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Mao's revolution at 60: He wouldn't recognize it

CHINA. Hangzhou. A young couple sit next to the famous West Lake. 2009

Sean Gallagher Photography

This Thursday, as tanks and missiles roll through Tiananmen Square in Beijing and fireworks explode overhead to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, a retired factory worker will gather with her children and grandchildren in this historic city on China's booming east coast, and sigh a little - regret mixed with relief - at what those six decades have brought them.

Ms. Wu, the factory worker, was a 13-year-old girl listening to the radio with her schoolmates when Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic on Oct. 1, 1949. She and the others cheered at the time, because it meant the long war between the Communists and the Kuomintang was finally over.

She soon got caught up in the fervour of those early days of the revolution, sporting a red scarf and leading a youth group as landlords were evicted from their plots. A decade later, she wound up on the other side of that political divide when her husband - a professor at Beijing University - was denounced as a "rightist" and sent to the countryside for three years of re-education-through-labour.

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"I was left to raise four children by myself," Ms. Wu, 73, says matter-of-factly. More than three decades on, she won't let her full name be used, still trained to be worried that just telling her story could land her in trouble. "It's not good to publicize some things."

The carefully orchestrated pageantry of this week will portray the Communist Party as having made this country of 1.3 billion into an economic and military superpower over the past 60 years. There's truth in that, but the story of the past six decades is also one of a strikingly resilient people who endured one of history's cruellest regimes for the first 30 years of Communist rule, then sprinted forward as soon as their shackles were loosened.

This forgetting will have terrible results. It will make us weak to prevent the same things from happening again Dissident Chinese lawyer Zhuang Daohe

How China grew from a backwards country of 540 million people in 1949 to the rapidly modernizing, third-largest economy in the world is a story that - for all the recent success - pitted a paranoid and murderous regime against its own people for long periods. Much of that history was written on the shores of West Lake, the graceful heart of this little-known city. It was here that Mao worked on the constitution of his People's Republic and conjured up the purges of the Cultural Revolution. Former U.S. president Richard Nixon visited West Lake during his breakthrough visit to China in 1972.

But it's a past that remains largely buried and unaddressed, forgotten by all sides in the name of letting the country carry on its current upward trajectory.

Ms. Wu's husband's name was eventually rehabilitated in 1978, but the damage was done. "He was affected physically. He was very healthy before," Ms. Wu says, her voice drifting off. Her husband never fully recovered, and he died a decade ago.

Like many Chinese, times got better for the family after Mao died and was succeeded by the diminutive Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Deng irrevocably changed the direction of the country by opening it to the outside world and embracing the market economy. The silk factory where Ms. Wu worked in this scenic coastal town got busier, and wages gradually rose. She retired with a pension, and she and her husband had enough money to put all four of their children through university.

"In the beginning, we were short of money and couldn't even send the children to kindergarten," she said, pride seeping into her voice as she neared the end of her tale. "Now they have several apartments each. Except for my son who moved to America."

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When the Red Army arrived in Hangzhou in early 1949, it entered a war-battered and predominantly agricultural city of 1.2 million people, situated around West Lake, a vast and placid body of water ringed by parklands and pagodas. In the new government's first five-year economic plan for the country - there have been 11 - it was decreed that Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, should be a "Geneva of the East."

In a time of disastrous economic moves, the decision to spare Hangzhou the heavy industry that fouls the air of so many Chinese cities was a stroke of good fortune. Mao came to love the tranquillity of the place, and stayed here at the State Guesthouse on the shore of West Lake in 1953 as he went over his draft constitution for the People's Republic. In all, the chairman made more than 40 visits to the city, and Hangzhou is dotted with monuments to him.

But his affection for the place did not spare Hangzhou from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, which he launched shortly after another of his sojourns on the shore of West Lake in December, 1965, where he met with his second-in-command and drew up a list of those they wanted to see purged first in the violence they were about to unleash.

Zhejiang province was in an effective state of civil war for much of the 1960s and 1970s, with competing factions that both claimed to be acting in Mao's name slaughtering each other and destroying farms and homes. Hangzhou's university campuses became centres of leftist extremism and Red Guard activity, and the scale of the purge of party ranks, combined with widespread labour unrest, led to a more dramatic economic collapse in Zhejiang than in other parts of the country.

It was a time of fear, disappearances and public executions. In all, Mao is blamed by some for more deaths than Stalin or Hitler. But at a 60th anniversary photo exhibit held this month in downtown Hangzhou, it is almost as if none of it ever happened.

Before-and-after photographs taken around the city emphasize how much it has changed and grown. Crumbling bridges and empty fields shown in black-and-white photographs from decades ago give way to multilane highways and forests of high-rise towers in the colour photos from 2009. Sometimes the gap is smaller, showing how entire developments have sprung from the ground in a matter of years, sometimes less. There's no hint of the famine and ruin of the Great Leap Forward, no evidence that the persecution and mass murder of the Cultural Revolution ever happened. Just 60 years of moving forward at breakneck speed.

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"The policy of wiping out history has been successful," said Zhuang Daohe, a dissident lawyer and signatory of Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto that calls for, among other things, a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission to address China's recent past. "This forgetting will have terrible results. It will make us weak to prevent the same things from happening again."

Shortly after the interview, Mr. Zhuang and a colleague who took part in the interview were contacted by local security agents and warned not to speak to foreign media until after the anniversary. In the days that followed, several others in Hangzhou who had agreed to be interviewed by The Globe and Mail suddenly cancelled their appointments.

For all its suffering, Hangzhou was one of the first places where China started to emerge from the shadow of the Cultural Revolution. When Nixon visited the city, the document known as the Shanghai Communiqué - which for years formed the basis of the critical U.S.-China diplomatic relationship - was actually negotiated inside the same West Lake diplomatic compound where Mao wrote the constitution.

