Understanding China Begins With a Look at Mao

The Los Angeles Times’ Susan Spano travels to Mao Zedong’s hometown of Shaoshan and looks at the lingering impact of his policies on China today:

In the West, however, he is remembered as the instigator of bloody purges, disastrous agrarian reforms and that heinous episode of national self-violation known as the Cultural Revolution. The first sentence of “Mao: The Unknown Story,” a unilaterally condemning biography of the Chinese leader published in 2005 by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, puts it this way: “Mao . . . who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other 20th century leader.”

There is no hint of this at his immaculately preserved birthplace in Shaoshan, the first stop on a trip across China I took last spring to try to resolve in my own mind the apparently irreconcilable contradictions that surround Mao’s legacy and modern China. If I were ever to understand why the Communist government acts as it does in matters as consequential as press freedom, the recent crackdown on protesters in Tibet and its vilification of the Dalai Lama, it seemed necessary to me, as a foreigner, to try see China’s recent past as the Chinese might see it.

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