Two concerts at the Melbourne and Sydney town halls honoring Mao Zedong (毛澤東) have sparked controversy among China watchers who argue that the event, scheduled for early next month, trivializes the deaths of tens of millions of people during Mao’s reign.

The concerts, which have been widely promoted in the increasingly pro-Beijing Chinese-language media in Australia, will be held in Sydney on Sept. 6 and Melbourne on Sept. 9.

The promotional material has been laudatory if not hyperbolic, depicting Chairman Mao, who ruled China for 27 years and died 40 years ago on Sept. 9 as “a hero in the eyes of people all over the world.”

“Chairman Mao, the great leader of Chinese, led China’s democratic revolution which ended the 109 years of chaos in China from 1840 to 1949, and brought 76 years of peace and development to China, until it recovered its international status as a great country,” it says. “The concert will commemorate the great leader, as well as (inspire us) to further glorify the Chinese spirit, and expand our dreams. It will illustrate Mao Zedong’s humanitarian personality.”

For many critics, Mao’s “humanitarian personality” was hard to swallow. Whether the architect of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution directly ordered the deaths of tens of millions of people, as Adolf Hitler did, is a matter of debate among historians and political scientists. What is clear, however, is that Chairman Mao knew full well that his policies were designed to annihilate a segment of the Chinese population, and the results reserved him top position in the pantheon of 20th century mass murderers.

The Embrace Australian Values alliance has since launched petitions calling on the city mayors to cancel the events. “We are Australian citizens who are deeply concerned about a concert in tribute to Mao Zedong,” the petition says.

Responding to the petition, a spokesman for the City of Sydney said, “The city cannot intervene and cancel events at its venues on the basis that some groups may find them objectionable. The city has no grounds to cancel the International Cultural Exchange Association’s hire of Sydney Town Hall.” He added that the city was not sponsor of the event. The Melbourne government has responded in similar fashion.

The International Cultural Exchange Association in Australia (ICEAAI, 澳洲國際文化交流協會), which very likely is involved in propaganda/United Front Work in Australia, is one of the main organizers of the concerts. In 2008, then ICEAAI chairman Frank Hu (胡揚) was arrested by Australian authorities and accused of masterminding an A$87 million (US$66 million) cocaine importation racket. Described as a “political operator,” Hu was said to be working closely with the Chinese Foreign Ministry and United Front officials, and of organizing visits by Chinese performers to Australia to perform at venues such as the Sydney Opera House “in the name of cultural understanding.”

So maybe the city governments are being a little naïve when it comes to Chinese front organizations, but that is not uncommon — and the Chinese are very good at this kind of thing.

The crucial question — and it is being asked — is whether the concerts should be cancelled, as the critics are demanding. After all, as a free and democratic society, Australia is committed to free speech, embellishments of the mass murderer’s legacy, and the organizers’ probable ties to United Front organs notwithstanding.

Rather than call for a boycott, I would argue that the critics should instead use the opportunity to educate the Australian public about Mao’s rule, legacy, and continuities within Chinese society.

And they should ask an even more fundamental question, especially in a time of China’s growing global influence: What does the celebration of a mass murderer and the whitewashing of his grand-scale bloodletting tell us about Chinese values and about the Chinese Communist Party? How does this embrace of a psychopath and elevation to god-like status contrast with other countries that also had the misfortune of falling under their control in the past? Where are the concerts honoring Stalin? Hitler? Pol Pot? Idi Amin? Milosevic?

Let them sing and dance and spin all they want in Mao’s honor. Our job isn’t to silence them, as this would make us no better than the CCP we criticize at every turn. We’re better than that. Let us learn from this charade and use this knowledge as a means to better defend ourselves against the threat that Mao’s descendants continue to pose to the free world. Propaganda, which is what this little concert is all about, isn’t knowledge, and it can be countered with long as we are aware of them.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White