Thousands of people have signed a petition to the Australian authorities to call off two concerts in honor of late supreme Chinese leader Mao Zedong, amid growing concerns over the lengthening reach of the Chinese Communist Party’s "soft power" influence overseas.
More than 3,000 people had signed the petition on change.org by Friday expressing “deep concern” over two planned concerts honoring Mao Zedong in Sydney and Melbourne in early September.
“Mao was personally responsible for massive tortures and persecutions resulting in the unnatural deaths of over 70 million Chinese people,” the petition, posted by a group called the Embrace Australian Values Alliance, said. Other accounts have put Mao's body count at around 30 million.
“More and more people see him as one of the most cold blooded dictators in human history, surpassing the cruelty of Hitler in Germany, Stalin in Russia and Pol Pot in Cambodia,” it said.
“Mao and his crimes against humanity contravenes everything that Australian Values stand for,” it said, adding: “Australia is NOT the place for publicizing or glorifying Mao.”
Two concerts are currently planned, one at Sydney Town Hall on Sept. 6 and another in Melbourne three days later.
The group called on the Sydney authorities to revoke the booking for the event.
“As tax-payers of this great country, we cannot tolerate tributes to a violent dictator at a Council venue - the Sydney Town Hall,” the petition text said.
Alliance spokesman Zhong Jinjiang told RFA that honoring Mao would sully the political values of a democratic nation.
“What we should be talking about in Australia is the fact that Mao Zedong and his political thought effectively mean the deprivation of people’s freedom and of their lives,” Zhong said. “But there are some Mao fans in the West who want to put events like these on.”
According to Zhong, there are two motivations for doing so.
“One is the opportunists, who don’t necessarily buy into all the Maoist stuff, but who want to … build a good relationship with the Chinese leadership, so they take this opportunity to … improve their business prospects,” he said.
“Another may be pretty bizarre, but it has to do with people who have been so brainwashed back in China that they can’t think straight.”
Zhong said political backing for the cult of Mao appears to come from the highest level in China, albeit tacitly.
“This has a great deal to do with Xi Jinping, who looked to Mao to synthesize the first 30 years of communist rule in China with the last 30 years,” Zhong said.
He said many events in Mao’s honor also praise Xi. “That is pretty ridiculous,” he said.
Mao remains a controversial figure even among the Communist Party elite, however.
Earlier this month, a recording of a lecture given by Party School historian Wang Changjiang went viral, largely because it contained comments that were highly critical of the Great Helmsman.
“He ruled for nearly 30 years, and during that time he used every conceivable method, political movement after political movement,” Wang tells the class. “But in the end, he couldn’t even solve the problem of keeping ordinary people warm and fed.”
But while Wang goes on to classify the Mao era as one of profound destructiveness and chaos, his overall argument is still compatible with current government’s line that it has used a “socialist market economy” to bring large numbers of people out of poverty.
According to Beijing-based democracy activist Zha Jianguo, those within the party have some, though very limited, leeway to criticize the Mao era of Chinese history.
“It’s seen as slightly safer to criticize Mao than it is to criticize Xi Jinping,” Zha, a member of the banned opposition China Democracy Party (CDP), told RFA in a recent interview.
“But to criticize Mao is also to criticize the party, and therefore the current leadership,” he said, citing the recent purge of editorial staff at the reformist political journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, which had also taken aim at the late supreme leader.
Guangzhou-based writer Ye Du agreed, saying that Mao is making something of a comeback among China’s political elite.
“The reformist faction within the party has tried to drive a wedge between the Deng Xiaoping faction and the traditional Maoists within the party, but that just isn’t going to happen,” Ye said.
“Both factions are still part of an indivisible ruling power which can only accept or reject something with one voice, collectively.”
With public trust in Chinese political processes at an all-time low, and censorship of public opinion at its highest level in years, there is scant support for the reformers, he said.
“There’s no changing the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party, because … there will be no more public voices heard in support of the reformers within the system,” Ye said.
This year, China marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a decade of politically inspired mob
violence and social turmoil.
The anniversary comes at a time when many fear that Xi, who has consolidated more power in his own hands than any other Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, may be taking the country in a similar direction.
In April, some 300 performers took to the stage in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square in Beijing for a concert of revolutionary songs from the Mao era, which include cult hymns like “Chairman Mao is the Reddest Sun Burning in Our Hearts” and “Without the Communist Party, There Would be No New China.”
While no high-ranking leaders attended the concert, which drew a crowd of 6,000 people, it was given by the Fifty-Six Flowers entertainment troupe that is ultimately controlled by the Ministry of Culture.
Reported by Pan Jiaqing for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.