The Deification of Dead Political Leaders

In an op-ed piece published today on nytimes.com titled “Asia’s 70-Percent Gods,” Roger Cohen discusses his recent trip to Asia where he saw the preserved bodies of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong.  He notes that the Communists leaders who control one-party states have deified their predecessors for nationalist purposes while ignoring the socioeconomic ideas that they assiduously promoted at the cost of millions of lives (Stalin is still a revered figure in Russia, although some Russian elites, including President Dmitry Medvedev, have criticized his repressive actions).  The deceased political titans remain symbols of resistance to foreign oppression and the overthrow of corrupt governments, but current Asian powerbrokers are promoting the capitalist-type economic policies that Ho and Mao decried in an effort to stay in power by improving the living standards of their countries’ citizens.

At times other Asian nations have treated their heads of state like gods, including North Korea (which is still a communist dictatorship), and Japan; although the latter no longer considers the emperor a deity.

Contemporary Chinese leaders have so far succeeded in facilitating rapid economic growth and remaining in power while using authoritarian measures like censorship and the banning of alternative politial parties.  However, China is not as stable as many outsiders believe.  There are thousands of riots each year as well as ethnic conflict, and there is a wide and growing wealth inequality between urban dwellers and rural peasants that could eventually lead to class warfare.  And when the living standards of the middle class reach a certain level those in it may focus more on their lack of civil liberties and demand change; such a development would undermine the primary pillar of the Communist Party’s political strategy and threaten its primacy.

Political instability, as well as the aging of the population due to the one-child policy, may put a halt to China’s impressive economic growth in the coming decades.  The threat of this happening is significant but largely ignored in America where many fear that China will overtake the US economically and geopolitically by mid-century.  While some might welcome attempts to liberalize Chinese society and bring down the communists, people should be aware that the consequences of a revolutionary movement could be disastrous in terms of lives lost and the destabilization of the global economy.  If democracy emerges in China or other Asian countries one hopes that it will be the result of a peaceful process much like the velvet revolutions that occured in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War rather than a bloodbath.

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