Welp. So much for another post about Xinjiang “next week.” My apologies to my readers (I’m sure all 12 of them were crushed).
I got…distracted. Work has been crazy, I’ve been writing for a few other sites with actual readerships, and I just recently moved into a new apartment.
Oh, right. And this happened.
After the election, my instinct (after suicide-by-tequila didn’t work) was to finally put that expensive, dust-gathering polysci degree to work and turn this into yet another aspiring political blog. I’m not sure how many “How Did We Get Here and What’s Next”-type posts I started and abandoned, but it’s definitely more than I’d care to admit. By my estimate, there are already roughly as many think-pieces about the election on the internet as there are pictures of cats.
But, although it would be very satisfying to complain about political spinelessness, the unwillingness to fact-check, or the mass acceptance of nonsensical madness, I feel like those angles are pretty well-covered. I’m not a pundit or a journalist and no one’s coming to me for political analysis. Besides, what you’d get from me would be less *analytical* and more *angry swearing.*
No, if there’s anything I’m good at, it’s telling stories. And if there’s anything I have some degree of specialized expertise on, it’s China. So if you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you a little story about China.
Once upon a time, China was Great. Emperors changed, dynasties rose and fell; but for centuries, the Middle Kingdom was the biggest, strongest, wealthiest, and most tremendously big-league nation on earth. People from around the world came to pay tribute. Kings everywhere wanted nothing more than to learn China’s secrets – everything from their military technology to their spice rack was the envy of the world.
(apparently no one had heard of GrubHub)
But, centuries of being the best can go to your head. The emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) came to believe that there was nothing the Heavenly Kingdom could learn from the rest of the world. Foreign inventions – often improvements on things the Chinese themselves had invented centuries earlier – were ignored or even destroyed. Policies of haijin (海禁; literally “sea-ban”) cut off international trade and led to the great fleets of Zheng He being abandoned. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) became so weak that it was unable to fight off the imperial aggression of newly rich and powerful Western nations; eventually, the empire collapsed. China was, by any measure, no longer Great.
The Qing were succeeded by a “Republic” of China that lasted through WWII. This era was characterized by ineffective governance, warlords fighting for power, and – eventually – brutal war with the Japanese. But after WWII ended, the fight for the soul of China culminated in a civil war between the Nationalists (the leaders of the Republic) and the Communists (no introduction necessary). The Chinese Civil War is a fascinating story in its own right, but for now let’s just skip to the obvious ending: the Communists won; their leader became China’s leader. That leader was Mao Zedong, and he promised to Make China Great Again.
“Now hold on a damn second,” I hear my openminded-yet-skeptical conservative friends say: “Mao was a communist; Trump is, like, the opposite of that! If anything, all his faults call to mind a far-right facist-type, not a communist revolutionary! Where r u going with this, dummy?”
Well, bear with me.
(I wonder if they took that picture with a kodiak)
((this whole process is just pandamonium))
(((we’re concerned that you lack the proper koalafications)))
((((trump’s appointments give us paws))))
…ok, sorry. moving on.
Obviously Chairman Mao and – god help me – President Trump had/have wildly different mission statements. Mao wanted to collectivize everything, eliminate private property, and give the power back to the people. Trump wants to minimize the role of government, unleash the full potential of capitalism, and give the power back to you…the American people.
Snarky attempts to make Trump look like a super-villain aside – which is silly, because Bane had cool outfits and was in good shape – I see and acknowledge your point, my imaginary friend. Yes, Mao was a communist. He fundamentally opposed the notion of private property. He wanted to collectivize labor. He didn’t think there should be any role for the free market. Trump loves business. He loves profits and capitalism. He thinks the free market should rule. Their underlying philosophies are/were entirely different.
But I’m not here for their philosophies. I’m here for their governing realities. So hush up and let me continue the tale of woe:
Upon taking power, Mao’s first big decision was to send the army into Korea to show everyone how Great his new nation was. Well, that’s not exactly true – the very first thing he did was construct a whole bunch of luxurious accommodations for himself near the Forbidden City, including a giant indoor swimming pool (interpret as you will). But after doing a few laps, he got into the Korean War. Now, for all his questionable qualities, Mao was clearly a pretty good general. The fact that his brand new nation’s army managed to hold their own against the USA helped to cement his power and really got the ball rolling on that whole cult of personality thing he’s so fondly remembered for.
just an ordinary sun-god of the people
It was in 1958 that Mao really rolled up his sleeves to start ruining shit. Of course, things were already kinda sub-par; there were millions of landowners being executed and sent to die in labor camps in the name of “land reform” from day one, anyone considered a capitalist was being purged, there were mass suicides, blah blah blah. I’m talking about really ruining shit on a macro level. Mao was determined to make China go full-blown-communist basically overnight, so in 1958 he started the Great Leap Forward (the first of Mao’s two Great Chinese Disasters). Everyone was grouped into farming communes; the theory was, the Great People’s Revolutionary Spirit would be able to build up the country much quicker than silly things like profits or incentives or markets of any kind. The whole thing failed miserably, and tens of millions of people starved to death.
but here is a puppy!
