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Culture, free speech and celebrating Mao downunder

A paramilitary policeman stands guard under a giant portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen gate in Beijing. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Culture, free speech and celebrating Mao downunder

Mao Zedong, a master in using culture as a tool of political propaganda, famously declared at the Chinese Communist base camp of Yan’an in May 1942 that:

In the world today, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics.

Seven years later, Mao’s Communist Party took power in China by force. Mao ruled China as the paramount leader until his death on September 9 1976. Under his reign, he upheld the notion that all art serves political purposes.

Since the 1980s, China has witnessed a decline of communist ideology and gradual relaxation of absolute political control over society. Still, the anniversary of the “Yan’an Art Forum” is celebrated every year and Mao’s “Yan'an Talks” still resonate loudly in China and among Chinese overseas.

Indeed, in October 2014, Xi Jinping, the newly chosen Communist leader of China, convened a similar art forum in Beijing and declared that art must work for the party’s political and ideological goals. Artworks in every form should “embody socialist core values in a lively and vivid way”, “rally Chinese strength” and “promote positive energy” for the party.

Today, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army still appoints about a dozen singers and dancers as generals. The current first lady of China, Peng Liyuan, a professional singer, became major-general in 2012 when serving as head of the Song and Dance Ensemble of the PLA General Political Department.

Peng Liyuan. Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

Many performing art groups in the Chinese communities in Australia are part of this Maoist tradition, which has been exported to Australia by Chinese migrants, sometimes in a spectacular way.

Earlier this month, a flyer was circulated in local Chinese communities and Chinese newspapers. It advertised a concert with the title Glory and Dream: In Commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of the Death of Chairman Mao. The concert is scheduled for the Sydney Town Hall on September 6 and Melbourne Town Hall on September 9.

The flyer claims that Mao Zedong led the Chinese “democratic revolution to victory” and is “a national leader forever in the hearts of Chinese people and a hero in the eyes of people all over the world”.

It says the concert’s programs “will interpret the charming personality and heroism of Mao Zedong from a variety of angles”.

This concert serving overt Maoist politics proves to be too much for some Chinese migrants here. They blame Mao for the loss of tens of millions of Chinese lives in the successive political purges he led and the famine caused by his policies.

For them, it violates basic Australian values of multicultural democracy to pay tribute to a brutal tyrant like Mao and promote the violent political extremism represented by Maoism. The Embracing Australian Values Alliance, a loose organisation of Chinese migrants, has organised an online petition calling for the concert to be cancelled.

The concert credits the International Cultural Exchange Association (Australia) as the principal organiser and LB Homes Group as the principal sponsor. The International Cultural Exchange Association is headed by Yuan Ye, who was a musician before migrating to Australia. The boss of LB Homes Group is Peter Zhu, a property developer of Chinese migrant background.

Various organisations within local Chinese communities play a minor role in sponsoring or participating in this concert. Some are media companies, such as Australia Oriental Media Group and Australia China Media Group, which are directly involved in the “grand external propaganda strategy”, a multibillion-dollar global media expansion put into operation by the Chinese government in 2009.

Others are political organisations, such as the Federation of Australian Chinese Associations, which has been very active in supporting the Chinese government.

Purely commercial entities and native place associations are also sponsoring the event, such as Sankofa Funds Management, Shanghai Tiantong Group and the Native Place Association of North-East China.

It must be pointed out that the community of overseas Chinese patriotic leaders and associations in Australia is not free from internal rivalry. Absent from the list of those involved with the concert are the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (the leading Chinese patriotic association here backed by the Chinese government) and the China Star Troupe, the art and culture agency organised by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the Chinese State Council for the coordination and integration of the overseas Chinese cultural resources in Australia.

Some delegates will also travel from Beijing, Hunan, Guangdong and Shanxi to Sydney and Melbourne to participate in the event. The organisations they represent include the Mao Clan Exchange Association and the Mao Clan Cultural Corporation, which are connected to Mao’s offspring.

Performers will be drawn from local performing arts groups of the Chinese communities, particularly the ICEAAI Art Group, which is an arm of the International Cultural Exchange Association (Australia). Among Chinese migrants here are many professional or amateur performing artists who specialise in Maoist songs and dances learned and practised during their young age.

Participants swim past a portrait of Chairman Mao in the Xiangliang river in 2015. China Stringer Network

Back in China, a Maoist revival is under way. Not only does the current leadership in China make use of Mao to boost its political and ideological legitimacy, but Mao, rather ironically as he was a sworn enemy of capitalism, has also been used by entrepreneurs for commercial purpose. Mao has been deified as a cult object and his image commercialised for profit.

Australia is proud of its commitment to free speech, tolerance and cultural diversity. However, should intolerance be tolerated? Should lies about Mao and promotion of Maoism, which denies freedom of speech, be allowed as a legitimate part of free speech?

Given that to many Australians, Mao or Maoism is a symbol of violence, dictatorship, intolerance, political persecution and cultural repression, it may not be appropriate for the concert to be held in such prime venues in Australia.

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