A conversation in China: In an era of laws, who has a rightful claim to Mao’s millions?

By David Bandurski — When a frenzy of hatred turned on Chairman Mao Zedong‘s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, and the Gang of Four in October 1976, one of the most shocking revelations about Madame Mao’s excesses concerned her use of tens of thousands of yuan from the Chairman’s publishing royalties to fund her extravagant lifestyle. The Chairman himself was blameless, of course, hovering godlike above scrutiny.

But China had brutalized itself for a decade in Mao’s struggle against the “liberal bourgeoisie,” and some wondered privately why the Chairman should have royalty monies at all when writers like Ba Jin (巴金) had been persecuted for such bourgeois crimes.

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[ABOVE: Screenshot of recent coverage of the Mao Zedong royalties issue at people.com.cn.]

The issue did not surface again until 1999, when Wang Binbin (王彬彬), a well-known writer and People’s Liberation Army officer, published an article in Guangdong’s Southern Weekend (then under the tenure of CMP co-director Qian Gang) called “Mao Zedong’s Royalties“.

Wang’s article began with an innocent recollection of Mao Zedong’s generous spirit, then peeled back the layers to expose the larger implications of that kindness:

After Mao Zedong quit the world, there were often words recollecting that Mao Zedong had used his writing royalties to aid his old friends and acquaintances and those who worked by his side. For example, every year he would send someone off to give 2,000 yuan to Zhang Shizhao (章士钊). When Zhang protested that he didn’t want it, Mao would explain that he had withdrawn it from his own royalties, that it was a personal gift, and only in this way would Zhang be set at ease. When people told these sorts of stories it was to show not only that Mao Zedong was gracious and enjoyed helping others, but that he was clean, honest and self-disciplined, that even as a man of unlimited power he used the fruits of his own labors when helping others, and dared not use public monies.

As Mao repeatedly applied his royalties to help others, he certainly had no small sum of royalties stashed away. As to how much exactly, I once surmised that it must have run into the tens of thousands. This, already, was a bold guess, for in those times this was an earthshattering amount. But it was only recently, when I read through A Record of Mao Zedong’s Relics, edited by the Shaoshan Memorial to Comrade Mao Zedong, that I realized my numbers had been hilarious underestimates.

Wang went on to calculate — quite reliably, on the basis of party records — that Mao’s revenues from his writings had been around 240,000 yuan per annum before and during the 1960s, and that annual interest from deposits stood around 15,000 yuan.

But the PLA writer’s revelations got worse. He even exposed the gifts (legitimate inheritance?) given to Mao Zedong’s daughters and son by the General Offices of the CPC in the 1980s:

For many years after Mao Zedong’s death no one brought up the question of the assets he had left behind. Until, in 1981, the General Offices of the CPC sent someone to inquire after Li Min (李敏). Li Min said: ‘I don’t have any expectations in particular, but if it’s possible I’d just like to get the portion dad originally gave me.’ In this way, Li Min received from the General Offices in 1981 the sum of 8,000 yuan, one 20-inch color television, and one refrigerator. At the same time, the General Offices gave a color TV and a refrigerator to Li Na (李纳), another of Mao Zedong’s daughters. It turned out that Mao had given Li Na 8,000 yuan back in 1975, and Mao Anqing (毛岸青) had received the same.

Wang’s facts were a slander on Mao Zedong’s good and holy name. The Central Propaganda Department’s secretive News Commentary Group (阅评组) was furious, and issued a harsh criticism that resulted in Wang Binbin’s discharge from the PLA.

Once again the matter dove into the deep. There were only whispers in private, about, for example, how Mao had dipped into his horde to pay for the building of a private swimming pool.

Over the last few days, however, this touchy issue has resurfaced in a big way, offering a more critical picture of the legendary Chairman, and an interesting counterpoint to Hu Jintao’s re-iteration of the Four Basic Principles (including Mao Zedong Thought) at the recent 17th National Congress.

Even as Mao’s legacy remains an important ideological bargaining chip in leadership circles, it seems — on a preliminary analysis of this recent news wave — that his legacy is now more open to scrutiny.

Have the clouds parted over this erstwhile taboo?

An article in the December issue of China’s Literary Circles of Party History (党史文苑), called “The Controversy over Mao’s Royalty Millions” (毛泽东亿万稿酬的争议), reported that Mao’s royalties, including interest, totaled a staggering 131 million yuan, or roughly 17.6 million U.S. dollars as of May 2001 [Coverage from China.com.cn].

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[ABOVE: Literary Circles of Party History, an official journal of history relating to the Communist Party of China, reopened the issue of Mao Zedong’s royalties this month.]

The numbers, long assumed to be top secret, reportedly came out in the wash in July 2003, when the Historical Research Center of the CPC (中共中央党史研究室) and the Central Working Committee (中直机关工委) stumbled onto the question of whether or not copyright fees for a new edition of Mao Zedong’s Selected Works should be taxed. The question was referred to the State Council and the details of Mao’s treasure house were subsequently laid bare.

