Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now Review

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now
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Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now ReviewI should start with why I like and recommend this book. Jane Wong tells a fascinating story, and I found this book to be extremely hard to put down. Her descriptions of life in China during the latter part of the cultural revolution, the gradual reopening of the country following Mao's death, and the crackdown at Tiananmen are first rate, emotionally powerful, and give you a sense of what it would have felt like to "be there" during those momentous events in recent Chinese history. I almost didn't read this book because I have read so many other books on China over the past years (in addition to a brief visit and many conversations with Chinese friends) that I didn't think this one would have much to offer. I couldn't have been more wrong. I would rate this book in the top two, along with Steven Mosher's "Broken Earth; The Rural Chinese".
My disappointment with the book is due to the remarkable lack of depth in Jane's own spiritual journey. I was surprised to learn that she never really breaks with Mao. In the final scene of the book she is at a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Mao's birth, wearing a Mao button and nostalgically singing the Internationale (she explainst that the communist anthem is still one of her favorite songs). While vacuously deceptive, the book's subtitle "My Long March from Mao to Now" is technically accurate; time did pass, Mao died, and she, like China, has changed. However, "My Long March from Mao to... a Little Less Mao" would be more descriptive.
Perhaps because she hasn't rejected Mao, she approaches the many forms of oppression in today's China not as vestiges of the Maoist system, but as creations of the new one. It is as if the opening of the curtains had created the stage, instead of revealing it. In response to the horror of the Tiananmen crackdown, she remarks that "Mao never had to send tanks into Beijing". It apparently doesn't occur to her that Mao would have imprisoned and/or executed these people long before tanks were needed, even though she personally witnessed Mao's crushing of the much more subdued "Democracy Wall" movement years earlier. Likewise, while recounting China's continuing widespread use of the death penalty and slave labor camps for political criminals, she doesn't seem to make the connection that this was the system she had declared morally superior and dedicated herself to. If she felt a tinge of personal responsibility while recounting these horrors, she certainly kept it to herself.
She tells us early in the book that she originally hoped to go to China with the goal of becoming the Chinese equivalent to "Hanoi Jane", serving as Mao's mouthpiece to the west. She further explains that she was fully prepared to lie in her effort to promote the cause, and that she felt that in this case lying wouldn't be wrong because it would be in defense of a "perfect" system. This is a fascinating admission, because it demonstrates that even then she knew she was being lied to. Why expect to have to lie when promoting "Utopia" to those who haven't seen it, especially before you've seen it yourself?
For me the most disturbing thing is that she seems to think that her admission that she shouldn't have turned the people in who begged her for help during the cultural revolution constitutes the completion of, and not the first step towards, a personal moral (or if you prefer Karmic) accounting. She stops at "this was wrong", without asking the hard questions of why she did this in the first place. Her self assurances that "we all did this during the cultural revolution", and "I was naive" fall far short of the mark. True, most (if not all) ordinary Chinese did find themselves forced to inform on others as a means of survival during the Cultural Revolution. However, unlike them she had the opportunity to leave whenever she wanted (she had to plead to stay). She informed out of ideology, not self-preservation. She believed that those who committed "thought crimes" deserved whatever punishment Maoist China reserved for them. This is where the argument "I was naive" would come to play (at least partially), except in her case it is equally false. Unlike ordinary Chinese, she knew what the free world she was rejecting was like, and to the extent that she was lied to, it was a deliberate choice on her part to accept the lies. Lastly, she doesn't make much of an effort to find out what happened to the "thought criminals" she informed on. Were they sent to the gulag? executed? or just exiled to the countryside for hard labor, extreme deprivation, and "thought reform"? When were they released? Did they survive? We are never told.
To be fair to the author, neither group she considers herself a part of would prod her to undertake a more thorough moral and philosophical accounting of her life's choices. Her nostalgia for Mao doesn't place her out of line with current mainstream or even dissident Chinese thought. As she recounts, the Tiananmen democracy activists didn't hesitate to turn over those in their ranks who vandalized the giant picture of Mao on the square. Likewise, there is no movement within the 60s radical community to reconsider it's profound moral support of communist regimes. Those who reverently carried (and quoted from) a copy of Mao's "Little Red Book" and publicly chanted "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Mihn!" 30 years ago, limit themselves today to gushing about how much less repressive these systems are now than when they wholeheartedly supported them. The most troubling thought is if someone with Jane's profound personal experiences isn't inspired to consider these issues while writing a book about her own life's journey, who will?Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now Overview

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