VILANKULOS, Mozambique – In case it passed unnoticed, it is 50 years exactly since Chairman Mao began China’s Cultural Revolution that killed, conservatively, 2 million people in the beginning and many more millions as the Red Guards continued to rampage across the country to enforce it.
The new Chinese leadership has ignored the anniversary for the past several years but this week, for the first time, officially described Mao’s revolution as ‘a total mistake’ in typical worldspeak understatement.
Nonetheless, China still has a lot to answer for when Obama, Cameron and other world leaders roll out the red carpet for President Xi Jinping.
Those who keep account of such things say Mao had more people killed than Hitler and Stalin combined – the combined total of those two is estimated at more than 50 million. But Mao’s tally is a fraction of a percentage point in the nearly one billion Chinese population of his time, compared, say, to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who wiped out 7 percent of his country’s 10 million people in a short eight years.
Percentages stack up to show Amin killed more people available for him to kill than Mao did but it doesn’t make either of them any different.
Our own ‘gukuruhundi’ in western Zimbabwe in the 1980s – ‘these moments of madness,’ in Mr Mugabe’s own understatement – saw at least 20,000 civilians killed.
Chairman Mao was the idol of many emerging leaders of his time. The sometimes revered Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana was visiting Mao when news came through he had been overthrown. “It can’t be true,” Nkrumah told his Chinese hosts. “My people love me.”
Mr Mugabe, himself, of course, then given to wearing Mao-style shirts not Savile Row business suits, met Chairman Mao during the ‘chimurenga,’ China being ZANLA’s principal backer and trainer of its fighters here in Mozambique and in Tanzania. Mao died n 1976.
One of Mr Mugabe’s first state visits abroad after independence in 1980 was to China. I was working on The Herald back then and a black colleague who went on that trip told us afterwards what one of the Chinese media minders/translators asked on their arrival.
Can I touch your hair?
I want to see if it is made of wire.
At the baggage carousel: Where are your drums?
Drums. Isn’t that how you communicate in Africa. Isn’t that how you send your news?
Zimbabwe’s common term for cheap, inferior, counterfeit Chinese goods flooding the local market these days is the slang ‘zhing zhong,’ deriving from how the Chinese language sounds to Zimbabweans. It can refer to things, people and political deals and is defined like that – a Zimbabwean innovation to the English language – in contemporary dictionaries.
Another great Zimbabean achievement on the world stage for the wrong reasons.
IN CASE I STILL HAVE YOUR ATTENTION: Another classic from Private Eye on Cameron’s party debate whether to stay in or leave the European Union: