'Freedom is Dead When a Tyrant is Canonized'

A commentary by Bao Tong
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china-mao-statue-dec-2013.jpg A visitor looks at a gold and jade statue of Mao Zedong to commemorate his 120th anniversary displayed in Guangdong province, Dec. 13, 2013.

I hear that the Central Committee of the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party will be lavishly celebrating the 120th anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong this month. There are lots of stories flying around, many of them dubious. But the Supreme People's Court and Procuratorate haven't determined whether they are rumors or not. I can only say I am flabbergasted.

If people had been talking about commemorating Mao before the third plenum [of the Central Committee], this wouldn't have raised any eyebrows.

The problem is that the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party has just announced a series of deep and comprehensive reforms, the main point of which is to set up a modern market system. And Mao Zedong was the biggest enemy of market economics history has ever known. So we need to explore how the two things came to share the same platform.

Some young people nowadays believe that China's markets were discovered and set up by the Communist Party. That's not true. In fact, China has had markets for a long time. The fact that markets have been around in China for the past 3,000 years is reflected in many of our common expressions.

The [Northern Song era] painting "On the River at Qingming," uses the beauty of art to show many activities indicative of a highly developed civil society 1,000 years ago.

Before 1949, a wide variety of market goods were required for the social life of urban and rural residents, with the exception of very remote regions. Labor markets, a futures market, a stock market, capital and foreign exchange markets all actually existed back then.

But markets, just like history itself, can move backwards as well as forwards, and there is always a danger of regression under a great leader flying the banner of honor and right thinking. Such is the tragedy of markets in China.

Destruction of markets

If we were to choose a single historical figure to represent this regressive move for the markets, Mao Zedong would fit the bill. Because [Mao's henchmen] Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao were all, to one extent or another, passive. Mao Zedong was the only agent [of change] throughout.

The destruction of the markets was among the most prominent of Mao's tyrannies. Who else managed to obliterate markets that had been built up over several thousand years of history across more than 9 million square kilometers (3.5 million square miles) of territory?

No one but the Communist Party under the leadership of Mao Zedong! Of course, this took him 20 years of concerted effort to achieve. In 1950, the Central Committee decided to set up a "unified framework for national supplies," to control the markets for grain, printed cotton cloth, and most importantly, industrial equipment, by overwhelming economic, political and military means.

In 1954, it went on to stifle rural markets across the entire country with its centralized purchase and sale of grain, oil and cotton cloth.

Almost simultaneously, it set up a system for buying up and underwriting private enterprise, before going on to complete the nationalization process fully. Finally, when [they began] issuing ration tickets for the supply of all major necessities, the urban markets too existed in name only.

Mao Zedong, "liberation" and "socialism" throttled urban and rural markets in China.

Death of Mao

The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 was an opportunity to resurrect the markets, but [the party] still had a huge millstone around its neck.

That millstone was known as the four cardinal principles, which were really a single thing, even though they were spoken of as four: the system of Mao Zedong. Who has ever heard of requiring markets to follow the leadership of a political party? This might be unheard of in other countries, but for China it was a necessity.

Chinese characteristics were more important than universal values, and were the equivalent of a universal truth.

The coercive power of the Chinese Communist Party and its government officials created two parallel and complementary processes: the bureaucratization of the markets, and the commoditization of the bureaucracy.

The latter ensured that all social justice and honorable behavior were lost to society, while the former stripped the markets of all their freedom and vitality.

You could say that Deng Xiaoping revitalized the markets, because when the people demanded reforms to and an end of the Maoist system, Deng Xiaoping supported them. You could equally well say that Deng Xiaoping alienated, or enslaved, the markets, because a market worthy of the name should have freedom as part of the package. But Deng decreed that the whole of China, its markets included, must hold high the banner of Mao Zedong Thought, and had no hesitation in sending hundreds of thousands of troops to suppress students and citizens [in 1989].

Because of this, China's markets had to accept the interference of the Party, the government, and officials everywhere, who sucked the life from them. The markets were allowed no free competition, no free exchange; they were alienated markets, of an entirely altered quality.

To put it another way, they benefited the leadership, the party, the state above all, and they went to work for political ends. They did not serve those who were buying and selling, or the consumer, or the producers or the shareholders, or society in general.

Third Plenum

Compared with the past, the Third Plenum which has just finished has made clear progress, because it recognized that a market stripped of its freedom and capacity for innovation is not up to the enormous task of economic development when it has to bear the brunt of recent trends as well.

That's why the Third Plenum set out a top-down design, which clearly emphasizes the role of autonomy, free competition, freedom of choice and exchange in our future market system.

The diagnosis and prescription are certainly accurate, practical, and will stand the test of time.

It is the only way to revitalize the markets that have been left neither dead nor alive by the ravages of the Maoist system.

But who can say there won't be a sudden urge to call up old ghosts at the 120th anniversary party, to sing the old evocations at top volume: Come back, soul of Chairman Mao; China can't do without you; the markets can't do without you; the reform program can't do without you...?

Ever since someone preached the benefits of smog in the party mouthpieces, China really seems to have moved into an era of entertainment.

It is necessary to establish a modern market system, but also to worship that destroyer of markets and tyrant Mao Zedong. Perhaps the two will appear on the same bill, who knows.

As an ordinary mortal, all I know is this: that an unfree market is a dead market, and that freedom is dead when a tyrant is canonized. Maybe the experts will have their own opinions.

Several possibilities

Perhaps there are several possibilities: either liberate the markets entirely, and treat the commemoration of Mao Zedong as a form of entertainment; or continue with the Maoist system and treat the freedom and autonomy of the markets as a form of entertainment.

Or perhaps there will be another grand finale in store, we can't be sure. Everyone will have to be patient.

I am reminded of a passage from Marx which says that only when that which is ridiculous is truly seen as such, can it be worthy of being taken seriously. If the ridiculous is taken seriously, it can only ever be ridiculous.

The audience will have to decide for themselves, based on their tastes, and their experience of previous performances, what is funny and what is serious.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Bao Tong, political aide to the late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, is currently under house arrest at his home in Beijing.


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