From the red poppy to Mao

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 December, 2010, 12:00am

Anyone doubting the potent power of symbolism need only look at the continuing row over a minor incident that flared when the British prime minister, David Cameron, visited Asia and insisted on wearing a red poppy in his lapel to commemorate those who died in Britain's wars.

He was roundly criticised by China for his insensitivity in displaying a symbol reminiscent of the inglorious opium wars, which the British fought to preserve their right to poison the Chinese people over a century ago.

In fact, the issues in the opium wars were more complicated, but history has a habit of being reduced to a story of battles between good and evil. And this is where symbolism becomes important. The poppy day commemoration marks the day that the first world war ended, a war regarded in Marxist terminology - reflected in spirit but not in name by letter writers to this newspaper - as the last great imperialist war.

Marxism has a point because this was indeed partially a war over the spoils of imperialist expansion, but the ordinary people who died in the trenches were mainly motivated by their desire to defend their country.

As the years have passed, poppy day, recalling the flowers which bloomed in the killing fields of Flanders, came to symbolise Commonwealth citizens who lost their lives in all wars that followed, most recently in the current hopeless conflict in Afghanistan.

The British and other foreign troops see their role as being that of liberators, freeing the people of Afghanistan from the drug warlords (ah yes, drugs again) and Islamic fanatics who control vast swathes of the country. Many, probably a majority of Afghans, regard these troops as foreign invaders who are interfering and bringing nothing but misery.

Yet who has the heart to tell a grieving widow in Britain that her husband died pointlessly in Afghanistan?

Her grief needs to be respected and this is why most people wear a poppy showing respect for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. A political leader like Cameron who fails to share the nation's sentiments is likely to be in deep trouble. Chinese protests were never likely to sway him. Like all heads of government, Cameron's focus is always on his domestic constituency.

China's leaders understand this very well. They are the first to wave the flag to rouse support from their people and China trades in symbolism in ways that some find simply stomach-churning.

At the heart of the capital in Tiananmen Square looms a massive portrait of Mao Zedong , the biggest mass murderer in history: from the millions who died needlessly and excruciatingly during the Great Leap Forward to those who were tortured, killed and exiled during the Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese leadership feels that it cannot abandon the symbolism associated with Mao without undermining the legitimacy of the communist state he founded.

So the mass murderer, whose image once adorned every citizen's clothing, still lingers in millions of portraits and statues throughout the nation. It is now admitted that Mao made 'mistakes' but the official verdict remains that he was more right than wrong.

Authoritarian societies are particularly addicted to symbols; from the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union to the ubiquitous swastika of the Nazis.

But democratic societies also need symbols, usually in the form of national flags which help unite the nation and make it feel good about itself.

Even here in Hong Kong, we rarely see the chief executive emerge in public without some sort of badge pinned to his lapel. He believes he must always be seen displaying his allegiance to the motherland or to some other event of the day.

But, in Hong Kong, there are too many people who know the truth about Mao for him to be displayed with pride and, here in Hong Kong, people have acquired a healthy scepticism over symbols.

During the British era, only a few colonial sycophants - more or less the same people who are now Beijing sycophants - got excited over the Union Jack or other symbols of the old regime.

The government is doing its best to stir up enthusiasm for Chinese patriotism but its efforts are largely wasted because this is a society of self-reliant people who have come to distrust '-isms'.

Across the border, the government feels it cannot afford to be so relaxed because the regime is not based on public consent but is imposed from the top. And for it to remain on top requires instilling a sense of loyalty, reinforced by symbolism, which avoids brute force but remains effective in ensuring compliance.

Occasionally, as seen in the Cameron incident, the regime feels the need to use symbolism to go on the offensive against foreigners who have allegedly slighted the nation. Only the gullible are impressed.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur