Review of: Mao Declassified (2006)

Review of: Mao Declassified (2006)


This is a trashy, sensationalist documentary from the History Channel. The documentary does not even attempt to understand its subject. Instead, it relies on the orientalist and bourgeois prejudices of its
audience to fill in the blanks. The film portrays Mao as a power-mad Asian despot, blindly worshiped by mindless hordes. Rather than a scientific approach, the narrative of the documentary is informed by the great man theory. According to the narrative of the film, history is not a function of the conflict of social forces, instead, history is a series of great men who leave their imprints on our world. The opening narration says, “This is the story of the leader who will unleash terrible destruction on his own people. It is the story of a man who will end up a god in this godless country.” Even by bourgeois standards, this documentary is not up to par. Mao Declassified is far inferior to both Morning Sun (2003) and Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (2007).

Commentators include, among others: Henry Kissinger, war criminal; James Lilley, US Ambassador to China from 1989 to 1991; Ross Terrill, author of Mao: A Life; Anchee Min, author of Red Azalea; Ji-li Jiang author of Red Scarf Girl; Jan Wong, foreign correspondent, Globe and Mail. In addition, Mao’s physician Dr. Li Zhisui’s sensationalist, gossipy account of Mao’s personal life is quoted: “Mao contracts a venereal disease but women are proud to be infected as proof of their relationship with him.” The list of commentators is itself revealing. It is, literally, a meeting of the US State Department’s account overlapping with Chinese “victim/victimizer,” dark-age narratives, a genre that is sanctioned by the post-Maoist, revisionist state.

The first fifteen minutes focus on Mao’s life up to the Cultural Revolution. The remainder focuses on the Cultural Revolution through Mao’s death (1965 to 1976). The timeline portrayed in the documentary is roughly accurate, but sometimes misleading. The following topics are covered: the Great Leap, Mao’s loss of power to Liu Shaoqi, the opening cultural battles of the early Cultural Revolution, the mass movement period, the rise and fall of Lin Biao, the meetings between Mao and Nixon, the return of Deng Xiaoping, the death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four. One misleading element is that the Cultural Revolution is simply portrayed as Mao and the red guards versus the old Communist Party. In reality, the power struggles were much more complicated.

True to the movie’s method, Jiang Qing’s role in the Cultural Revolution is portrayed as a function of her psychology. She is said to be “very vain,” “cold,” “vindictive,” “humorless,” “ferocious” and “merciless.” She is Mao’s cat’s paw: “When Mao said bite, I bit.” She is “the red empress” who “brainwashes children” with her Maoist propaganda to elevate herself and Mao back to absolute power. The narrative elevates peripheral events as though they are the key to unlocking the orientalist mystery of the “murderous” regime. For example, the film focuses on the outwardly puritanical Jiang Qing’s alleged persecution of those who knew her from her Shanghai days when she was an actress. She is said to have persecuted those who knew her past sexual reputation. Even if all of this is true, it is not the best way to understand Jiang Qing’s role in the Cultural Revolution. The best way to examine her role is to examine her politics, her social program, the power blocs that she was a part of. Instead of examining this, the film crafts a story of Jiang Qing as though she were a character in a romance novel.

Similarly Lin Biao is portrayed as a “military genius,” “ambitious,” “unhappy,” “he feels he has not been granted enough power.” Lin Biao’s wife “like madame Mao is ambitious and plots an assassination attempt against Mao.” Rather than focusing on political differences that led to Lin Biao’s fall, the documentary focuses on the sensational, official, police narrative that Lin Biao was involved in a palace coup and an attempt to bomb Mao. The fallout between Mao and Lin Biao is portrayed as one of court politics, merely as a cynical power struggle. There was a power struggle between Mao and Lin Biao. However, it was not merely over personal power.

After the years of acute class struggle, there was an emphasis on returning to economic development. Despite the radical language of the Ninth Congress in April of 1969, after the end of the independent mass movements in 1968, the wind blew toward normalcy and economic development. This backlash occurred as the independent mass movements were ended and as those cadres who were deposed returned to power. As the power seizure phase of Cultural Revolution winds down after 1968, Lin Biao sought to preserve some of the gains of the early Cultural Revolution. He also sought continued radicalization in the countryside. The Flying Leap from 1968 to 1970 was accompanied by the continued prominent role played by the military in politics. It is probable that Mao did not want to embark on another radical social reorganization so soon; Mao opted for stabilization and normalcy. After the end of the independent mass movements and the purges of the alleged “May 16th Corps,” Lin Biao probably represented the single strongest Maoist power bloc beside Mao himself.

The fall of Lin Biao meant victory to the opponents of the Cultural Revolution known as the “adverse current” of 1967. It meant the ascent of Zhou Enlai and the right wing, provincial PLA commanders. Some of whom (Chen Yi and Deng Xiaoping), incidentally, were the architects of the shift in foreign relations toward the US that naturally evolved into the US-leaning policies in the 1970s and 1980s. Henry Kissinger comments, “Here is a man [Mao Zedong] who killed millions of peoples in pursuit of his fanatical ideology. And what he did was he’d separate his fanatical ideology for domestic reasons from foreign policy where he was a cold blooded Machiavellian.” This power bloc bought its time and easily overthrew the remainder of the Maoist forces, the Gang of Four, after Mao’s death in 1976.

In line with its trashy, sensationalist tone, the film focuses on the alleged coup against Mao. This is part of the police narrative generated against Lin Biao by the regime after his death. Whether Lin Biao launched a coup or not will probably never be known for sure. However, the narrative generated after Lin Biao’s fall has little credibility. Part of the police paradigm, the continual re-writing of history to suit the current needs of the leadership inevitably casts doubt on the credibility of any regime. This is not only true when looking at the official Lin Biao or Gang of Four narratives, which are almost identical, it is also true when looking at the narratives of the fall of revisionists. The film correctly points out that the fall of Lin Biao cast doubt on the Cultural Revolution itself.

In line with Chinese revisionist and Western, anti-communist narratives, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping are portrayed as the moderates who save the day after the chaos caused during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Nixon’s arrival in 1972 was “the beginning of a new era for China.” The film correctly portrays Mao Zedong as supporting the Zhou-Deng group and the Gang of Four in the 1970s even as those two power blocs fought each other. The film states that by the time of their overthrow, the Gang of Four were not very popular. This reflects that the Chinese masses had grown depoliticized and demoralized by their fall.

Mao Declassified commits every typical error found in bourgeois narratives of the Cultural Revolution within the first few minutes. From there, it goes downhill. Informed by the great man theory, the account is orientalist, sensationalist and gossipy. Watching it has the feel of reading a romance novel. Typical for the History Channel.

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