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Chairman of the Board

How Mao unintentionally created China’s capitalist revolution.

In his opening remarks at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual meeting between high ranking U.S. and Chinese officials, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke about his first visit to China in 1976, the year that Chairman Mao Zedong died. "It was already clear then," he said on July 10, "that China stood on the cusp of remarkable change." That was 37 years ago, when China was still one of the poorest countries in the world -- even after a century of experimentation with one formula after another for making their nation wealthy and powerful again.

It was by no means clear back then whether the incipient changes Biden sensed would really take hold. Few imagined that by the early 21st century, China would be in a position to challenge the United States economically, militarily, and even in the contest for soft power. So, after spending so many generations mired in a cycle of failed reform and revolution, how did China finally manage to chin itself up into its present period of prolonged economic dynamism?  

One of the most interesting and paradoxical explanations originates with Mao, the very person who had such a destructive effect on China in the last decades of his life. By razing the edifice of old China as relentlessly as he did, Mao may have actually cleared the way for Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's subsequent reforms, thereby playing a role in China's rebirth that the Chairman could never have imagined while alive.

No leader in 20th-century China was more totalistic and unrelenting in attacking traditional culture than Mao. Under his despotic rule, China's Confucian heritage and old social values system was subject to a series of relentless assaults unequaled in history. Since the early 20th century, reformers such as the public intellectual Liang Qichao and political leader Sun Yat-sen had recognized that China's modernization would require the destruction of the old to make way for the new. They sought to transform a docile populace into an energetic and patriotic citizenship and turn a xenophobic ruling class into a cosmopolitan and modernist elite. But none of Mao's predecessors had been able -- or willing -- to muster the same ideological boldness, much less the organizational fortitude and leadership ruthlessness, to challenge China's thousands of years of continuous culture aggressively enough to actually neutralize tradition's drag on modernization.

As a young man, Mao was a disciple of both Liang and Sun, but was made of far sterner stuff. He ultimately embraced a far more extreme form of revolution -- one that insisted on constant, violent upheaval. Where others succeeded only in muting the influence of China's ancient culture, Mao nearly extirpated its very roots, and thus its hold on several subsequent generations of Chinese. His successive political and ideological campaigns, culminating in the riotous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that ended only with his death, all but severed the bonds of tradition that had fixed father over son, husband over wife, master over student, family over individual, past over future, and continuity over change. The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966, was a lost decade of violent criticism sessions against parents, teachers, and party cadres, of urban youths being sent down to rural backwaters, and of vicious power struggles among top leaders. Mao's mass campaigns such as "Criticize Confucius and Lin Biao" and "Destroy the Four Olds" made Chinese tradition itself into the enemy of the revolution.

The bonds of that tradition had tormented earlier reformers, many of whom confessed to being unable to escape it themselves. Lu Xun, a master of modern Chinese literature, admitted to "constantly rediscovering in myself ... odious thoughts that the ancients recorded in their works." A profound influence on Mao, Lu hoped at least the next generation could be spared: "Let the conscious man assume the heavy burden of tradition, let him arch his back under the gate of darkness to allow his children to escape into the free space and light where they may spend their days in happiness and lead a truly human life." It was that "gate of darkness" which Mao sought to demolish.

But, so powerful was the hold of the past that later in their lives the first generations of reformers were almost all ineluctably drawn back into the "gate of darkness" of traditional values and culture from which they had so energetically sought to escape. Liang, Lu, and even Communist Party founder Chen Duxiu all returned to Chinese classical scholarship late in life, finding a solace in the ancient texts as they faced their own mortality and a society so stubbornly resistant to change.

Seen through such a historical lens, the wrecking ball of Mao's revolution can appear in a different light, as an instrument that was savage but necessary to clear the way for whatever might follow. It is true that Mao's final two decades -- from the Anti-Rightist Campaign and Great Leap Forward through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution -- were to a horrifying degree "lost" years for China. Tens of millions of people endured persecution in the name of Mao's "permanent revolution;" tens of millions more died from the famine caused by Mao's reckless economic policies. As Chen Yun, Mao's comrade in arms since the 1930s, summed up his legacy: "Had Chairman Mao died in 1956, there would have been no doubt that he was a great leader of the Chinese people.... Had he died in 1966, his meritorious achievements would have been somewhat tarnished, but his overall record was still very good. Since he actually died in 1976, there is nothing we can do about it."

Looked at through the cold eye of history, however, it may have been precisely those periods of Mao's most uncompromising nihilism that demolished China's old society, freeing Chinese from their traditional moorings. Mao's brutal interim was perhaps the essential, but paradoxical, precursor to China's subsequent boom under Deng and his successors, catapulting the Chinese into their present single-minded and unrestrained pursuit of wealth and power.

