In a belated response to the controversy, the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said in an editorial that the episode sends a message about free speech in the United States.
“The U.S., which prides itself in freedom of speech, can’t even tolerate a quote from Mao,” it said. “It shows how narrow-minded the American political system is in the face of the diversity of global culture.”
Global Times argued that it would cause no controversy in China if Chinese media were to carry a quote by an American leader – “or even Douglas MacArthur, an anti-communist general.” (Forces under the command of MacArthur and Mao faced off during the Korean War 50 years ago.)
The Communist Party paper complained that the U.S. sets boundaries for freedom of speech at home, but that other countries are “deemed treacherous if they do the same.”
“Mao was a pioneer of the new global geopolitics,” the editorial concluded. “Americans will acknowledge this man sooner or later when they overcome their narrow-mindedness.”
Two weeks ago, the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics quoted Mao – on its “Kid’s Zone” website -- as saying, “Our attitude towards ourselves should be ‘to be satiable in learning’ and towards others ‘to be tireless in teaching.’”
Following strong criticism, Education Department first replaced the Mao quote with one by Abraham Lincoln, before removing the “Quote of the Day” page altogether.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in a statement called on the department to explain the decision to use a quote from “the most murderous dictator of the 20th century.”
“As our society rightly does with Hitler, murderous tyrants like Stalin and Mao should be considered pariahs, their victims should be remembered, and their crimes should be taught to future generations so they never happen again,” Grassley said.
According to scholars, up to 2.5 million Chinese died during the civil war between nationalists and Mao’s ultimately victorious communist forces in the second half of the 1940s.
By the time Mao died in 1976, an estimated 40-65 million more had died during purges; the 1950 occupation of Tibet and its aftermath; the 1958-1960 famines resulting from Mao’s socio-economic transformation plan known as the Great Leap Forward; and the Cultural Revolution power struggles between 1966 and 1976.
A Department of Education spokesman was later quoted as saying the “Quote of the Day” feature was automatically generated from a database last updated in 2007, and that it had been suspended pending a review.
Despite his bloody history, Mao remains revered in China, where official media frequently refer to him in glowing terms. China late this year marks the 120th anniversary of his birth, and commemorative events are planned.
Sessions of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, faithfully extol “Mao Zedong Thought” alongside other defining concepts including Marxism-Leninism, “Deng Xiaoping Theory” and Hu Jintao’s “scientific development.”
The ongoing feting of Mao can have unpredictable effects, even far from China. When a New Zealand power-supply company introduced a billboard ad depicting Mao dancing “gangnam style,” Auckland’s local transport authority banned it on the grounds that it could “potentially cause offence to Auckland’s Chinese population.”
The ad carries the tagline “Same power, different attitude,” and is one of a satirical series by the Powershop company that includes President Richard Nixon sporting an Afro hairstyle and a peace sign, and Saddam Hussein collecting for charity.
Although banned from bus shelters, the Mao ad has appeared in other settings.
Customer comments posted on the Powershop blog included one by a Chinese man who wrote, “Mr. Mao reflects the culture back to certain important period of time in Chinese history. The advertisement irresponsibly hurt the feeling of Chinese community … I do not think any Chinese would appreciate the product or services under this ad.”
Another customer questioned the appropriateness of the ad from a different angle, commenting, “My Chinese student friend points out that Mao was responsible for the death of her grandfather ...”