Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Mao in theory and practice

By Chung-yue Chang (China Daily) Updated: 2013-12-25 07:12

Open and subterranean left-and-right debates have been raging on Mao Zedong's legacy and the direction of China's future. Although respectable, the debates seem simplistic. Their common focus is Chairman Mao's place in history. The views range from the various degrees of retention (the left-leaning views) to the rejection (the right-leaning views) of the revolutionary Mao. In extreme cases, the left wants to keep the practice of revolutionary Mao in as pristine a state as possible, and the right wants to eradicate the practice of revolutionary Mao as thoroughly as possible. The net result is that theoretically each would lead to a different future for China.

Both views are mistaken, because they, in their own ways, ignore the dynamics of history in its entirety. The left ignores the historical legitimacy and necessity of "reform and opening-up" as the actual given, and the right ignores the historical legitimacy and necessity of "socialist revolution" as the actual precondition. Both suffer from being too theoretical and are thus removed from reality.

The realistic way of having such a debate is to accept the actual given in history. The actual given is the two stages of the formation of the People's Republic of China since the founding of the Communist Party of China in 1921. The first stage was the formative revolutionary stage led by Mao. The second stage, beginning in 1978, is the "reform and opening-up" stage initiated by Deng Xiaoping. Both sides of the left-right debate would want to keep the two stages separate by emphasizing one while downgrading the other.

The two stages actually constitute an inseparable organic whole. Earlier this year, in an article entitled "The two cannot negates", President Xi Jinping put it this way: "One cannot negate the historical period before the reform and opening-up by the historical period after the reform and opening-up, nor can one negate the historical period after the reform and opening-up by the historical period before the reform and opening-up."

The "revolutionary Mao Zedong" and the "socialism with Chinese characteristics" are ultimately about social equality, which is more practical than theoretical. Many people are already well off in China today, and it is time for more to be so. Given that there will always be economic differences in society, the proper question to ask is: How to bring about an acceptable level of economic difference while achieving a meaningful sense of social equality? This may well be the fundamental question that one can ask on the 120th anniversary of Mao's birth.

Mao was born in 1893. China then, the last days of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was already in rapid decline from the height of its glory, succumbing to the aggressive, divisive and semi-colonial presence of European and Japanese powers. When Mao died 83 years later, China had been liberated from its semi-colonial yoke to become the proud, independent socialist People's Republic that he fought so hard to establish and led since 1949. Yet in 1976 China was in an economic quagmire, brought about by a decade of socio-political-cultural turbulence that Mao contributed to, apparently with the good intention of searching for theoretical purity that proved elusive.

Unexpectedly in 1978, at the strategic Third Plenum of the 11th CPC Central Committee, China radically modified its course. The 30-year era of Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening-up", the era of peaceful economic development, began. The resultant rapid economic success, with global impact, has been singularly historic.

More significant has been the fact that socio-politically China has transformed itself into a socialist state with distinct Chinese characteristics which, apart from the tenets of socialism, also draws inspiration and guidance from its inextricable cultural heritage of radical pragmatism, plainly known as "crossing the river by feeling the stones".

The successful pragmatic and strategic "reform and opening-up" is now being carried forward with greater vigor by the new leadership, headed by President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang. The nation is marching steadily to realize the Chinese Dream by 2020. Globally, this internal transformation empowers China to co-develop confidently and peacefully with a world of essential diversity. That this reality of diversity is to be accepted and respected constitutes a fundamental, long-standing and neighborly cultural attitude that is distinctly Chinese.

A key ingredient for the success of "reform and opening-up" is the formal practice of "socialism with Chinese characteristics". Mao actually contributed to the formation of this practice, because the conceptual root of this practice can be traced to his famous philosophical essays, "On Contradiction" and "On Practice", which he wrote in 1937. Both essays, having distinct Chinese philosophical characteristics, made the practice of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" possible.

For China, the nation and the civilization, "socialism with Chinese characteristics" has become a directional guide. And this directional guide, rooted both in its immediate revolutionary past and in its long cultural heritage, is guiding China forward, for the realization of the Chinese Dream in the short term and for further development of its civilization in the long run.

The author teaches philosophy at Montclair State University, New Jersey, US.

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