Now, I’m an American living in modern China. I believe in the power of free markets because I see the results every day. I believe that communism as a theory is flawed because without tangible motivation, far fewer people will be driven to excel in their field. We’re human, and the vast majority of us work harder when there’s a real, non-philosophical reward on the line. I am not a communist. Please remember that as you read the next sentence.
The thing is, The Great Leap Forward didn’t cause the deaths of tens of millions of people just because of how flawed Communism is. There’s no doubt in my mind that the collectivization of farmers into communes would have failed to Make China Great Again even if it had been perfectly executed, but there’s a pretty big gap between “economic failure” and “we just killed roughly the population of France.” No, the Great Leap Forward caused the greatest man-made famine in human history because of stunning incompetence, an absolute refusal to fact-check, and sycophantic devotion to – and fear of – a leader who didn’t know what the f@#k he was doing.
Here’s the simple 12-step program from hell that got China from “we’re gonna farm together” to “oh shit, everyone’s dead.”
1.) Mao makes everyone go work on communes together. 2.) Private property and the free market are abolished. 3.) Everyone works on these communes. 4.) Utterly moronic agricultural and industrial practices are put into place. 5.) Some wheat is left to rot in the fields because of these stupid practices. 6.) The leaders of the communes all lie about how much wheat they harvested because they don’t want to look bad. 7.) Government officials use the made-up statistics to decide how much grain to take back to the cities and/or export. 8.) Barely any food gets left behind for the actual farmers, and people begin to starve. 9.) No one will admit that there’s a problem. 10.) Propaganda showing that China is producing ludicrous grain surpluses is put out. 11.) Farming and industrial practices get even dumber because when in doubt, double down on the stupid. 12.) The vicious cycle of exaggeration and bureaucratic fuckups continues. Result: something in the realm of 50 million people unnecessarily starve to death, sell their children, turn to cannibalism, and murder each other for a few grains of rice.
it is ok! look at the puppy! he is bigger now!
Now, I mentioned moronic farming and industrial practices, but “moronic” doesn’t quite do them justice. A few highlights:
- “Backyard Furnaces” meant to make China a steel-producing giant, despite no one involved having any idea how steel was made; peasants were required to melt down their pots/pans/silverware to produce essentially worthless scrap metal.
- The “Four Pests Campaign” to rid China of mosquitos, rats, sparrows (cause they eat seeds), etc. This involved brilliant ideas like tearing up grass so mosquitos couldn’t breed and banging a lot of pots and pans to scare off birds. It later evolved into all-out war against China’s bird population. Turns out, birds eat a lot of bugs, and this led to – no joke – literal plagues of locusts.
- Massive irrigation projects carried out by thousands of untrained peasants and – key point here – no engineers. Predictable results. Lotta wasted time and effort. Lotta dead people. The pile of bodies was only outweighed by the pile of f@#ks Mao famously didn’t give.
Being the highly skilled and attractive pattern-recognizer that you are, I’m guessing you see a common thread: nobody with any relevant expertise running things. Mao tried to build dams with no engineers; he thought he could out-produce the U.S. in steel within 5 years despite knowing jack shit about metallurgy; and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t consulting scientists before sending people out to murder every bird in China.
Mao believed that devotion to the cause – and him – firmly outweighed technical expertise in any field. Formally, this is referred to as the concept of “Reds” vs “Experts.” The theory is, an engineer may know how to build a bridge, but if he isn’t properly devoted to the People’s Revolution, the bridge will be built on a rotting foundation; that’s your “expert.” But, someone who is properly devoted to the cause and thus is sufficiently “red;” that person has everything he or she needs; their strength of will and innate gifts will help them get the job done. The “red” can learn to build a bridge, but the “expert” will never have the loyalty and devotion to properly advance the revolution.
Now, on a completely and utterly unrelated note, let’s take a look at a few of President Trump’s cabinet picks:
- Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education: Has never been a teacher, never worked in a school, never attended any form of public education, never sent her kids to any form of public education, and thinks grizzly bears are a valid part of the discussion about guns in schools.
