Who was the worst mass murderer in recorded history? Many people would instinctively answer “Hitler” – and they would be wrong. Stalin was certainly worse in this regard; he was responsible for about twenty million deaths (mere statistics, in his view). I am speaking here of civilian deaths, not military ones. But even Stalin probably does not take first prize amongst mass murderers. By most accounts, the man responsible for the most civilian deaths was Mao Zedong.
One disturbing aspect of the above ranking is that the number one murderer is also the only one who is still held in high regard by his victims’ survivors. Most Russians despise Stalin. The vast majority of Europeans loath Hitler. Certainly Pol Pot is not held in high regard amongst Cambodians. Yet the personality cult of Mao is still alive and well in China. If most Chinese spit upon his memory, they can only do so secretly because, officially, he is still a god.
I once visited China and, behaving like the typical “ugly American” I was quite outspoken about my disdain for certain things. I told Chinese, to their faces, that I’d nicknamed Beijing “Mucus City” because everybody smoked and spat their mucus upon the street so that pedestrians must watch where they step. I was almost arrested for photographing a pathetic amputee beggar clinging to the leg of a passerby. My tour guide was confused when I told him Mao was the last “emperor”. He replied, “no. He was not an emperor; he was Chairman Mao.” I retorted, “if he wanted you dead, you were dead. He had absolute power and even had concubines. How was he different from an emperor?” The tour guide had apparently never thought of that; he stood there dumbfounded with no answer. When street vendors tried to sell me “The Sayings of Mao”, I told them, “I do not like Mao”. It is a wonder I was not arrested.
Perhaps I should have been less outspoken, while in China, about my distaste for Mao and cigarette mucus – well, at least about the mucus. It is, arguably, a good thing to show your dislike for a brutal dictator who brought about the deaths of tens of millions of people. Could it be that most Chinese are unaware of his crimes? I could only imagine the pain and anger of those Chinese whose families and friends were murdered by Mao’s ruthless regime, but who must see him adored publicly.
I also wonder about those street vendors who sell “The Sayings of Mao”. How many of them were orphaned because of Mao? There is a certain irony in this situation. What would a true communist say about his books being sold on the free market in the streets? Perhaps, at some level, those vendors see this as a small measure of revenge.