Remembering China's Great Helmsman

The Great Helmsman united fractured, war-torn China, restoring its pride and self-confidence after two centuries of humiliation.
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October 1st marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

But with world attention focused on the uproar over the contrived nuclear "crisis" with Iran and German elections, China's upcoming birthday bash has so far been largely ignored. We should pay attention to this very important event.

Beijing's mammoth fete will include China's largest ever military parade, showcasing new weapons and an Olympic-size gala. Ninety percent of the weapons to be displayed are said to have never before been shown in public. They will represent a new generation of tactical and strategic guided missiles and possibly new aircraft.

With typical Communist Party grandiosity, efforts are even being made to improve Beijing's weather. The legendary King Canute would have been proud.

Off in Washington, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates just rained on the parade in Beijing by warning that China's growing military power "threatens our freedom of movement and narrows our strategic options." Translation: the US Seventh Fleet can no longer operate with impunity off China's coast or be certain of defending Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. No one should be surprised that this has happened.

China is reasserting its historic national sovereignty. It seems inevitable that China will relentlessly push US power back into the Pacific. This important strategic development became inevitable with the return of China to the major power status it had enjoyed until 1800, when this great nation fell into a grim era of self-isolation, political weakness, and revolution.

I first came to China in 1975 during the madness of the Great Cultural Revolution. During my travels across China over the ensuing three decades, I saw China transformed from a giant, dimly-lit prison camp into today's booming nation, which just surpassed Japan to become the world's second largest economy. I've been fortunate to see places and events in China not open to "white ghosts."

China's rise is the most remarkable event I have seen in my life.

Much of the credit goes to China's late leader, Deng Xiaoping, one of the 20th century's greatest men. He ended Marxist dogma, releasing the energy of his long-suffering people whose nation had been raped by Western and Japanese imperialism, then ravaged by brutal civil wars and destructive Marxist policies. Deng's innocuous-sounding dictum, "it does not matter what color a cat is as long as it hunts mice," unleashed the greatest explosion of productivity and economic growth in history.

But a ghost will haunt this celebration: the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong. What to make of him?

I have long struggled to understand Mao. Was he modern history's greatest revolutionary and an earth-shaker, or a demented mass murderer who nearly destroyed China, as his critics claim? I have re-created Mao's travels across China and read the memories of his many aides and senior party officials.

Great times produce great men. Mao rose from the chaos of 1920's China to lead the newfound Communist Party. He fought Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, an assortment of powerful regional warlords, and, later, Japanese invaders. China suffered some 15-20 million dead from 1928-1949.

Mao was an accomplished poet, writer and historian, a profound thinker, and a superb military strategist. His works on guerrilla war sit on my desk. Mao crushed the US-backed Nationalist's 4.3-million strong armies in a series of titanic battles, forcing his rival, Chiang Kai-shek, to flee to Taiwan.

Mao gave the Communists political, strategic, and ideological direction. Aiding him were a group of outstanding generals -- the "Ten Marshals" -- among them Zhu De, Lin Piao, Peng Dehui, Chen Yi and Nie Rongzhen -- who crushed Chiang Kai-shek's armies. They rank among World War II's finest generals, but most Westerners know nothing about China's epic eight-year struggle against Japan or its long civil war.

The Great Helmsman united fractured, war-torn China, restoring its pride and self-confidence after two centuries of humiliation. Mao thwarted both Soviet and US efforts to turn China into a client state, and built up China's military power.

But Mao's crackpot economic notions, notably the infamous 1958 Great Leap Forward, created famines that killed 20-36 million Chinese peasants. Mao's aides dared not tell him millions were starving.

"Red Emperor" Mao was prodigal with his people's lives, and, according to aides who were close to him, was shockingly indifferent to their suffering. Many senior officials worried about the deification of Mao and its effects upon the Great Helmsman.

Mao horrified even brutal Soviet leaders by saying he was prepared to lose half his people to emerge victorious from a nuclear war.

When the Communist Party resisted Mao, he tried to destroy it by unleashing the Great Cultural Revolution. China was plunged into chaos and civil war. China's brilliant, much under-rated premier, Zhou Enlai, curbed some of Mao's worst excesses, repeatedly thwarted the party's hard left, and rescued China by engineering Deng Xiaoping into power.

Deng crushed die-hard Maoists known as the Gang of Four and restored order. His sweeping economic reforms revitalized China, unleashing its latent economic power. But Deng's great achievements -- and this week's huge birthday party in Beijing -- would not have been possible without Mao's unification of China and imposition of an all-powerful one-party state.

So, as with many Chinese, I'm uncertain how to qualify Chairman Mao. I stand in awe of his achievements and brilliance, but cannot forget the suffering he inflicted on China. Deng was as great a revolutionary as Mao, yet one whose hands were unstained by blood.

Like Stalin -- once called "half man, half beast" -- Mao appealed as much as he repelled. Most Chinese now regard Mao as their nation's beloved, respected father -- but who went dangerously senile before his death in 1976. The egos of old dictators and kings can be very dangerous.

I suspect as time goes by Mao's misdeeds, like Stalin's, will fade away and he will again be glorified as China's greatest ruler in the past 2,000 years. The glowing image of the Great Helmsman will continue to hang over the gate of Beijing's Forbidden City.

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