Next Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Mao ­Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party when the communists gained power in 1949. Australian-based followers of the man commonly known as Chairman Mao had planned to celebrate the occasion with concerts at the Sydney Town Hall (September 6) and Melbourne Town Hall (September 9). In the event, both functions were cancelled because of security concerns.

Not surprisingly, these proposed events created controversy within and outside the Chinese Australian community. Chongyi Feng, associate professor in China studies at the University of Technology Sydney, told SBS news last week that Mao was a tyrant. Feng added that “the deaths caused by Mao himself and Mao’s policy is more than Hitler and Stalin combined”. This is probably correct. In his trio of books —The Tragedy of Liberation, Mao’s Great Famine and The Cultural Revolution — Dutch historian Frank Dikotter has concluded that Mao was ­responsible for the deaths of about 50 million Chinese. He estimates about two million deaths in the land redistribution campaign in the late 1940s and early 50s; about 45 million victims of the forced famine of the late 50s and early 60s, which went by the name of the Great Leap Forward; and about two million killed during the Cultural Revolution that ran from 1966 until Mao’s death 10 years later.

Like Feng, Dikotter believes that Mao should be thought of in the same way as Hitler and Stalin. Asked to explain the fact some in Europe did not equate the crimes these men committed, ­Dikotter told the London Sunday Times in May: “I call it racism. If you see a child with blond hair and blue eyes behind barbed wire, it’s a tragedy. If it’s millions of people from Asia, it’s a number. Do people in Europe really care? We don’t.”

It’s much the same here. A City of Sydney spokesman said: “The city cannot intervene or ­cancel events at its venues on the basis that some groups may find them objectionable.” Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said: “We see Town Hall as a venue for free speech.” Fine words. Yet we know that neither town hall would even think about hosting a commemoration of Hitler or even Stalin.

The evidence suggests the Chinese community in Australia is divided. Those opposed to the proposed Mao commemorations tend to be men and women who, or whose families, fled the communist dictatorship in Beijing in the period up to and including the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Supporters of Mao, on the other hand, have tended to ­arrive during the past quarter century.

As Swinburne University of Technology’s John Fitzgerald has pointed out, the planned Sydney and Melbourne events were “organised by the International Cultural Exchange Association of Australia and a cluster of companies and community organisations closely connected with Beijing and with the Chinese consulates in Sydney and Melbourne”. It is this group that also appears responsible for organising crowds in Sydney and Melbourne to oppose Free Tibet and Falun Gong demonstrations and to rally in support of China’s stance on the South China Sea.

In fairness to the local Mao fan club, it should be acknow­ledged that admiration of a murderous dictator has extended to the top of Australian politics. Following Mao’s death on Thursday, September 9, 1976, the House of Representatives sat the following Tuesday. It was as if the parliament were having a nervous breakdown when then prime minister Malcolm Fraser moved a con­dolence motion that was sup­ported by opposition leader Gough Whitlam.

Whitlam had led the embrace of China before and after he won the December 1972 election. However, before becoming prime minister in late 1975, Fraser was an anti-communist in general and a critic of Mao’s China in particular. All of Mao’s crimes against the Chinese people were forgotten or denied as Fraser drooled about the dictator. According to Fraser, Mao “secured the basic necessities of life to China’s people” and “achieved peace internally”. There was no mention of Mao’s victims even though his crimes were known in the West by anyone who wanted to know.

Whitlam matched Fraser in the fawning stakes. He declared that Mao had carried China “out of feudalism and chaos”. At the time this statement was made, China was in the 10th year of the utter chaos that was Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Others who spoke in praise of Mao were ­Nationals leader Doug Anthony and Labor’s Tom Uren, Mick Young and Bill Hayden.

There was one dissenting voice. The anti-communist Liberal Party backbencher Bill Wentworth spoke out against Mao and the cult of Maoism. Then, when the condolence motion was put to a vote, four Coalition MPs walked out of parliament — Wentworth, Kevin Cairns (Liberal), Col Carige (Nationals) and Philip Ruddock (Liberal) — as did Labor’s Dick Klugman. Klugman asked: “Where do you draw the line? Do I have to pretend I am sorry when (Uganda dictator) Idi Amin dies?”

The Cultural Revolution began in May 1966. On the 50th anniversary of Mao’s ­imposed chaos, which purged millions, closed schools and universities, destroyed antiquities and persecuted intellectuals, editorials in the official Chinese press ­declined to support the event or commemorate its memory. Authorities declined to allow a commemoration of the occasion in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Readers of the personal ­accounts of persecution by the likes of Jung Chang, Nien Cheng and Harry Wu will understand why Mao’s Cultural Revolution is so sensitive a matter in contemporary China. Events commemorating Mao and his Cultural Revolution are likelier to take place these days in Sydney and Melbourne than in Beijing and Shanghai.

The governments headed by Bob Hawke, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have ­exhibited better judgment with ­respect to Mao and China than those of Whitlam and Fraser.

As to the present controversy, I’m with Shangxiao Han, who settled in Australia shortly before the time of the Tiananmen Square ­incident and belongs to the ­Embrace Australian Values Alli­ance. Australian values do not honour mass murderers, whether in China or anywhere else.