Monday, October 13, 2008

Book review: The Battle for China's Past

The Battle for China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution by Mobo Gao

The book's thesis: that the dominant narrative about China in the US is also the dominant narrative about China in China. In China, it is dominant in the sense that it reigns supreme within the brains of the elite, who dominate the media and academia in a far more direct fashion than in the U.S. So foreign scholars who read the most easily accessible Chinese sources are reading sources from those Chinese who supported Mao's revolution only insofar as it was the most likely to succeed at ejecting foreign imperialists (the Japanese, British, etc.) and allowing the Chinese elite to make China a strong country in the sense that the U.S. is a strong country: in that its elite would have sway on the international scene, while the majority of China's people would eke out a more or less marginal existence. The Chinese writers foreign scholars read are those that Mao called "capitalist roaders," in that they wanted for China to take the capitalist road to national greatness, rather than the socialist road which would distribute wealth more evenly, thereby frustrating the emergence of a stratified Chinese elite who would then enjoy a sufficient concentration of resources to wield some power on the international stage - like in the old days.

Gao makes this case, and then demonstrates how on the most loosely regulated media, internet websites, a coterie of intellectuals representing an arguably much larger segment of the Chinese population convincingly argue that under Mao's leadership, China made incredible economic advances that formed the foundation for China's recent GDP growth spurt.

Most interesting excerpt:

"A good test case would be to compare China, the largest communist country, with India, the largest democracy, using labels for convenience. The Novel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen makes the point that although India never suffered a 'politically induced famine' like the Great Leap Forward in China:
'[India] had, in terms of morbidity, mortality and longevity, suffered an excess in mortality over China of close to 4 [million] a year during the same period. ... Thus in this one geographical area alone, more deaths resulted from 'this failed capitalist experiment' (more than 100 million by 1980) than can be attributed to the 'failed communist experiment' all over the world since 1917." (Black 2000)"

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