can't part ways with Mao, given how integrally he's grafted onto the PRC's founding myth/narrative. To put it another way, don't expect Mao to disappear from China's currency anytime soon.

But perhaps more importantly, if the Chinese people begin to take Mao and Maoism too seriously, things begin to get tricky for the CCP. Maoism, if it is nothing else, is a philosophy that disdains stability and authority. 维稳, or stability maintenance, is decidedly not a Maoist concept. Rather, think of Maoism as 造反有理, or as he put it in a letter to Red Guards in 1966, "You say it is right to rebel against reactionaries; I enthusiastically support you." Fear of bureaucratic capitalism infiltrating the Party and government lay at the heart of Mao's governing vision, but for those wielding the reigns of power today, this "permanent revolution" can be more like a permanent threat.

So think of the today's CCP as trying to find the Goldilocks Theory of Maoism. Too cold and it looses one of its most important ideological and historical legitimators. Too hot, however, and it risks a grassroots movement where Mao's radical vision for society -- the absolute primacy of the human will to tear down any obstacle -- threatens the existing power structure.

So back to that pile of rubble in Henan. My hunch is that the statue was unpalatable to the CCP precisely because it was unsanctioned. This is not a matter of regulator approval (imagine how much would have to be shut down if that concept were to be taken seriously), but rather it was not part of the official narrative on Mao that the CCP is trying to create/guide/control. If an entrepreneur can join forces with peasants to erect the largest Mao statue in the country, where does it go next? Right now in Maoist circles there is a concerted and quite energetic attempt to have December 26th (Mao's birthday) classified as an official holiday and renamed "People's Day" (人民节). For the same reason I believe the Henan statue could not be allowed to stand, so too I think the People's Day campaign is doomed.

In today's China, Mao Zedong is just too important to be left to the people.

Photo from Imagechina