The ANC and the history of Mao’s infamous quote

by The Editor

SERIES: My article yesterday, on Jeremy Cronin and his amoral hypocrisy, seems to have elicited some significant interest in this subject. It surely is a curious fact that socialism and those who advocate it enjoy next to no moral scrutiny for the blood-soaked history they represent. Indeed, they seemingly operate in an entirely ahistorial environment. So much so, they routinely evoke socialist rhetoric with no appreciation for what it represents. Mao’s ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ quote is a great example. Here follows an article from the archives, which looks at the way this quote is misused by the alliance. Cronin accused ‘pseudo liberals’ of ‘historical illetracy’, time to take a look in the mirror I say.

The ANC and the history of Mao’s infamous quote

By: Gareth van Onselen

26 November 2009

For President Thabo Mbeki his weekly newsletter in ANC Today served a very particular purpose: a platform from which he could exact revenge on those elements of society he deemed to stand in opposition to himself and the African National Congress.

One of the more prominent of these attacks was on Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in 2004. The Archbishop had suggested the President had surrounded himself with yes-men and had done little to alleviate the plight of the poor, concentrating his efforts, rather, on enriching a small, black elite. As is his want, the President’s response was vengeful and personal.

It is not my purpose here to interrogate the merits of that debate, only to highlight one significant excerpt from the President’s response. He wrote:

“I have made this clear in the past that I, for one, will join the public debate on any matter, exercising the same right that any other South African has, to speak out on matters of concern to the nation. In this regard, I support the call once made in China – let a hundred flowers bloom: let a hundred schools of thought contend!”

It was a reference to the statement made by Chairman Mao Zedong, the former leader of Communist China, and was evoked by Mbeki to suggest – as Mao suggested – that all debate should be encouraged and contending ideas allowed to compete.

History has ruled fairly categorically on the extent to which President Mbeki was really committed to a competition of ideas, but that particular quote seems to live on in the ANC’s daily communication and is routinely evoked by those in the alliance who would suggest that debate be encouraged and fostered.

Last Friday, ANC National Executive Member (and Minister of Police) Nathi Mthethwa opened an article penned for ANC Today with the following statement:

“The advent of democracy has given birth to free and unhindered national dialogue on virtually all issues. There are no holy cows! As Mao once said, ‘letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress.’”

He was followed this week by Kimani Ndungu, a member of the SACP and ANC, writing for the SACP online journal Umsebenzi (25 November), in which he stated in an article in support of the much-maligned Jeremy Cronin:

“Before throwing his next insult, cde Malema may want to pose for a moment and reflect on Mao Tse Tung’s injunction to his party comrades in 1956 that ‘let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend’.”

A week earlier (18 November), in an article for the Sowetan, the Deputy Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula wrote:

“We welcome a national dialogue on these measures and every South African must be part of this public discourse. Borrowing from the first chairperson of the Communist Party of China, Mao Tse-Tung, we say: ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of thought contend.’”

How encouraging it is to see the ruling party so committed to public debate; at least ostensibly.

History, however, demands a different interpretation of that commitment, certainly if Mao’s quote is anything to go by. A review of facts suggests the use of that particular statement is deeply disingenuous; either that or those who would use it are the victims of a profound historical ignorance.

One way or the other, it speaks to a ruling party that knows not what it says.

Mao Zedong was a brutal and ruthless dictator who relentlessly persecuted, punished and murdered millions of innocent people; and particular those he considered to be critical of him personally or the Communist Party’s cause more generally.

Clive James, in his book ‘Cultural Amnesia’, puts it like this:

“The full evil of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) is continually being rediscovered, because it is continually being forgotten. In 2005 it was rediscovered all over again when Jung Chang, previously the author of Wild Swans, the book that blew the gaff on the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, brought out, together with her husband, and account of Mao’s career that pitched the body count of innocent civilians where it belonged, far beyond the total achieved by Hitler and Stalin put together.”

Karl Shaw, in his book ‘Power Mad: A Book of Deranged Dictators’ (which I would recommend for anyone interested in a fuller picture of Mao’s various atrocities) estimates that Mao was responsible for between 14-20 million deaths, “from starvation during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and tens of thousands killed and millions of lives ruined during the ‘Cultural Revolution’”.

One might think that fact alone enough to discredit his contribution on the virtues of democratic debate. Not so the ANC.

But the problem is more acute than that. The hundred flowers quote, so glowingly referred to by various members of the alliance, was the very thing Mao used to identify those people he feared most – broadly speaking, anyone with an education – so that he might brutally pursue them.

