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Sun 1 Jan 2012 05:01 PM

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No crocodile tears in mourning for dictators

North Korea’s tears for dead Kim Jong-il are nod to shared history, says Junheng Li

No crocodile tears in mourning for dictators
North Korean mourners react as a car Kim Jong-ils body passes by during the funeral procession

I was born in China in 1976, just a few months before the
death of Mao Zedong. So when I saw footage of thousands of North Koreans in tears
after the death of Kim Jong il, their leader, two thoughts hit me hard. One:
They must be brainwashed. And two: Were we Chinese that brainwashed under Mao?

Curious, I called my mother in Shanghai. Both of my parents
were survivors of Mao’s brutal Cultural Revolution. Like countless others, they
were taken out of urban schools and sent to rural areas to be “re-educated,”
weaned off bourgeois culture. And they were the lucky ones - they survived a
campaign that killed millions.

“Were you relieved when Chairman Mao died?” I asked.

“Not at all!” my mother said without hesitation. “People
were genuinely sad.”

This seemed preposterous. “How could you feel sad at the
death of a criminal -- someone who robbed you of your youth by sending you to a
backwater to hoe turnips?”

“The country was completely closed and isolated,” she said.
“Communism was a religion, and doubting your leader was out of the question.”

Her use of the word “religion” triggered a memory. In
September 2007, I was working as a hedge-fund analyst in New York, and I
traveled to Beijing to visit a dozen or so Chinese companies that were listed
in the U.S.

It was a beautiful fall afternoon and I had a few hours to
stroll downtown. A Chinese businessman offered to be my guide. As we ambled
through Tiananmen Square, with its enormous mural of Mao, I spotted amid the
fashionable urban Chinese a group of not-so-chicly attired tourists from the
hinterlands. All of a sudden, they dropped to their knees and began kowtowing
to the Mao portrait.

“Wow,” I thought. Having lived in the U.S. for almost a
decade, I had assumed that Mao worship was a relic of the distant past and that
most Chinese had come to the conclusion that Mao had been a cruel dictator,
regardless of his intentions or convictions.

The CEO saw my reaction and started to laugh. “You’ve been
away too long,” he said. “This scene takes place every day.”

He went on: “Mao is a religion and always will be. He made
mistakes in his later years, but his intentions were good. He truly believed
that a totalitarian state was the best political system for China. He was a
world-class politician and a true leader.”

The memory vanished as I refocused on my mother’s voice.

“Blind conviction is the definition of religion,” she said.
“The Cultural Revolution is long over. What’s the use of dwelling on it? We are
all good and happy now.”

And there was a partial answer. If Chinese, long removed
from Mao’s tyranny, still embraced the man, it should come as no surprise that
North Koreans, still very much in thrall to the Kim dynasty, feel genuine sorrow
at the loss of their leader.

But there was also a bigger question: What did this suggest
about our future? When does the spell break?

There was a clue, it seemed, in my mother’s candor and her
refusal to regret crying for someone who, in so many ways, damaged her life
profoundly. You can renounce a religion, but it’s much harder to disown your
own past, particularly when you share that past with many others.

Maybe it’s different when you take part in a mass movement
to overthrow a dictator - a Muammar Gaddafi, say, or a Saddam Hussein. When
rebellion or invasion prompts a nation to judge its ruler, the triumph, the
shared effort of defeating evil, gives people a chance to own their past
miseries. However, when one is simply released from repression by the
dictator’s death, there’s no shared vindication. “Forgetting” - as China has
done with the Cultural Revolution - might just be the easiest choice.

There are exceptions to the rule. My father, for one.

“Dad must have been relieved when Mao died, right?” I asked.

My mother snorted. The answer was so obvious that she would
not even indulge the question.

The Cultural Revolution seemed to traumatize my father in
unique ways. His dreams and ambitions as an impressionable and hot-blooded
young man were dashed by Mao’s policies. My guess is that the Cultural
Revolution made him cynical about anything and everything around him.
Distrustful of the state media, he bought a portable radio and listened to
Voice of America obsessively. When I was a little girl, he instructed me not to
believe out of hand anything printed in the People’s Daily.

Many Chinese people know now what my father understood
decades ago and yet we don’t talk about it much; some of us continue to kowtow
in Tiananmen Square, keeping the fiction of Mao’s greatness alive.

In this way, we’re not all that different from our North
Korean brethren. Our collective “forgetting” prevents us from accepting the
cause of our past tragedies. However painful, this reckoning must happen if we
are ever able finally to reject the censorship and propaganda that still
enforce our “isolation.”

(Junheng Li is the founder and senior equity analyst of JL
Warren Capital LLC, an independent equity research firm in New York. The
opinions expressed are their own.)

Hisham 8 years ago

No one would mourn if George Bush and Obama dies because they are the real Dictators in the name of Democracy and Freedom.

Jake 8 years ago

And yet, whenever disaster strikes, all eyes are on the US and Europe to provide emergency relief, aid and rescue teams...