Mao vs. Jasmine: Transnational Orbits of Revolutionary Symbols in the Cold War and 2011

Guobin Yang and Min Jiang


Image Credit: Wassim Ben Rhouma/flickr (All Rights Reserved)

According to the recollections of a Chinese young man who was sent to Hainan Island as a “sent-down” youth[1] during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he often listened to a shortwave broadcast of the radio station of the Malayan Communist Party called Voice of Malayan Revolution.  He wrote, “I was often excited by its passionate battle cries and news reports of revolutionary situations and fantasized that if someday a world revolution broke out, we sent-down youth would be able to leave the villages and storm to the battleground in Europe and America.”[2] In Malaya and Singapore, these battle cries transmitted by the radio station had enormous rousing power, at least according to the leftist newspapers in Singapore which reprinted many of the stories aired on Voice of Malayan Revolution and the memoir of Chin Peng, the chairman of the Malayan Communist Party.[3]

Fast forward to 2010 and 2011 and the “Arab Spring.” Out of this recent wave of revolution, powerful symbols and historical icons like the “Jasmine Revolution,” the Tahrir Square, Iran’s Neda, and the 99% of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement spread around the world like, as the buzz goes, a virus. Through their circulation, these political symbols served as wanted or unwanted connectors among various Asian societies. During the Cold War, the rhetoric of revolution, Maoism, and national liberation, such as aired by the Voice of Malayan Revolution, helped to constitute an “imagined community” of leftist radicals in many Asian nations, indeed around the world. More recently, the “viral” symbols of the “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy Wall Street” are appropriated by activists globally to energize their own political causes.

There is of course an essential difference between the two historical periods -- the internet and social media are available only in contemporary protests. It is true that the availability of digital media has significantly enhanced the speed and scale of the dissemination of political symbols. Yet the discourse about political symbols, especially that surrounding memes and virality, tends to under-estimate the role of individual or institutional actors as creators and propagators of powerful political symbols.


Until about ten or fifteen years ago, few people, certainly not the young man who listened to the radio broadcast during the Cultural Revolution, knew an essential historical fact about the clandestine Malayan radio station. The fact is that it did not operate in Malaya, but from a remote village in Hunan Province, China.  The full story was disclosed in the 2003 memoir of Chin Peng, the former chairman of the Communist Party of Malaya. According to Chin’s memoir My Side of History, the radio station was set up as a special arrangement between the Communist Party of Malaya and China. Chin had left the battlefield of guerrilla war in Malaya and had been based in China since 1961. In China, he had requested to start a radio station but his initial request was rejected. After China’s Cultural Revolution started, however, China changed its policy on the Malayan Communist Party and in early 1967 granted Chin’s request, reportedly by Mao’s personal instruction. It took two years for the radio station to be up and running. Besides providing the site, China supplied equipment and technical staff and even regularly sent English newspapers and magazines to the radio station such as The Economist and the Far Eastern Economic Review.

The radio station went on the air on November 15, 1969 and did not stop broadcasting until June 30, 1981. Its launch in 1969 was hailed by the leftist parties in Singapore and Malaya as a milestone for breaking the Malaysian government’s monopoly of radio broadcasts. The Singaporean leftist newspaper Front carried a story in its November 16, 1969 issue announcing the founding of the Voice of Malayan Revolution. The complete transcript of the Voice is now available on a DVD.[4] Even a cursory look at the transcript shows that in rhetoric, tone, and ideology, it was like an official Chinese newspaper in the Cultural Revolution period, only that it devoted lots of air time to battle news of the guerrilla war that the Communist Party of Malaya was waging against the Malayan regime.


After the Tunisian Jasmine revolution started, a call was sent out on Twitter on February 17, 2011 about a rally of China’s “Jasmine Revolution” to be held at 2pm, Sunday, February 20 in 13 major cities in China. The tweet noted that the venue for the rally would be publicized on Boxun’s web site one day in advance. Boxun is a popular Chinese language web site in the US with a dissident reputation. A #cn220 hashtag was created and the tweet reportedly was retweeted many times.  The venue announcement was posted on Boxun as promised. Meanwhile, a Google blog site for the Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” was opened. The rest was history. The Chinese government responded swiftly, rounding up prominent dissidents and installing a heavy police presence in the cities where rallies were supposed to be held. Police officers at the designated spots herded people away and detained resisters. That was how the Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” turned out.

For some time following the “Jasmine Revolution” call, there was a ban on selling jasmine in flower markets in Beijing. The China International Jasmine Cultural Festival was  cancelled. The Chinese character for jasmine was censored on the Chinese internet. Even a video of Chinese President Hu Jintao singing China’s famous folk song “A Beautiful Jasmine Flower” was taken down.

One piece of the history became the rallying cry of Chinese nationalists. The US Ambassador to China at that time, Mr. Jon Huntsman, was taped on video in a leather jacket at one of the demonstration sites – McDonald’s in Wangfujing, downtown Beijing. His spokesman later said Mr. Huntsman was there with his family by sheer coincidence.

New York Times dug out pieces of that history as well. A story on April 28, 2011 identified a 27-year-old man from China in a lime green bedroom in Upper Manhattan in New York as a leading figure behind the launching of the Chinese “Jasmine Revolution.” Nicknamed “Flower Brother,” the 27-year-old told New York Times reporter that he was among a group of 25 young Internet-savvy activists inside and outside of China — in Paris, Seoul, Hong Kong, Australia and Taiwan — who were behind the Chinese “Jasmine Revolution.” With a partner in China, he was among the first to publish the times and places for protesters.


However different they may appear, these are two stories of inter-Asian connections. The connections were made through the circulation of revolutionary symbols. But the symbols were hardly free-floating. Behind their production and dissemination were important institutional supporters and entrepreneurial activists as well as powerful forces of state opposition and repression. This lesson would not be worth emphasizing if it were not because there is so much current discourse that lionizes the “viral” and infectious circulation of memes. This discourse could divert attention away from the people and organizations involved in the production, dissemination, and suppression of symbols. This is not to say that new communication technologies do not matter, but it is worth emphasizing that entrepreneurs and organizations are often behind the production and circulation of such symbols. This may be especially true of revolutionary symbols but may be just as true of commercial symbols – think about all the viral commercial logos circulating around us.

The two stories also suggest that inter-Asian connections are not necessarily just about inter-Asia, but are often mediated through third-party countries. Both Britain and the US were implicated in the Cold War case in the sense that the revolution that Mao tried to export to Malaya ultimately targeted American and British imperialism. In the case of the Chinese “Jasmine Revolution,” the Tunisian jasmine revolution was exported to China via web sites in the US, suggesting that third-party countries in Asia as well as in other parts of the world often mediate inter-Asia connections and interactions.


[1] “Sent-down” youths refer to urban youths sent to rural China to do agricultural labor, willingly or under coercion, between the 1950s and the end of the Cultural Revolution.

[2] Xu Zerong. “The secret radio station of the Malayan Communist Party” Asia Weekly, July 2, 2000, No. 26.

[3] Chin Peng, My Side of History. Media Masters, 2003.

[4] Wang Gungwu and Ong Weichong eds. Voice of the Malayan Revolution: The CPM Radio War against Singapore and Malaysia, 1969–1981. Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 2009.