Even Harvard's John Fairbank, the founder of modern Chinese studies in the United States (and by no means a Mao enthusiast), could appreciate the purgative virtue of the Chairman's permanent revolution. "In the old society teachers were venerated by students, women were submissive to their husbands, and age was deferred to by youth," wrote Fairbank in 1980. "Breaking down such a system took a long time because one had to change one's basic values and assumptions accepted in childhood. The times called for a leader of violent willpower, a man so determined to smash the old bureaucratic establishment that he would stop at nothing."

For better or worse, Mao was such a man -- modern China's "perennial gale of creative destruction," in economist Joseph Schumpeter's famous phrase; or, as Liang Qichao had yearned at the dawn of the 20th century, a leader willing to "carry out harsh rule, and with iron and fire forge and temper our countrymen for 20, 30, even 50 years."

In 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to prevent China from "taking the capitalist road," yet ironically his efforts ended up having precisely the opposite effect. "A common verdict is, ‘no Cultural Revolution, no economic reform,'" declare Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, leading historians of the period, in their 2008 book Mao's Last Revolution. "The Cultural Revolution was so great a disaster that it provoked an even more profound cultural revolution, precisely the one that Mao intended to forestall."

By force-marching Chinese society away from its old ways of doing things, Mao presented Deng with a vast construction site on which the demolition of old structures and strictures had been mostly completed, making it shovel-ready for Deng's bold new policy of reform and opening up. Mao's epic destructiveness, which was supposed to prepare China for his version of utopian socialism, instead paved the way for China's transformation into exactly the kind of capitalist economy that he most reviled during his lifetime, but also a nation that Mao, like every modern Chinese reformer before him, dreamed of fashioning: a strong and prosperous one. The question for Chinese leaders now is what exactly they intend to do with their newfound and hard-fought wealth and power -- and the challenge for the United States, is how to best help shape the answer in ways beneficial for both nations' people. 

China Photos/Getty Images

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Let's Consider Kate

John Lanchester • London Review of Books

On the dangerous state of U.K. banks and how they can be fixed.

The linked difficulty, or the overarching problem of which this is a sub-category, is to do with bank culture. Let's for a moment propose a counterfactual, in which one of the big banks was headed not by a banker but by someone whose central focus in life was the attempt to be better, both personally and in the corporate sphere. Let's raise the stakes and make this person a professional ethicist, greatly admired by his peers, who writes books about the need for banking to be a moral enterprise. Leadership is important; although plenty of people who specialise in bullshit love saying that, the fact is that it's true: leadership is very important. So what would a big bank be like with a person of that calibre and focus in charge? How much difference would he or she be able to make? As it happens, we know the answer. The bank was HSBC, and the person in charge as CEO and then as chairman of the board was Stephen Green, who is an ordained minister in the Church of England. One of the four biggest UK banks literally had a priest in charge. His first book on banking ethics is Serving God? Serving Mammon? and his second is called Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World. As for how that worked out, well, it was on his watch that Mexican drug-dealers made special boxes to deliver drug cartel money over the deposit counter. It was while the Anglican minister was running things that HSBC undertook criminal actions which led to a fine of $1.9 billion. So the counterfactual isn't really counter to anything.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

40 Minutes in Benghazi

Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz • Vanity Fair

The story of the attack that killed U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, told from the perspective of the security agents there to protect him.

A. leaned upward, glancing out through the murky transparency of his window, peering across the bars at the violence before him. He watched as the fuel bearers inched their way forward toward the residence, and he limbered up the fingers of his shooter's hand as he laid a line of sight onto the targets closing the distance to the villa. He controlled his breathing in preparation to take that first shot. He found himself relying on his instincts, his experience, and, above all, his training. The purpose of the training that DS agents receive-the extensive tactical and evasive-driving skills that are hammered into each and every new member-is to show them how to buy time and space with dynamic skill and pragmatic thought. The DS trains its agents to analyze threats with their minds and gut instincts and not with their trigger fingers.

In that darkened bunker of the villa's safe haven, A. faced a life-changing or life-ending decision that few of even the most experienced DS agents have ever had to make: play Rambo and shoot it out or remain unseen and buy time?

STR/AFP/GettyImages

Woman's Work

Francesca BorriColumbia Journalism Review

The life of a woman war correspondent in Syria.

