Nelson Mandela

South Africa’s China ambassador ‘compares Mandela to Mao’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 2:41pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 5:01pm

South Africa’s ambassador to China has according to state media compared Nelson Mandela to Mao Zedong, the Communist leader whose rule saw tens of millions killed by famine and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

“They were both very strong leaders who fought for the liberation of their people, and who also contributed to laying the foundation for further development in society,” South African ambassador Bheki Langa was quoted as saying by China’s official news agency Xinhua.

He added that Mandela, whose death was mourned on Tuesday in Soweto by dozens of world leaders - not including China’s President Xi Jinping - “valued the contribution the Chinese people, government and Party had made in ending the obnoxious system of apartheid in South Africa”.

Xinhua headlined its report: “Mandela, Mao shared similarities: S. Africa ambassador”.

In the West, Mao’s legacy is principally associated with the Great Leap Forward, the late-1950s industrialisation campaign that triggered widespread starvation, with academic estimates as high as 45 million deaths, and the Cultural Revolution, a bloody and turbulent social upheaval during the 1960s and 70s which remains a sensitive topic in the country.

Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize and is widely hailed as an emblem of reconciliation for his role in South Africa’s transition to democracy.

A South African embassy spokeswoman declined to elaborate on Langa’s comments.

China and South Africa have stepped up their economic ties in recent years, and Pretoria has twice denied the Dalai Lama - the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader condemned as a separatist by Beijing - a visa.

Within China, supporters of Mao tend to focus on the late leader’s earlier revolutionary years, including his role in the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic.

President Xi has sought to capitalise on the sentiment by invoking Maoist doctrine in some of his rhetoric, and Chinese authorities are reportedly spending billions of dollars on celebrations of the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth on December 26.

In the days since Mandela’s death, Chinese state print and broadcast media have run reports highlighting the late South African leader’s praise of Mao.

But Mandela’s remarks seem to have focused on Mao’s military tactics during China’s civil war rather than on his legacy as China’s leader.

In his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela hailed Mao’s “determination and non-traditional thinking” in leading the Communists to victory, which he read about in American journalist Edgar Snow’s seminal book on the Chinese leader.

In an interview with Time magazine’s Richard Stengel, Mandela praised Mao’s military tactics during the Long March, which he described as “a miracle”.

He added that Snow was “not a communist” and had an “advantage because he could also criticise” Mao.

During the struggle against apartheid the Chinese Communist Party supported the Pan Africanist Congress, a rival to Mandela’s Moscow-backed ANC, and it was not until 1998, four years into his presidential term, that diplomatic ties between the two were established.

Meanwhile, an influential Chinese paper lashed out on Wednesday at comparisons between Nelson Mandela and China’s jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, saying Liu was a common criminal not worthy of any praise.

Many Chinese internet users have noted the apparent contradiction of Beijing lauding Mandela’s legacy at the same time that it continues a harsh crackdown on its own human rights activists.

Microbloggers have particularly alluded to Liu, whose name is banned from appearing online by government censors.

The Global Times, a nationalist-leaning tabloid published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said it was totally wrong to cast Liu and Mandela in the same light.

Chinese state media almost never mention well-known dissidents by name, making the editorial highly unusual and underscoring government anger at foreign criticism of its rights record, especially from the United States.

“This year, as Chinese people mourned the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, some Western media deliberately cast a light on the imprisonment of Liu and praised him as ‘China’s Mandela’,” the Global Times said in an editorial in its English-language edition.

“Mandela was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for leading African people to anti-apartheid victory through struggles, tolerance and efforts to bridge differences. However, awarding a Chinese prisoner who confronted authorities and was rejected by mainstream Chinese society derides China’s judiciary system,” it said.

A similar editorial slamming Liu appeared in the more widely read Chinese version of the paper, although that did not mention Mandela.

On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry rebuffed an expression of concern by US Secretary of State John Kerry over the fate of Liu and another prominent activist, Xu Zhiyong, saying only that the Chinese people had the right to talk about the country’s human rights.

The Global Times said Western countries were making an issue out of Liu “in defiance of China’s judicial sovereignty”, adding that he had gone through “a strict legal procedure”.

“This system makes sure a society of 1.3 billion people runs smoothly. It will not make an exception for Liu under the pressure or appeal of the West,” the paper said.

“The US, in hopes of seeing China’s legal system (crushed) by the combined force of globalisation and the Internet, is labelling extreme views of activists of the country as free speech. But only the Chinese law has the final say as to whether a person has violated its law or not.”

Liu, a veteran dissident involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests crushed by the Chinese army, was jailed in 2009 for 11 years on subversion charges for organising a petition urging the overthrow of one-party rule.