China specialists make a parlor game of imagining what Mao Zedong would make of the People’s Republic of China today, with its capitalist-friendly Communists and young people more familiar with the theme song from Titanic than The East is Red.
In China’s Brave New World, for example, I ruminate on a revivified Mao’s likely response to my favorite Nanjing bookstore, where the philosophy section has nary a copy of his Little Red Book, but does contain Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and studies of abstruse French theory, like the optimistically titled Understanding Foucault. Some of my colleagues have taken this motif a step further, bringing into the mix the Chairman’s arch-rival, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who died in exile on a Nationalist Party-run Taiwan that was both capitalist and authoritarian. In Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, for instance, Oxford historian Rana Mitter writes: “One can imagine Chiang Kaishek’s ghost wandering around China today nodding in approval, while Mao’s ghost follows behind him, moaning at the destruction of his vision.”
If the Olympics mark a turning point in the history of the PRC, isn’t it time to play this game with the games? What would Chairman Mao and Generalissimo Chiang make of the Beijing that has played host to athletes, journalists, fans and political leaders? How would the opening ceremonies have struck them? What about the media coverage and sporting events that followed?
Let’s start with the ghosts of two competitors arriving in a pre-games Beijing. Much about the look of the city would shock them, since neither had governed a metropolis with skyscrapers and mega-malls. News that the metropolis was gearing up to host the Olympics would surely be a welcome surprise. Both Mao and Chiang had long lamented the fact that China of the early 1900s was derided as the “sick man of Asia,” a play on earlier Western references to the Ottoman Empire in Europe–each a once-proud place that now could be bullied. Both leaders stressed the importance of exercise, insisting that China’s lack of a strong tradition of vigorous sports had contributed to it being laid low by Western and then Japanese imperialism. The dream of China hosting the games dates back to the early 1900s, so each leader would be pleased this longtime wish had been granted.
Once the ghosts got their bearings, their reactions to Beijing would begin to diverge. Mao would be delighted to see his face on most currency, but maybe a bit put off by the fact that some new banknotes feature the Bird’s Nest Stadium instead. And he’d be pleased to see that a giant portrait of his face still looks down on Tiananmen Square. These same things would infuriate the Generalissimo.