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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 7 August 2008
The hotel where Gordon and his family were held
The hotel where Gordon and his family were held
The Battle for China's past. Then and Mao: influence of an ‘emperor’ on a new superpower

During China’s cultural revolution Eric Gordon and his family were held under house arrest for two years. Here he reviews an analysis of those turbulent days click here to buy

ITOOK a deep breath after finishing this book.

I also recalled the observation once made by CS Lewis that when you read a book you realise you are not alone.
I felt I had also had the same thoughts that must have been running through Mobo Gao’s mind when he set out to write this book.
If, as this review unfolds, I sound charitable towards the old villain Chairman Mao, I can also conjure up the faces and voices of several Chinese friends of mine who would dismiss me as an incorrigible naïve ­idealist.
And they would garland the name of the author with unprintable expletives found among the labouring classes of China.
I think it’s fair to say that Mobo Gao would never have got around to writing this book if Mao hadn’t been reviled in recent years as a monster, as evil as Hitler.
I couldn’t put the book down. But the average reader, not so conversant with China’s recent history, may not be able to gallop through this well-researched book.
It covers the corkscrew manoeuvrings of the higher echelons of the Communist Party in the 1950s and 1960s – and they are sinuous enough to put anyone in a muddle.
After my stay in China, where I lived for five years from the mid-1960s, I thought I had got the measure of Mao. A philosopher, a poet, an artist as well as an inventive military commander, but also ruthless and ­single­minded in his pursuit to change China. And a little bit like an emperor.
That’s what got me into trouble in 1967 while working for a Chinese government publishing house as a journalist.
My copious notes on the Cultural Revolution – in which I referred to Mao as behaving like an emperor – were discovered, and I, along with my wife and young son, were locked away, under guard, in a small room in a hotel for two years – never allowed out for even a day and restricted to a poor diet.
From the early interrogations it became clear Beijing’s Public Security men were convinced I was a spy. Considering that throughout the Cold War days several British journalists were known to have worked for M15, it was not a particularly outrageous assumption, I suppose.
But that didn’t make it any easier for me to accept what my interrogators were always hinting at.
So, by and large, I have no illusions about Mao or the Chinese Communist Party. However, I have never gone along with the shrill denunciations of the Cultural Revolution or of Mao. With him went the extraordinary social experiment of trying to fashion a “new man”.
Gao, a professor at Adelaide University, develops several cogent arguments – that Mao’s policy laid the foundations for the industrialisation allowing China to develop as a super­power; that even before China’s economy took off in the 1980s, the life expectancy of the ­Chinese was higher than that in India, and that many Chinese who have turned on Mao came from a privileged class and were victims of the egalitarian policies pursued by the Communist party.
He also demolishes the bestseller written by June Chang and Jon Holliday, Mao: The Untold Story, which was supposed to be the final word on China’s recent past.
The picture of Mao as an ogre took on flesh in that book. Casting my mind back to the years I spent in China I, too, thought the book failed to back up many of its claims with sound documentary evidence.
In typical Chinese fashion, I was politically “rehabilitated” by the Beijing authorities in 1987 and invited back for a month-long holiday. I recall at one banquet in my honour I made a speech about how the people had won after all in their battle against totalitarian bureaucracy. Was I right? I have been back to China several times to meet old friends and it looks as if a new privileged capitalist class has arisen.
Once I went back to my old office and shared a meal in the canteen with a middle-aged Chinese editor who had been “sent down to the countryside” in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. In other words he had had to work in a commune. We talked a lot about it, but he wasn’t bitter. If anything, he felt sentimental about those years.
In recent years I have seen China’s enormous economic development. When I was in Beijing in the 1960s, most goods were transported by donkey and cart, camels were an everyday sight, and everyone cycled. Cars were a rarity.
But I still think there were good times as well as bad times in Mao’s China.
And that, basically, is what Gao is saying. He also warns that a lot is going wrong with China today.
That great new cities are being built but mainly on the east coast. That most people in the rural areas are poor, and are, in some ways, worse off, with poorer health and education facilities available.
The Cultural Revolution is described by the party as a disaster or as “Shi nian haoji”, 10 calamitous years.
Bitter memoirs have been published, and Gao admits there are stories of suku (bitterness) to tell. But, at the same time, a lot of the poor in China today – and those from the impoverished class in China of the 1950s and 1960s – don’t agree. Their views are being heard on the e-media, online in blogs etc, that the authorities would like to control but cannot.

• The Battle for China’s Past – Mao and the Cultural Revolution. By Mobo Gao.
Pluto Press £18.99

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