The city was among the first to benefit in the decades that followed from the "reform and opening" economic policies introduced by Deng Xiaoping. While retaining its laid-back feel and the idyllic scenery around West Lake, today's Hangzhou is a city of 6.4 million that has seen high-technology and auto parts industries grow alongside traditional specialties such as tea, silk and tourism.

Yang Liangen spent the 1970s trying to evade arrest as he moved through the countryside performing free magic shows and selling throat lozenges to the audience afterward. Such freelance performances, as well as the lozenges nicknamed Little Fuzzy Brains, have a nearly a century of history on Hangzhou street corners, with the shows often involving music, storytelling and funny anecdotes about the ruling classes of the day. They were banned during the Cultural Revolution, forcing entertainers like Mr. Yang underground. He kept on performing, but says he was arrested "tens" of times in that era.

But with the introduction of reform and opening in the 1980s, Mr. Yang suddenly found himself being sought out by the government in a very different way. Zhejiang province was one of the quickest to embrace the new economic openness, and thousands of businesses sprang up. The nearby city of Wenzhou was opened to overseas investment in 1984, a change that had dramatic effect on Hangzhou and the entire province.

Mr. Yang was contacted by the Hangzhou city government and asked to head up a new business that would manufacture and sell the same aniseed-flavoured lozenges that he had once sold by hand after his performances. There was very little money for the venture, but a small factory producing Little Fuzzy Brains opened in 1990, with six employees.

"In the beginning, we couldn't balance our costs, so we lost money," Mr. Yang explained, shuffling papers around on a desk cluttered by two ashtrays, an abacus and an ancient Philips telephone. Even when he's trying to look important, the 70-year-old grandfather seems more like the charming travelling magician he was than the busy chief executive officer he became.

Business took off in 1996 after Beijing launched a privatization campaign and Mr. Yang was allowed to go it alone without a state partner. His company now employs 12 people, and produces 9,000 boxes of Little Fuzzy Brains a year for sale across the country and occasionally for export.

"If there was no reform and opening, this business would be impossible. We'd still be selling underground, in a secret way," Mr. Yang said.

With his children grown and successful - and affluent enough to send his grandchildren to expensive universities - Mr. Yang is an optimist about where China is now headed. But instead of celebrating on Oct. 1, he says he'll be at his desk.

Like many in this country, where tens of millions are now lifting themselves out of poverty, it's as if he's still trying to make up for all the money he could have made had his early years gone differently.

For all China's recent economic progress, this still nominally socialist state has only rudimentary public health care and just the barest of pension programs, forcing people like Mr. Yang to worry about money at a time when someone like him in the West might be retired and enjoying his success. "I'd like to take the day off, but there's no time. I need to make more money. I need to save for my retirement."

The bestselling novel Brothers begins during the Cultural Revolution when one of the two main characters is caught trying to catch a glimpse of women's bottoms inside the public latrine. In those puritanical times, the character, then a teenage boy, is marched through the town and he and his family are publicly shamed. By the end of the novel, set amid the anything-goes capitalism of today's China, the same character owns a gold-plated toilet seat and hosts a beauty contests for virgins.

The book was criticized in some circles for its vulgarity, but Yu Hua, the Hangzhou-born author of Brothers, says he used graphic and sexual scenes to both capture the wild changes China has gone through in the past six decades and to shock readers into contemplating subjects - such as recent history and today's political system - that are often not discussed. The tactic worked: The novel sold more than one million copies inside China ("Not including fakes," Mr. Yu added proudly), while many others downloaded the book over the Internet, or directly onto their mobile phones.

"Many of my readers were shocked. But after the shock, they realized that yes, life really is like this," the 49-year-old said, sipping an espresso in the lobby of a Beijing hotel.

Like his characters, Mr. Yu came of age during the Cultural Revolution. Later, while studying at Beijing University, he joined the student-led pro-democracy demonstrations on Tiananmen Square. Mr. Yu argues that the military crackdown on those demonstrations - ordered by Mr. Deng - was the most important moment in the past 60 years since it led to today's awkward hybrid of a relatively open market economy with a tightly controlled, one-party political system. It was only this year that Mr. Yu acknowledged publicly for the first time that he had taken part in the Tiananmen protests.

"Before 1989, China's economic and political reforms were both developing. The political reforms were not moving as fast as the economic ones, but they were happening. After 1989, political reform completely stopped," he said. "This caused the social polarization and wide corruption in our society."

As critical as he is of the China's political system, Mr. Yu acknowledges that the fact that Brothers was published at all inside China is yet another sign of how far things have come since the madness of the Mao era.

"There's a lot for China to be proud of. People are richer, we enjoy more freedom," he conceded after some prodding. "For example, I'm talking to you right now, and I don't think I will get in a lot of trouble afterward, maybe just a warning. But if we had this conversation 30 years ago, I would be arrested right away."

Mr. Yu adds some more caveats. China's breakneck economic growth of recent decades is unsustainable, he says, and the rapidly expanding gap between largely urban upper and middle classes and the predominantly rural poor will cause major problems. Like Mr. Zhuang, the dissident lawyer, he worries that the collective amnesia induced by the Communist Party about its past crimes will leave the door open for a slide back into extremism.

But there's one point on which Mr. Yu and Mr. Zhuang agree with optimists such as Mr. Yang and Ms. Wu: The country is heading somewhere completely new that couldn't have been predicted when Mao proclaimed the People's Republic back in 1949.

Mr. Yu chuckled at the thought. "If Chairman Mao were alive today and he saw what China has changed to, I think he'd request that his portrait be taken down from Tiananmen Square."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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