Illustration by Jesse Lefkowitz
Illustration by Jesse Lefkowitz

I was born in China in 1976, just a few months before the death of Mao Zedong. So when I saw footage of thousands of North Koreans in tears after the death of Kim Jong Il, their leader, two thoughts hit me hard. One: They must be brainwashed. And two: Were we Chinese that brainwashed under Mao?

Curious, I called my mother in Shanghai. Both of my parents were survivors of Mao’s brutal Cultural Revolution. Like countless others, they were taken out of urban schools and sent to rural areas to be “re-educated,” weaned off bourgeois culture. And they were the lucky ones -- they survived a campaign that killed millions.

“Were you relieved when Chairman Mao died?” I asked.

“Not at all!” my mother said without hesitation. “People were genuinely sad.”

This seemed preposterous. “How could you feel sad at the death of a criminal -- someone who robbed you of your youth by sending you to a backwater to hoe turnips?”

“The country was completely closed and isolated,” she said. “Communism was a religion, and doubting your leader was out of the question.”

Her use of the word “religion” triggered a memory. In September 2007, I was working as a hedge-fund analyst in New York, and I traveled to Beijing to visit a dozen or so Chinese companies that were listed in the U.S.

Mao’s Loyalists

It was a beautiful fall afternoon and I had a few hours to stroll downtown. A Chinese businessman offered to be my guide. As we ambled through Tiananmen Square, with its enormous mural of Mao, I spotted amid the fashionable urban Chinese a group of not-so-chicly attired tourists from the hinterlands. All of a sudden, they dropped to their knees and began kowtowing to the Mao portrait.

“Wow,” I thought. Having lived in the U.S. for almost a decade, I had assumed that Mao worship was a relic of the distant past and that most Chinese had come to the conclusion that Mao had been a cruel dictator, regardless of his intentions or convictions.

The CEO saw my reaction and started to laugh. “You’ve been away too long,” he said. “This scene takes place every day.”

He went on: “Mao is a religion and always will be. He made mistakes in his later years, but his intentions were good. He truly believed that a totalitarian state was the best political system for China. He was a world-class politician and a true leader.”

The memory vanished as I refocused on my mother’s voice.

“Blind conviction is the definition of religion,” she said. “The Cultural Revolution is long over. What’s the use of dwelling on it? We are all good and happy now.”

And there was a partial answer. If Chinese, long removed from Mao’s tyranny, still embraced the man, it should come as no surprise that North Koreans, still very much in thrall to the Kim dynasty, feel genuine sorrow at the loss of their leader.

But there was also a bigger question: What did this suggest about our future? When does the spell break?

There was a clue, it seemed, in my mother’s candor and her refusal to regret crying for someone who, in so many ways, damaged her life profoundly. You can renounce a religion, but it’s much harder to disown your own past, particularly when you share that past with many others.

Maybe it’s different when you take part in a mass movement to overthrow a dictator -- a Muammar Qaddafi, say, or a Saddam Hussein. When rebellion or invasion prompts a nation to judge its ruler, the triumph, the shared effort of defeating evil, gives people a chance to own their past miseries. However, when one is simply released from repression by the dictator’s death, there’s no shared vindication. “Forgetting” --- as China has done with the Cultural Revolution --- might just be the easiest choice.

My Father’s Dreams

There are exceptions to the rule. My father, for one.

“Dad must have been relieved when Mao died, right?” I asked.

My mother snorted. The answer was so obvious that she would not even indulge the question.

The Cultural Revolution seemed to traumatize my father in unique ways. His dreams and ambitions as an impressionable and hot-blooded young man were dashed by Mao’s policies. My guess is that the Cultural Revolution made him cynical about anything and everything around him. Distrustful of the state media, he bought a portable radio and listened to Voice of America obsessively. When I was a little girl, he instructed me not to believe out of hand anything printed in the People’s Daily.

Many Chinese people know now what my father understood decades ago and yet we don’t talk about it much; some of us continue to kowtow in Tiananmen Square, keeping the fiction of Mao’s greatness alive.

In this way, we’re not all that different from our North Korean brethren. Our collective “forgetting” prevents us from accepting the cause of our past tragedies. However painful, this reckoning must happen if we are ever able finally to reject the censorship and propaganda that still enforce our “isolation.”

(Junheng Li is the founder and senior equity analyst of JL Warren Capital LLC, an independent equity research firm in New York. The opinions expressed are their own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Junheng Li at junhli@yahoo.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: David Shipley at djshipley@bloomberg.net