In President Xi Jinping's weighty speech on the 120th anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong, he cited that quotation: "a rapid rise, a hasty demise." This is a very serious topic containing half a century of bitter memories of historic tragicomedy that the Chinese people should never forget.
The quotation comes from ... a question put to Mao by [former Nationalist Party education minister] Huang Yanpei.
Huang Yanpei, that veteran of the 1911 revolution, became a member of the National Political Council in 1945, and was sent from [KMT government headquarters in] Chongqing to inspect [the communists headquartered in] Yan'an.
When he met with Mao, Huang, taking advantage of his status as an elder, asked him this important question:
"I am old, and I have seen great changes in my lifetime. I have seen a lot of political forces that had a rapid rise and a hasty demise (that's to say, their death was as sudden as their rise.) The reason for this is that they were riddled with corruption after coming to power, and once they were riddled with corruption, they were soon annihilated."
"This is already a cyclical historic pattern. So, Mr. Mao, how will the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party avoid repeating this cyclical pattern of history?"
Mao Zedong answered in the following manner, which I paraphrase:
"Don't worry, Mr. Huang. We won't do that, because we have already found the right prescription for this malady, and that cure is democracy. We can depend on democracy to avoid this historical cycle."
The venerable Mr Huang was a democrat, and the first chairman of the China Democratic League, and of the China Democratic National Construction Association, and naturally he was mightily pleased, and thought that here was a pupil worth the teaching, and that there was hope for China.
After he got back to Chongqing, he wrote up a semi-literary account titled "Return From Yan'an," and had it published in a newspaper. The communist presses turned it into a book, and it had a big impact in political, economic and cultural circles.
Mr. Huang was a worthy son of Shanghai who had passed the imperial examination at provincial level and studied to an advanced level overseas. He was a giant on the political scene, as well as in education and business, who persuaded Sun Yat-sen to get involved in the revolution.
His praise for the Communist Party promoted the "soft power" of Chairman Mao and his associates in a way that their own self-promotion could never have achieved.
When Mao boasted ... that he would implement Lincoln's government "of the people, by the people and for the people," and Roosevelt's four fundamental freedoms, who dared to believe him? But who wouldn't believe him once Huang Yanpei had issued his stamp of approval certifying Mao as a true democrat?
I want to say a bit about his impact on me. At the time, I was a third-year student at the Shanghai Chongshi High School. I had two teachers; one surnamed Qin and the other Yan. I also had a classmate surnamed Chen. All were members of the Communist Party.
Communist Party members all said that the party loved democracy, although I didn't really believe them. But when ... Huang said it too, that the party was fighting on behalf of democracy, this dispelled all my doubts, and led me to transfer all my hopes for democracy in China onto the Communist Party.
Mao Zedong also won the heart of KMT central propaganda minister Wang Jingwei. If Mao had tried to preach Marxist theory to this old gentleman, that the natural superiority of the working classes conferred a natural immunity on the Communist Party, I'm sure he would have scoffed. But people all have their weaknesses, and even gentlemen can be bullied.
Mao Zedong took Huang Yanpei's love of democracy and used it for his own ends. That correct answer was a big hit with the old man, and Mao Zedong got full marks for it.
'Running a scam'
After 60 years of testing, everyone should be pretty clear that Mao Zedong was running a scam.
Of course, anything that came out of Mao's mouth had to be the truth, and democracy is the natural enemy of corruption.
And if the Chinese Communist Party had really relied on democracy, it could have succeeded in breaking the cycle of corruption and implementing Lincoln's principles and Roosevelt's freedoms, all under the supervision of general elections and public opinion.
It's a shame that that consummate showman Mao Zedong sang his siren song of democracy, but walked the road of fascist dictatorship instead.
When he was voted in as chairman of the central government with one vote short of a unanimous count, he decreed that the "suspect" was an imperialist spy. And anyone who criticized his "unification of public opinion" was designated a "counterrevolutionary" by Mao.
When he heard people suggest setting up a political institute, they were designated "rightists."
Huang Yanpei's son, professor Huang Wanli, became one of the 500,000 rightists designated by a panel led by Deng Xiaoping because he followed science and refused to kowtow to the Communist Party. He has won eternal public respect for doing so [after being sent to labor camp in 1958].
This deception didn't just mean tragedy for Huang Yanpei, and not just for those 500,000 rightist intellectuals who were brutally repressed.
This irresponsible political collective has fooled the whole of society with its 60-year-old tragedy and farce.
Of course, in helping corruption and killing off democracy, the Communist Party got itself back into that cycle of "rapid rise, hasty demise," that has repeated itself countless times.
If President Xi hadn't courageously revisited this important topic, they might have lain around gathering dust forever.
So how should we evaluate Xi's raising of the subject? I don't know. Back then [when the cycle conversation took place], President Xi wasn't even born. Maybe he knows this period of history well, and maybe he doesn't. Maybe [Xi's father] Xi Zhongxun told his kids about him, or maybe he didn't have time.
We, the Chinese people, should watch closely to see whether Xi takes the road to democracy indicated by Mao's brain, or the path to tyranny he followed with his feet.
Note: According to Huang's book, Mao replied as follows:
"We have found a new way which will enable us to escape this historical cycle. This new way is democracy. If the people are allowed to supervise the government, the government won't dare to slacken off. We will only avoid the rule of individuals if everyone takes responsibility."
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.