The Literary Circles of Party History article, which made the rounds on such Web portals as the official People’s Daily‘s people.com.cn on December 10, also discussed the intra-party controversy over Mao’s millions:

After Mao Zedong’s death, there was a dispute within the CPC about how to deal with the assets from his royalties. According to Wang Dongxing (汪东兴), Mao Zedong himself said that after he died the monies should be applied to his party membership fees (党费), and that the cash on hand should be divided amongst his bodyguards. But one view in the Central Party was that Mao Zedong belonged to the party as a whole, that Mao Zedong’s works were the crystallization of the party’s collective knowledge, therefore the royalties Mao Zedong left behind are not for Jiang Qing (江青) and other relatives.

Jiang Qing, the article said, had made at least five formal appeals saying she had a right to Mao Zedong’s assets and wished to recover 50 million yuan for her two daughters and other relatives. Her requests were denied. Li Min and Li Na reportedly also made demands, which were similarly refused until the General Offices of the CPC gave both daughters the sum of around two million yuan to purchase homes and cover other miscellaneous expenses.

Coverage has followed from Guangzhou Daily and other newspapers this week, and the story is bubbling through portals and chatrooms.

It’s in the editorial pages, though, that the facts concerning Mao’s millions have widened into a debate not just about how they should be disposed of, but about whether they are “legal” at all. There are deeper questions too about what the case reveals about where to draw the line between the public and private spheres.

A December 10 editorial, “’Who Should ‘Mao’s Royalty Millions’ Belong To?” (“毛泽东的稿酬”应该归谁?), addressed the royalties issue from the standpoint of law, and took issue with the previous party position that his works were the “crystallization of the party’s collective knowledge, therefore the royalties Mao Zedong left behind are not for Jiang Qing and other relatives.”

Writing in Southern Metropolis Daily yesterday, Xu Youyu (徐友渔) concurred with the first editorial, saying the royalties issue was for “private law”, and not to be politicized. But the editorial then veered purposefully into the mess of history: “[A]s Mao Zedong is a great political and historical figure, the connection of his royalties to political and historical conditions needs to be talked about,” he writes.

As he picks out the facts of history, Yu becomes increasingly uncertain about the “legality” of Mao’s millions. “Because if we want to talk about rule of law,” he says, “the first principle is that people all have equal rights. If royalties were utterly abolished during the Cultural Revolution, and Mao Zedong was the only exception, then this legality becomes a problem.”

In another editorial in today’s Southern Metropolis Daily, Ge Jianxiong (葛剑雄) argues that Mao’s royalties should be dealt with differently for different historical eras — that, for example, he should not have monies from periods during which royalties were abolished:

And so, the legal and reasonable way to resolve this would be to take “Mao Zedong’s royalties” and divide them up. In those times when the country did have a system of royalties, the works Mao published can be factored in. For those works Mao Zedong published after the royalties system was abolished, and through the Cultural Revolution, monies should be factored only according to per-word article fees [Note_Bandurski: We are dealing with three phases here. Up to the early 1960s, a royalties system was in place. For a brief period up to the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, per-word fees were paid for writings. During the Cultural Revolution nothing was paid. Article fees were re-instituted in the mid-1980s, and royalties reintroduced in the early 1990s]

One of the most interesting questions to come out of the debate over Mao’s millions is whether party cadres should earn royalties on writings done in an official capacity.

In his editorial, Xu Youyu raises the prickly question, for example, of whether “we might put our Great Leader in the compromising position of ‘using power for personal gain'” by allowing him (and his descendants) to profit from works, like the Sayings of Chairman Mao (“Little Red Book”), that achieved wide circulation not through sales but through political mobilization.

And what about official telegrams and notices and documents gathered together in the various “selected works” of Jiang Zemin and others? Should party leaders receive royalties on these? Or do they belong not to what Xu Youyu calls “private law” but to a separate public, government sphere?

The answer may seem obvious to some, but in China this is an open question. And Mao’s millions are now at the center of that question.

Which means it is not entirely frivolous for us to wonder:

When Xi Jinping (习近平) and/or Li Keqiang (李克强) are calling the shots in 2013, and Hu Jintao settles back into a not-so-quiet retirement, mightn’t he dine on his political report . . . and practice his backstroke in a pool of royalties?

[Coverage Continues: See the latest article on Xinhua News Agency’s official website, December 15, 2007]

One Comment to “A conversation in China: In an era of laws, who has a rightful claim to Mao’s millions?”

  1. […] In an era of laws, who has a rightful claim to Mao’s millions?: At the China Media Project, David Bandurski summarizes the conversation – past and present – over the royalties Mao accumulated from his writings:Even as Mao’s legacy remains an important ideological bargaining chip in leadership circles, it seems — on a preliminary analysis of this recent news wave — that his legacy is now more open to scrutiny. […]

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