For Mao intellectuals were a threat, and the hundred flowers speech a means of targeting them and ending their influence on society.

In her brief and yet fairly comprehensive biography of Mao, Delia Davin describes the events surrounding the hundred flowers speech as follows:

“In an extraordinary about-turn, from the spring of 1956 Mao and some other Party leaders began to advocate a freer intellectual climate. Using the slogan ‘let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools contend’, they urged that academic debate should be allowed to take place without undue political interference and that the Party and officials should submit to public criticism.”

Later, she continues:

“The response [to the hundred flowers statement] began and by the early summer of 1957 some were attacking the Party and its role in fundamental ways. Under mounting pressure from colleagues, and perhaps disconcerted by the strength of the resentment he had unleashed, Mao warned against ‘excesses’. Soon afterwards a new campaign of repression was launched. Almost half a million intellectuals were condemned as ‘rightists’ and punished with various degrees of severity.”

That description is fairly objective; it even suggests an authentic attempt to encourage debate when the statement was first made. But as more and more evidence on the way in which Mao behaved comes to light, even that aside now seems to carry little weight.

In his book ‘Mao: The Unknown Story’, Jon Haliday puts it like this:

“On 27 February 1957, Mao delivered a four-hour speech to rubber-stamp Supreme Council announcing that he was inviting criticisms of the Communist Party. The Party, he said, needed to be accountable and ‘under supervision’. He sounded reasonable, criticising Stalin for his ‘excessive’ purges, and giving the impression there were going to be no more of these in China. In this context, he cited an adage, ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’. Few guessed that was setting a trap, and that he was inviting people to speak out so that he could use what they said as an excuse to victimise them, Mao’s targets were intellectuals and the educated, the people most likely to speak up.”

That particular interpretation – the hundred flowers speech was a deliberate ploy – is supported by Mao’s own opinion on the subject. He is quoted as saying that the statement was designed to persuade the “poisonous weeds” – his own euphemism for intellectuals – to reveal themselves. Haliday quotes Mao as saying how he was “casting a long line to bait big fish” with the intention of catching “the snakes”, by enticing them out of their lairs.

Clive James is more sardonic on the matter:

“The pretty rubric looks so harmless even today, now that we have some idea of what it cost. Halfway between a poem and a slogan, it is a small thought that would fit on a big T-shirt. It doesn’t even sound wrong. Mao designed it to sound right. For the trick to work, millions of people had to believe the words meant what they said, even though the Party, within long memory, had never rewarded a contentious voice with anything except torture and death. Anyway, the suckers fell for it. The flowers bloomed, the schools of thought contended, and Mao’s executioners went to work.”

What is beyond contention are the consequences, whether part of an initial grand scheme to identify and brutalise those that oppose him, or not, that is exactly what happened.

Survivors of the assault, in a petition to the Communist Party in 2005, estimate that over 550 000 people identified as a consequence of the hundred flowers campaign were humiliated, imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

Which brings us back to the various ways in which that statement is used in South Africa today – to cite that particular statement as representative of the suggestion that public debate be encouraged demonstrates a profound ignorance of breathtaking proportions. Mao’s call represents the very antithesis of any call for public debate, its encouragement or its protection; a guise for a far more sinister agenda.

Its use by the ANC is embarrassing.

If ignorance is not the ruling party’s excuse in evoking Mao, the alternative is fairly chilling; but, given its penchant for threatening violence against those that would oppose it, not unrealistic.

Back in 2004, in response to Mbeki (whom one cannot accuse of ignorance), former DA leader Tony Leader said “You are fond, Honourable President, of quoting the Chinese dictator Mao Zedong, who said: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”. But the debate he launched was soon shut down by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.”

He continued:

“The real turning point in modern Chinese history was the speech by Deng Xiaopeng at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1978. Deng said: ‘Black cat or white cat, as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.’ The lesson for South Africa is that we should care less about the colour of the person who provides a service and more about the quality of the service that he or she provides”.

That sentiment remains the biggest challenge for the public debate in South Africa today and it applies particularly to the ruling party, which routinely demonstrates an inability to separate its own prejudices from the subject at hand.

That problem is often exacerbated by the superficial nature of any argument it puts forward. Indeed, its violent and, often, hate-filled rhetoric is enough in and of itself to dissuade anyone from the effort of a real or meaningful exchange; but it is equally true that the actual substance of any piece of communication is often so poorly thought through, so weak and incoherent that, even if one was able to sum up the energy to rise above that vengeful tone, the words themselves amount to nothing more than an intellectual black hole.

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