03 December, 2006

The Face of Evil: China, Mao and the Rootlessness of Human Philosophy

I am eagerly working my way through Dr. Ravi Zacharias phenomenally rich and insightful book, "Deliver Us From Evil" (not to be confused with Sean Hannity's more recent book by the same title). My copy is already dog-eared and fat from so many turned down pages that invite deeper thought, prayer and re-reading. Needless to say: highly recommended. One gem caught my eye this morning. Writing about relativism in its fullest sense, Zacharias notes:

...wickedness can only be defined in relation to the purpose for which we are created and on the basis of the character of the Creator. Wickedness does no depend on the whims and fancies of a given culture at a given moment. [emphasis added]
In other words, evil can--in fact, must--be defined in absolute, enduring terms (with reference to absolute, enduring good and not to its changing, watered-down imitations). Whatever layers of intellectualizing or indoctrination we may drape over that innate sense, we still "know it [evil] when we see it" at a gut level.

To that point, Zacharias relates an anecdote from a speech he gave in Hong Kong after which a member of the audience came up to talk with him. The man asserted the exact opposite, i.e., that there was no way to define evil outside of culture, if such a thing as evil could be said to exist at all. Zacharias queried the man further:
"Suppose I were to take a newborn baby, bring it to this platform, and proceed with a sharp sword to mutilate that child. Are you saying to me that there is nothing actually wrong or evil in that deed?"
The man's response, with a shrug: "I may not like it, but I cannot call it morally wrong." Zacharias responded:
"How incongruous it is, even by your own philosophy, that while denying the fact of evil you are unable to completely shake off the feeling... [that] you would not like it. An understatement I hope."
All of which got me thinking this morning--about evil, and about the venue in which this exchange had taken place (China). And so it was likely no accident that I tripped over this book review (of "Mao's Last Revolution") shortly after putting down Zacharias. Two hours later, I found myself lunching with a Chinese friend ('P'), born in Canton in 1959. 'P' grew up through Mao's Cultural Revolution, emigrated to the United States in 1987, and (among other things) become a Christian here. But before I share his remarks, it's worth noting the book review:
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the start of China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. According to a later Chinese Communist Party official, one hundred million people were killed, driven to suicide, beaten, convicted in "unjust, false, and erroneous cases," "sent down," or otherwise affected by what Chinese now call the "ten-year catastrophe." Yet the anniversary was greeted by silence in China and abroad. At home, people are not allowed to commemorate Mao's horrors, because the current leaders sustain their regime through the same internal secrecy and arbitrary repression that made the Cultural Revolution possible. Abroad, people think that China has changed so much that its old tragedies are no longer relevant. Besides, it is not polite to remind our trading partners of events that they wish to forget. [emphasis added]
Nowhere in the lengthy review does the word 'evil' appear.

Miraculously, my friend lost nobody in his immediate family during those years. His expression and trailing voice however, left no doubt that he was still haunted by memories of others. It's an expression I've seen before.

He related how Mao's Little Red Book was taken far more seriously than virtually anyone in the west takes the Bible today. 'P' recalled being stopped on the street by officials and fellow citizens and being forced to recite passages from it by rote before being allowed to proceed on his bicycle.

The form and style of the "little red book", its superficial resemblance to some aspects of Christianity (e.g., community-building), and procedures for public indoctrination into its teachings, 'P' noted, had all been a deliberate choices on Mao's part--modeled after the Bible.

In short, Mao put himself in the place of God. He was hardly the first, and certainly not the last to do so. Yet compared to Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Slobodon Milosevic and countless others, Mao continues to receive a hall pass by a fawning Western media and liberal intelligentsia. It's a level of undeserved respect they accord no other mass-murdering dictator with such consistency.

It was a very dark time--one that 'P' was thankful to have escaped. Yet even in this man--fully Westernized, highly educated and thoroughly committed to Christ--there lingered a trace of the powerful clutch of evil philosophy, dressed up as 'good' and perpetuated by a West eager to re-paint 'modern' China to its liking. "The little red book", 'P' said, "is full of good sayings. It's just that they were implemented incorrectly. Mao was a hypocrite and didn't follow them."

I gave him an incredulous look, challenging him to explain this. 'P' knew, he said, that the result in China had been utter evil. He had lived it and fled it and shuddered to remember it. 'P' owns at least two Bibles--one in English, one in Mandarin. He reads them regularly. Yet even he could not completely shake the ideas with which Mao had sought, in P's youth, to supplant that truth.

Had things been implemented differently, by more virtuous men, he opined, a murderously inhuman philosophy might have turned out better. "Power corrupts", 'P' acknowledged. And it does so with unusual speed and severity when the goalposts for virtue (both civic and personal) are allowed to shift. He could have added: always.

UPDATE: Lots more worth pondering in this article reflecting on Mao's legacy today.
Because Mao, the Great Helmsman, is now a symbol of national assertion, the Chinese people are not officially permitted to remember that he essentially enslaved them. China’s Communist party has also forgiven him for some of the greatest crimes of the 20th century—crimes that led to the deaths of anywhere between 30 and 70 million people, virtually all of them Chinese. Most of those deaths resulted from Mao’s attempts to remake Chinese society as he saw fit...

Protests [in China] have not only become bigger in size; they are now more numerous. In 1994, there were 10,000 such “mass incidents”; by 2003 there were 58,000; in 2004 and 2005 there were 74,000 and 87,000 respectively. This is according to official statistics, which undoubtedly undercount. According to the legal activist Jerome Cohen, a truer figure for the last year may be 150,000...

Mao regimented the Chinese people, oppressed them, clothed them in totalitarian garb, and denied them their individuality. Today, they may not be free, but they are assertive, dynamic, and sassy. A mall-shopping, Internet-connected, trend-crazy people, they are remaking their country at breakneck speed. Deprived for decades, they do not only want more, they want everything...

As Tocqueville observed, “steadily increasing prosperity” does not tranquilize citizens; on the contrary, it promotes “a spirit of unrest.” [emphasis added]
That last bit should be food for thought for us as well...