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Wilson fellow has new take on Mao

February 2012 | by Craig DeVrieze

Lee Feigon has taken more than one lively left turn since launching a post-doctoral career as a self-described "boring Chinese history professor" in 1976.

Feigon's résumé currently includes the titles of research associate at the University of Chicago's Center for East Asian Studies; president of two seafood distribution companies and a fishery; "boss" of the Little Red Book Production Company; and-a recent addition-organic goat farmer.

He also has authored four books on China and Tibet, and wrote, directed and produced "The Passion of Mao," which he bills as a "madcap revisionist documentary."

Feigon will share his expertise on the late Mao Zedong and the China Mao left behind as this year's Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow in March. He will speak on both subjects at 7 p.m., March 7, in the Rogalski Center ballroom.

Feigon's fascination with the Awakening Dragon began with a couple of classes as an undergraduate majoring in history at the University of California-Berkley. He said he was curious then how the Chinese would manage to maintain their traditional identity while finding a place in the developing world following Mao's death in September of 1976.

"I thought that was a fascinating question we all faced in many ways," said Feigon, who looked for some answers in his second book, 1990's "China Rising: The Meaning of Tiananmen."

He witnessed the start of that failed freedom movement firsthand, but was gone when the tanks rolled in. He said the Tiananmen uprising was an attempt to create a more open society, reform a corrupt political system and transform the economic process.

Because the two former ambitions were crushed, Feigon said, China's recent emergence as a world economic force is built on a shaky foundation.

Feigon said "levels of inequality in the country are continuing to rise at alarming rates," and he wonders how long China can mass produce goods most of its population cannot afford.

The lack of a consumer economy makes China more dependent on lending the United States massive amounts of money than the U.S. is dependent on borrowing, he said.

"China is lending us the money to buy their goods," he said. "If they were to stop, their economy would be in very, very serious trouble."

Feigon believes China was weakened by a post-Mao change in direction that he termed, "in effect, a coup d'état against Mao." He said new leaders accomplished that by disparaging Mao's reputation and "that has caught on in the West."

Feigon has emerged as somewhat of a defender of Mao, both with his most recent book, 2002's "Mao: A Reinterpretation" and the film that followed.

"I think you have to look at Mao with some perspective," he said. "He usually is considered with Hitler and Stalin as one of the three big despots of the 20th century and I don't think that is correct."


Lee Feigon's Woodrow Wilson Fellowship appearance is part of "China: The Awakening Dragon," a year-long series presented by the College of Arts and Sciences.


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