The 30th annivesary of Mao Zedong's death has come and gone in China much as the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution did four months ago - with a deafening silence, at least from the organs of state. But politics aside, perhaps we really don't yet have the distance for a discriminating appraisal; as one of Maos' colleagues remarked about the consequences of the French Revolution, it's too soon to tell. And as for any historical giant, a just verdict would require a book, preferably in several volumes. So here I'll just sketch some thoughts on the man whose face will always dominate 20th century China.
Westerners, accustomed to think of Mao in terms of a totalitarian trilogy with Hitler and Stalin, are baffled by the status that he still commands within China. We resort to conventional social science explanations - China's lack of anything comparable to the 'de-Stalinisation' that the USSR went through under Kruschev, nostalgia for the simpler and less unequal society that Mao supposedly presided over, etc. It's easier than conceding that, beneath the official bombast about kicking out the imperialists and allowing China to stand up, there flows a stream of genuine emotion. Foreigners still don't grasp the depth of humiliation and suffering inflicted on China during the century 1840-1949, and the credit accrued by the Communist Party and Mao specifically in bringing that century to an end.
Despite what was said above about hindsight, Mao was clearly the man for the hour. Steeped in traditional education and raised in the hinterland - barring one short trip to Moscow, he never left China in his entire life - Mao had an empathy with the country that the foreign-educated Sun Zhongshan and Jiang Jieshi seemed to lack. As a young man he was scholar enough to disdain the unwashed masses, but he matured to tap what's been called the deep-seated chiliastic impulse of the Chinese peasantry: that fiery underground river ready to burst forth and consume the old order. All it needs is a messiah, and in Mao it found one par excellence, a man who said that the People could achieve anything and who sought continuous revolution until the promised earthly paradise was achieved.
Small wonder that two and a half decades after his cult was officially disowned, Mao has been inducted into the folk pantheon that still flourishes at the roots of society (despite the best efforts of Communism). Mao built his political philosophy on social contradictions, yet was himself a contradiction, a product of the 'feudal culture' he spent his life trying to destroy; a man who quoted Chinese history and literature as much as Lenin or Marx, and spent his last bedridden days poring over the Chinese equivalent to Pride and Prejudice.
In material terms, Mao's record was less benighted than popular myth holds. His aversion to Soviet-style centralism preserved China from the worst of the economic distortions that brought down its superpower neighbour. Collectivisation and the Great Leap Foward were unmitigated disasters, but a balanced assessment must note that a) there is a dearth of evidence to prove the scale of mortality, in particular textbook claims about the 'worst famine in history'; b) the experiment coincided with some of the worst natural disasters of the century; c) the degree of economic damage is ambiguous, especially given that it's unlikely any strategy could have maintained growth in China's circumstances in the late 1950's. Nor should the overall failure of Maoist developmentalism obscure its achievements, such as the vast improvements in general health or the creation of an industrial base from virtually nothing.
It's safe to say that Mao had no small opinion of himself or his place in history, as apparent in this oft-quoted poem from his Yanan years:
But alas! Qin Shihuang and Han Wudi
Were lacking in literary grace,
And Tang Taizong and Song Taizu
Had little poetry in their souls;
That proud son of Heaven,
Knew only shooting eagles, bow outstretched.
All are past and gone!
For truly great men
Look to this age alone.
Thus he came to commit the deadly sin of conflating his personal vision with the good of those he governed, or (worse) with the shape of history. This exagerrated sense of self led Mao to inflict greater misery on the laobaixing than any god-potentate of old. It led him to destroy men of greater integrity than himself, or who had at least as much legitimacy as Mao did - Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping come to mind - and to strip millions of their humanity on the basis of arbitrarily-defined 'class'. It led ultimately to the apocalypse of the Cultural Revolution, tearing apart China's social fabric while the Americans were putting men on the moon.
For very large numbers of Chinese for the foreseeable future, Mao will remain a flawed hero. But for me at least, the final judgment on the Great Helmsman must be that he steered China onto the rocks.