NY Times: Sure Mao killed millions but he made great feminist propaganda

The NY Times, the paper that ignored the crimes against humanity committed by Stalin as they were happening, is now looking to provide the same treatment retroactively to Mao Zedong. In its ongoing “Red Century” series, the Times published a piece yesterday arguing that Mao represented a great leap forward for women:

“The Communists did many terrible things,” my grandmother always says at the end of her reminiscences. “But they made women’s lives much better.”

That often-repeated dictum sums up the popular perception of Mao Zedong’s legacy regarding women in China. As every Chinese schoolchild learns in history class, the Communists rescued peasant daughters from urban brothels and ushered cloistered wives into factories, liberating them from the oppression of Confucian patriarchy and imperialist threat.

The piece goes on to suggest that, in reality, women were not treated as equals. They didn’t get the best jobs and they were expected to be responsible for most of the work in the home as well. But the Communist Chinese did put out plenty of party propaganda presenting an idealized image of equality:

The state rolled out propaganda campaigns aimed at not only enlisting women in the work force but also shaping their self-perception. Posters, textbooks and newspapers propagated images and narratives that, devoid of any particularities of personal experiences, depicted women as men’s equal in outlook, value and achievement. For women in the workplace to adhere to this narrowly defined acceptable female image meant to see, understand and speak about their life not as it was, but as what it ought to be according to the party ideal.

All of this feminist propaganda might be fine if it weren’t a package deal with a dictatorship that murdered tens of millions of men, women, and children. And that’s really an undeniable part of this story that this piece dismisses offhand. Historian Frank Dikötter was given access to the Communist Party archives and in 2010 he published an award-winning book titled “Mao’s Great Famine; The Story of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe.” The Independent published a summary of his findings:

Mr Dikötter, who has been studying Chinese rural history from 1958 to 1962, when the nation was facing a famine, compared the systematic torture, brutality, starvation and killing of Chinese peasants to the Second World War in its magnitude. At least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over these four years; the worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million.

Mr Dikötter is the only author to have delved into the Chinese archives since they were reopened four years ago. He argued that this devastating period of history – which has until now remained hidden – has international resonance. “It ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust as one of the three greatest events of the 20th century…. It was like [the Cambodian communist dictator] Pol Pot’s genocide multiplied 20 times over,” he said…

State retribution for tiny thefts, such as stealing a potato, even by a child, would include being tied up and thrown into a pond; parents were forced to bury their children alive or were doused in excrement and urine, others were set alight, or had a nose or ear cut off. One record shows how a man was branded with hot metal. People were forced to work naked in the middle of winter; 80 per cent of all the villagers in one region of a quarter of a million Chinese were banned from the official canteen because they were too old or ill to be effective workers, so were deliberately starved to death.

This is a record of mass murder which really shouldn’t be brushed aside with the anodyne statement “the Communists did many terrible things.” The fact that the authors’ grandmother, working as a “journalist” spreading Mao’s propaganda, was in some sense complicit in the regime may explain her refusal to reckon with the depths of Mao’s destruction. It doesn’t explain the NY Times’ willingness to sidestep it decades later.