China’s National Day kicks off one of two Golden Weeks when most people take their annual leave, like those two weeks in France when Jersey holiday-makers can’t find an open shop. On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the middle of Beijing and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Mao has since come under tremendous criticism both inside and outside China – even the cautious official assessment is that Mao was 30% bad. The criticism is especially focussed on The Hundred Flowers campaign (1956-7), the Great Leap Forward (1958-9), and the Cultural Revolution (1968-76) which resulted in the most awful betrayals, desperate suffering, and between 15 and 40 million deaths. King Street book shops are well stocked with a variety of eloquent accounts of those horrors.
Yet the average Chinese person today is utterly astonished to learn that we think of Mao as a monster. To the ordinary Chinese taxi driver, with a portrait of Mao swinging from his rear-view mirror the way an icon of the Virgin Mary may hang in a Jersey car, Mao represents freedom and hope.
What we in Jersey cannot fathom is how life for the vast majority of a fifth of the world’s population has changed so unimaginably for the better since ‘Liberation’ under Mao in 1949. Even ‘The Heavenly Man,’ a formerly heavily persecuted leader of the underground Christian Church in China, describes Mao as ‘a man sent from God’.
The purpose of this letter is not to comment on politics or politicians, but to try to bridge the gulf in the understanding between ordinary people in Jersey and their counterparts in China. The tree sculpture on the sea front, the statues in Liberation Square and the Tapestry Museum point to the freedoms won back for us after the Occupation. So what do the Chinese consider 1949 to have liberated them from?
Firstly – as for Jersey – freedom from foreign occupation. We know the misery of yielding our small island to foreign control for five years, but the Chinese were forced at gunpoint to hand over territory for 100 years to not just one but several foreign nations, including Italy which has never had a colony anywhere else!
Jersey’s extensive fortifications remind us that for centuries France was an ever-present threat to our autonomy. For China, that age-old threat was Japan. Imagine the scandal, then, when Europe and America handed first Taiwan and then (at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919) all former German concessions in China to Japan.
While foreign powers fragmented China in the Western border regions of Tibet and Uighur Xinjiang, Japan took over a quarter of China’s Eastern heartland. In a single day the Japanese slaughtered ten times Jersey’s present population and their brutal occupation of China lasted 17 years. Mao was the only person in over a century to successfully remove all foreign control and secure China’s borders again.
Since China had become a ravaged Third World country and the foreigners in question included rich and powerful Britain, America and Russia, Mao’s extraordinary achievement was a cause for enormous national relief, gratitude and pride.
Secondly, personal freedom. For at least 2000 years, the ordinary Chinese had essentially been slaves to an emperor and his aristocracy. The most potent symbol of this was the Forbidden City, a square-mile palace complex reserved for the emperor and his entourage, entered from the south via the Gate of Heavenly Peace. For a regular Chinese citizen like Mao to stand on top of that gate and declare that for the first time China belongs to its people was liberation indeed.
The breath-taking catalogue of obstacles he had to overcome along the way – like The Long March – continue to inspire the Chinese with a ‘yes, we can’ attitude. People tell me, ‘Back then Old Hundred Names (the ordinary people) had a voice – those in power couldn’t just get away with whatever they wanted’. It may have been pitifully basic but there was food, work, healthcare and education guaranteed for all and Mao remains a symbol for those aspirations today.
That is why Mao’s portrait still hangs over the Gate of Heavenly Peace today – not as a symbol of policy but of liberation and security. Where is your freedom and your security? Are they worth dying for?
To pose your questions, or to share your views and experiences of China with other people in Jersey, sign up at http://www.jerseychina.com. To contact Tim Nash, e-mail email@example.com or call 077 007 CHINA (24462).