- Ben Carson for HUD Secretary: Literally zero experience in government, public policy, or housing policy. Not much else to say. I suppose he lives in a house, right?
(then again, maybe he’s living out of that super important suitcase)
- Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State: Ironically one of the more qualified, if only because Exxon essentially has its own CIA. Still zero government or diplomatic experience, though.
- Nikki Haley for UN Ambassador: Political Experience: Governor of a U.S. State. Diplomatic Experience: searching……..searching…..Bueller…….Bueller….
- Steven Mnuchin for Treasury Secretary: Still no government experience of any kind, but at least knows about money. Hiding it from the IRS, foreclosing on little old ladies, etc…
- Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy: Forgot the department’s name while suggesting it should be abolished. Thought being Secretary of Energy meant being an ambassador for U.S. oil and gas companies abroad until he was informed otherwise.
Make your own jokes in the comments. I’m tired and sad.
Now, even if you think those people are all wonderful patriots who will do Great Things as the heads of Trump’s Cabinet, it is objectively true (remember when facts were a thing?) that they have an unprecedented lack of relevant experience. They’re – with the possible exception of Mnuchin – definitely not *experts.*
But they are pretty gosh-darn red; that is to say, GOP-Elephant-Red. Perry endorsed Trump back in May and spoke at the convention. Betsy DeVos and her family have donated many, many millions of dollars to the Republican Party over the years. Ben Carson and Trump have seemingly been buddies ever since Trump helped him find his way onto the debate stage (though admittedly, having a token black guy doesn’t exactly fit the Mao Mold). Interestingly, Tillerson and Trump seem to disagree on quite a lot; but they can probably reach some common ground on that $500 billion oil deal with Russia. Nikki Haley managed to walk back her seemingly principled anti-Trump stance far ahead enough of the election to secure her spot, and the less said about Steve “John-Oliver’s-Swamp-Dwelling-Evil-Twin” Mnuchin and the rest of the Goldman Gang, the better.
It makes sense, after all: Trump rewards loyalty. People who stuck their neck out for him – especially back in the day when it was a politically risky move – are now enjoying the payoff from their big gamble. That’s why Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and Sarah Palin are just a few simple confirmation hearings away from holding the highest offices in the land!
Interestingly, Mao’s inner circle was also a notoriously unstable place to be. Lin Biao – one of the top generals in the Chinese Civil War – became Mao’s chosen sucessor after helping to get the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s super-duper-nutso-personality-cult going. Mao regularly heaped lavish praise on Lin; he was easily the second most powerful man in China right up until they had a falling out and his plane to Mongolia mysteriously crashed. Details are sketchy, but let’s just say later editions of the Little Red Book stopped having nice things to say about poor Mr. Lin. Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi were denounced as capitalists and purged after pulling China out of its Great Leap Forward death spiral (ironically, Deng Xiaoping would go on to pull China out of yet another death spiral at the end of the Cultural Revolution). Mao was famously paranoid – as all-powerful dictators tend to be – and on top of that, his wife was constantly murdering-by-proxy anyone who looked at her funny.
[side note: Mao was already on his fourth wife by the time he took power, so Mr. Trump will have to accelerate the schedule a bit if he wants to be winning this competition]
I’ll try to hurry up and finish the story with the Cultural Revolution. Basically, even Mao couldn’t prevent a bit of logic from taking over when half the countryside had starved to death, so Deng Xiaoping and others stepped in to allow a bit of market reform and shut down the idiocy of the Great Leap Forward. They even gave him a plausible out: “Look, boss, you’re a philosophical/politial genius. You shouldn’t be wasting your time on boring economic stuff. Let us handle the day-to-day mundanities so you can focus all your massive brainpower on writing and theorizing!” And that worked.
Owing perhaps to his newfound free time spent contemplating political theory – that’s certainly the official party line – Mao re-emerged on the scene with some big ideas about re-energizing the revolution. He felt that the problem of the Great Leap Forward wasn’t that his ideas had gone too far – no, they hadn’t gone far enough. After a few warm-up purges to get back in shape – the Mayor of Beijing, his Propaganda Director, etc. – he announced to all of China that there was to be a GLORIOUS PEOPLE’S CULTURAL REVOLUTION that would purge the nation of elitist bourgeois elements and truly bring power back to you…the people.
