Tea Leaf Nation

China's Angry Spirits

Online whispers paint an eerie parallel between Japanese war criminals and dead Chinese strongman Mao Zedong.

It's not every day that men who have been dead for decades make headlines, but on Dec. 26, ghosts figured prominently in Chinese news. President Xi Jinping's tribute to the People's Republic of China founding Chairman Mao Zedong, who would have turned 120, was the top story in state-run media, which still treats him kindly. Xi acknowledged Mao's mistakes but emphasized, "We will always hold high the flag of Mao Zedong thought." Also in that day's Chinese headlines was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war dead -- including 14 Class A war criminals -- are honored. Chinese officials lodged "solemn" critiques with Abe; Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang stated that by going there, Japanese leaders "call back the ghost of militarism and whitewash Japan's history of aggression and colonialism" toward China. But some Chinese felt Japanese war criminals and Mao Zedong had something in common: Millions of people died because of them.

Prominent author and activist Li Chengpeng complained on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, about unspecified people "bowing to ghosts," warning that "a tragedy in which tens of millions were killed, died of starvation, and were torn from their families" could not be covered up easily. "I strongly oppose politicians paying their respects, in any form, to ghosts," he concluded. His statement, censored shortly after its posting, was purposefully vague: The "tens of millions" could refer to the estimated 15 to 20 million Chinese who died during the Japanese occupation, or to those who perished in Mao's campaigns. (Experts believe that between 18 and 45 million died from violence and starvation during Mao's Great Leap Forward, a horrifically botched economic and social reform campaign that took place from 1958 to 1961. And in 1966, Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long period of ideological struggles that set China's society and economy even further behind.) He Weifang, a law professor at China's prestigious Peking University, wrote that Xi was paying tribute to someone who had "badly harmed the Chinese people." One anonymous Internet user was more explicit: "Japanese are paying respects to assholes who killed others," he wrote, "but we are paying respects to assholes who killed our own people."

A few critical voices aside, online chatter about Xi's praise for Mao and Abe's controversial visit was muted. That's partly because censorship of both topics was at full throttle, with commentary disabled or restricted on many sites, and also because Mao figures prominently in the Chinese Communist Party's official narrative of contemporary history, with challenges to that party line carefully monitored. Many Chinese might feel that Mao did more harm than good, but they could hardly be surprised that their president would voice support.

Some were less concerned with Mao's historical import and more concerned with his monetary value. "We all have a deep love for this man," joked one Weibo user as he posted a picture of China's currency, which features Mao's face on most denominations. "No need to say why."

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