My Take

Great minds not necessarily to be trusted

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 1:57am

Why did some of the most brilliant minds of the last century become apologists for history's worst tyrannies? Today we cringe recalling the 1968 pronouncement of Chinese-born author Han Suyin, who died last Friday aged 95, that Mao Zedong was "the greatest man China has known".

In her time, she defended the Great Leap Forward, which induced the famine that has been described as the worst man-made disaster in history, and the Cultural Revolution, which even the Chinese Communist Party has now repudiated.

Perhaps it's not fair to judge her by what we know about Mao today, as many foreigners and fellow travellers besides Han regarded Mao as a great man then. But still, she cannot be completely absolved of a wilful blindness.

A doctor who could speak and write in Chinese, English and French, she had all the intellect she needed to see Mao's China for what it was, rather than what she hoped it would be.

Han is nowadays mostly remembered as the author of an autobiographical novel that inspired the 1950s Hollywood hit movie Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, starring William Holden and shot almost entirely in Hong Kong. But she wrote dozens of books, including two biographies of Mao and Zhou Enlai .

Just as Edgar Snow introduced Mao to the West before he came to power, Han's endorsement helped legitimise the Great Helmsman's rule for many Westerners even as he exercised supreme command and plunged the nation into chaos again and again.

She lived for a time in Malaysia and returned to China in 1956 to a hero's welcome. Zhou personally greeted her. Given her reception, there is no doubt that she had few opportunities to witness the full horrors of the Great Leap Forward.

In any case, she was not alone. The French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine and the philosopher Martin Heidegger idolised Adolf Hitler.

French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty defended Stalin's terrors - mere "pimples", in Merleau-Ponty's words, "on the face of totality".

All this shows that great intellectuals and artists have no monopoly on political wisdom. Rather, ordinary people with common sense may have far sounder judgment.