Like the Chinese Civil War, the Cultural Revolution is so big and complex that it can and does fill up countless books. I’d recommend “Life and Death in Shanghai” if you’d like a really interesting (and tragic) story that gives both on-the-ground experience and a worldly/educated perspective. But here’s the short version: Mao told all the youth and angry citizens of China to go out and make revolution; to denounce the elites and educated; to smash anything old and traditional. And they did – spectacularly. Millions of people lost their homes, possessions, families, and lives. Countless people were simply beaten to death or left to rot in prisons. An entire generation of students lost their chance at any kind of real education. Books, films, and other works of art were burned and banned. Temples and other religious institutions were smashed and looted. Shit went south. Shit went south fast.
Again, I’m not trying to draw a 1-1 parallel to Trump; but even the officially stated goals of the Cultural Revolution didn’t differ all that much from the new President’s campaign rhetoric – just swap *the old* for *the new*. Trump proclaims hatred for the elites and wants to *drain the swamp* while filling his cabinet with billionaires. Mao denounced former landowners and capitalists while he and his buddies lived like kings through a system of organized corruption. In the Cultural Revolution, foreigners were expelled and foreign companies denounced as sucking the life out of China; remind you of anyone? The Cultural Revolution empowered those who were uneducated and legitimately oppressed by the system to take out their rage on everyone they perceived as being different or having unfair advantages. Mao and Trump even communicated in much the same way: short and snappy quotes broadcasted directly to the public that everyone chanted even if they didn’t make any sense.
(if your reaction is to point out that the jesus one is fake, you might be missing the bigger picture)
But for all my snark and possible false equivalencies, there’s one thing that stands out to me above all else: a complete and utter disregard for facts. Mao was so obsessed with his power and his image and his infallibility that, to him, anything that contradicted his perspective – even when contradicting himself – simply didn’t exist or was an invention of his enemies. Pots and pans can’t be melted down into steel? Nonsense – the people’s will shall prevail! The communes aren’t working? Of course they are! My ideas are the best! A trusted advisor has voiced a dissenting opinion? He is clearly plotting against me and must be destroyed. Inconvenient facts under Mao were at best ignored and at worst used to destroy those bold enough to utter them.
Mao Zedong ignored the advice of experts because he either didn’t believe or didn’t want to hear the uncomfortable realities they offered. His propaganda team took care of the rest – and at times it was unclear how much or to what extent Mao knew his policies were failing. Take the famine for example: it didn’t matter that the most cursory examination showed that millions of people were starving to death, because look! A picture of happy children standing on strong Chinese wheat!
And in the Cultural Revolution, Mao bypassed propaganda and the press entirely, preferring to speak directly to the people via public addresses. In these addresses, he railed against foreigners, traitorous former allies, and everything that generally was an enemy of the revolution. Of course, no one ever commented on the fact that something or someone Mao loved one week might be an enemy of the people the next.
*I always compare people I love to Nazis! It’s just locker room talk!*
I started writing this post the day of the Inauguration. Since then, President Donald Trump and his team have threatened and berated the press, fired all our ambassadors with next to no replacements lined up, mocked one of the most good-natured peaceful protests of all time, made outrageous and easily disproven claims about his fucking crowd size (I’d crack a joke about dick-measuring contests, but hey, he’s already done that for real), and literally, word-for-word, described their version of reality as “alternative facts.”
goddamn biased liberal media and their….erm…..CGI interviews?
This is a road China is all too familiar with.
Mao Zedong, for all his failings, really did want to make China Great Again. Sure, he was a dictatorial, hypocritical narcissist who always put his own desires first and discounted the lives of millions of people. But he wasn’t Hitler. He didn’t want to kill tens of millions of people. He didn’t try to conquer the world. He had ideas about how to make China the Greatest country on earth and he failed because he was a terrible peacetime leader. He was so petty, so obsessed with everyone loving him, so unwilling to listen to inconvenient facts, so distrustful of any media that wasn’t his own, so paranoid about the intentions of other nations, and so inexperienced in serious day-to-day governance that he nearly destroyed China.
pictured: two perfectly well-adjusted men with nothing in common
If you voted for Trump and this all seems like poor sportsmanship from the losing team, more power to you, I suppose. He’s gonna try to build his wall. He’s full steam ahead on the Muslim ban. The war with the press is intensifying. The line between propaganda and reality is getting blurrier every day as Trump and his team insist that no amount of facts, research, or general consensus is enough to determine objective truth; anything that makes him look bad is fake news. If you can look me in the eyes (let’s Skype sometime!) and tell me you don’t see the worrisome similarities, then you are to be congratulated on your shining optimism (I may question your pattern recognition skills, but that’s a small price to pay for such a positive attitude).
For the rest of us; I don’t think anyone knows exactly what the next four years hold. But I’m scared that the old line about those forgetting history being doomed to repeat it is becoming more relevant every day.