Freelancers are second-class journalists-even if there are only freelancers here, in Syria, because this is a dirty war, a war of the last century; it's trench warfare between rebels and loyalists who are so close that they scream at each other while they shoot each other. The first time on the frontline, you can't believe it, with these bayonets you have seen only in history books. Today's wars are drone wars, but here they fight meter by meter, street by street, and it's fucking scary. Yet the editors back in Italy treat you like a kid; you get a front-page photo, and they say you were just lucky, in the right place at the right time. You get an exclusive story, like the one I wrote last September on Aleppo's old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, burning as the rebels and Syrian army battled for control. I was the first foreign reporter to enter, and the editors say: "How can I justify that my staff writer wasn't able to enter and you were?" I got this email from an editor about that story: "I'll buy it, but I will publish it under my staff writer's name."

And then, of course, I am a woman. One recent evening there was shelling everywhere, and I was sitting in a corner, wearing the only expression you could have when death might come at any second, and another reporter comes over, looks me up and down, and says: "This isn't a place for women." What can you say to such a guy? Idiot, this isn't a place for anyone.

ABO AL-NUR SADK/AFP/Getty Images

CSI: Italian Renaissance

Tom Mueller • Smithsonian

Examining 500-year-old remains inside Pisa's premiere paleopathology laboratory.

Strangest of all, however, were the results of pollen analysis and immunochemical tests conducted on Cangrande's intestines and liver. Fornaciari isolated pollen from two plants: Matricaria chamomilla and Digitalis purpurea. "Chamomile," he told me, "was used as a sedative; Cangrande could have drunk it as a tea. But foxglove? That shouldn't have been there." The plant contains digoxin and digitoxine, two potent heart stimulants, which in doses like those detected in Cangrande's body can cause cardiac arrest. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, foxglove was used as a poison.

In fact, the symptoms mentioned by contemporary chroniclers-diarrhea, stomach pains and fever-matched those of digoxin and digitoxine poisoning. Hence, Fornaciari concluded, Cangrande had been murdered. As it happens, a contemporary chronicler reported that a month after Cangrande's death, one of the nobleman's doctors had been executed by Mastino II, Cangrande's successor, suggesting the doctor's possible involvement in a plot to kill his master. Who ultimately was responsible for the murder remains a mystery-an assertive fellow like Cangrande had plenty of enemies-although the ambitious Mastino II himself now emerges as a prime suspect."I thought the poisoning story was just a legend, but sometimes the legends are true," Fornaciari says. "Paleopathology is rewriting history!"

Etmeyer/Flickr

The Melting Ice Road of Zanskar

Daniel Grushkin • Roads & Kingdoms

A trek down the Chadar, an icy 40-mile path separating a Himalayan kingdom from India, now threatened by climate change.    

The escalating physical risks and the practical consequences of a failing link to the outside world comes with an added cultural loss. Climate change threatens the whole mythology that exists around the Chadar. Legend says the deity Sharshok introduced pathfinders to the route at a time when it was solely used by spirits and fairies. Zanskaris believe Sharshok protects travelers on their journeys over the ice. One day when the path completely vanishes, Sharshok and the demons and protectors, the myths and the legends, will vanish too.

Surprisingly, while these losses seem unfortunate to the outsider, Zanskaris seem unfazed by their predicament. Before heading onto the Chadar, I spoke to a monk about how climate change is upturning a number of Zanskar's cultural fixtures-including the architecture. Summer rain, a new phenomenon to the high desert, is literally melting the mud brick walls of homes and temples.

The newly shaved monk shrugged. "Samsara," he said. He was talking about the Buddhist attempt to escape the cyclicality of life. The world's problems are temporary and therefore not his business. On the other hand, local farmers have more immediate concerns rather than fussing about the coming decades. In Ladakh, Zanskar's closest neighbor, torrential storms tore down the bridges and washed away barley fields the summer before I arrived.

Bobwitlox/Flickr

Europe's New ‘Time Bomb' Is Ticking in Syria

Colum Lynch • Foreign Policy

As hundreds answer the call to join the fight in Syria, Europe wonders: will they return as terrorists?

They come from the suburbs of Paris, from the East End of London, from the cities along Germany's Fulda River, and even from the small towns of Ireland: a small army of up to 1,000 European irregulars joining the Syrian civil war to help rebels topple President Bashar al-Assad.

But while ministers from these irregulars' governments say they too are in favor of toppling Assad, these same officials are doing everything they can to stop these fighters -- or at least develop new laws to criminalize their activities. The reason: fear that these irregulars will one day return to Europe, equipped with deadly military skills, trained in the tradecraft of international terrorism, and steeped in the extremist anti-Western ideology of al Qaeda and its Syrian brethren, the al-Nusra Front. On a single day in April and in a single country, Belgium, the authorities launched 48 raids on suspected jihadi recruiters believed to be luring Belgians to fight in Syria.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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