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China: Mao and the next generation

June 4, 2011

By            Kathrin Hille and Jamil Anderlini

Published:            June 2 2011 Financial Times

 

At the heart of the Chinese Communist empire, in an            imposing mausoleum in the centre of Beijing’s Tiananmen            Square, the body of Mao Zedong still lies in state in a            glass sarcophagus 35 years after his death.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors arrive annually to            gaze at the waxen face of the man hailed for throwing off            the yoke of foreign oppression to found modern China, and            whose recurrent political campaigns and purges were            responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his            compatriots.

At the north end of the square, the former leader’s            giant portrait still hangs above the Gate of Heavenly Peace,            the entrance to the Forbidden City. His face adorns every            bank­note.

Mao is more than a revered dead emperor, however. In            recent months, his legacy and image have become powerful            weapons in the hands of the political elite as they jockey            for position in the run-up to October 2012, when most senior            Communist party officials will be replaced by a new generation of leaders.

This year, as the party prepares to celebrate the            90th anniversary of its founding on July 1, ideological            battle lines are being drawn as factions fight to gain            influence and to determine the direction taken by the party.            Foreign diplomats and business leaders are watching these            conflicts closely for signs of whether China is heading for            a dilution or even a full reversal of the market reforms            that have made it an economic powerhouse.

Bo Xilai, one of the contenders for a seat on the            nine-member politburo standing committee, the apex of            political power, was the first to revive Mao’s ghost. In the western            municipality of Chongqing, which he heads as party            secretary, Mr Bo rules with an arsenal of Maoist slogans and            propaganda techniques. On special occasions, residents            receive “red texts” – Mao quotations sent to mobile phones.            The local state television station has replaced all            commercials with “red programmes” – soap operas narrating            revolutionary history. Civil servants, state company staff            and students are called in for the organised singing of “red            songs” – hymns glorifying the country’s founding father and            the party. “The sun is red, Chairman Mao is dear,” according            to one.

As Mr Bo has combined this campaign with a handful            of highly popular policies – more polite, less corrupt            police officers; more trees in the city; more affordable            housing – residents rarely complain. “One should not take            the ‘red’ stuff too seriously – it doesn’t affect our lives            much,” says Isabelle Luo, a 26-year-old local designer.

But people like Ms Luo are not, in fact, Mr Bo’s            intended audience. When the 61-year-old politician peppers            his speeches with Mao references, he is addressing fellow            Communist party leaders – or at least some of them.

Bo Xilai is the son of the late Bo Yibo, one of the            party’s most senior revolutionary veterans. That puts him            among the country’s influential “princelings” – along with Xi Jinping, an heir apparent for            the top job. Mr Xi, vice-president and son of Xi Zhongxun, a            one-time head of the party’s powerful propaganda department,            is all but sure to take over from Hu Jintao as party general            secretary and state president at next year’s party congress.            While the appointments to the two most senior positions,            president and premier, are already largely settled, with vice-premier Li Keqiang marked for the            premiership, the seven remaining spots on the standing            committee are still up for grabs. They have become the focus            of furious politicking among the contenders.

“The references to Mao Zedong are nothing more than            a code for those who claim ownership over the roots of the            party,” says Xiao Jiansheng, a historian and editor at a            state newspaper in Hunan, Mao’s ancestral province.

Reform advocates are hitting back. A professor who            blogs under the pseudonym Diedie Bu Xiu suggests, as an            alternative to Mr Bo’s “dangerous campaign”, a “Zhejiang            model” – a development path modelled on the province with            the most developed private enterprise sector. He predicts            that this will lead to the rise of civil society and            democracy.

Mr Xi has signalled that he has got the message. On            a widely noticed visit to Chongqing in December, he said Mr            Bo’s methods “have gone deeply into the people’s hearts and            are worthy of praise”. Willy Lam, a veteran China watcher,            observed in a recent note for the Jamestown Foundation, the            US think-tank: “Xi’s bonding with [Mr Bo] shows that the            vice-president may be putting together his own team [of            political allies].”

Another representative of the princeling faction is            making waves with references to the chairman. General Liu            Yuan, son of Liu Shaoqi, one of Mao’s earliest            comrades-in-arms, made an arcane but provocative call in the            preface to a book by a conservative author for a return to            “New Democracy”. A concept slightly more liberal than            hardcore communism, New Democracy was propagated by Mao and            Gen Liu’s father before the party took power, though it was            later abandoned by Mao.

Gen Liu’s enigmatic essay also calls for a            strengthening of the military over the cultural in China,            praising war as the foundation of nation-building, and            expressing admiration for the 2001 terrorist attacks on the            World Trade Center. Gen Liu, political commissar of the            logistics department of the People’s Liberation Army, is            expected to be appointed to the Central Military Commission,            the body that ultimately controls the armed forces.

For men such as Mr Bo and Gen Liu to back up their            claim to power with references to Mao appears deeply            cynical. Since the late chairman persecuted almost every one            of his former allies, most princeling politicians –            including Messrs Bo, Liu and Xi – watched their parents            suffer under the ideology they now invoke. Observers            therefore believe their appropriation of it is more about            style than substance – an attempt to tap into a sense of            nostalgia by resurrecting the trappings of Maoism without            reviving any of the disastrous policies associated with it.

“There is a certain renaissance of the Mao cult, but            that’s among young people who have not experienced the            horrors of that era,” says Mr Xiao in Hunan. Officials at            the local government of Shaoshan, Mao’s ancestral home town,            say there has been a steep rise in visits from tourists,            including many young worshippers bearing incense.

But as far as politicians are concerned, Mr Xiao            adds, “they seek the most powerful symbol of the party, and            Mao is the only thing that stands for that”. He argues that            members of the princeling faction take a dynastic view of            political power, caring about ideology only to the extent it            can help them gain and maintain control.

Debates triggered by the Maoist revival resonate far            more broadly, however. Some conservative groups, long            unhappy with the naked capitalism produced by more than 30            years of economic reforms, have taken up the “Chongqing            model”.

“These red songs, soaked with the bright red blood            of revolutionary martyrs, are the spiritual medicine people            need to free themselves of the poison of western class            society and spiritual opium,” according to a recent essay by            Ning Yunhua, a writer on Utopia, the Maoist camp’s main            website.

Prominent academics have raised the stakes in the            debate. Mao Yushi, an economist (no relation to Mao Zedong),            demanded in an essay last month that the former leader be            demoted from the status of deity and “returned to human            form”.

His call for an end to hagiography and the revived            personality cult drove Maoists into a rage. On Utopia and            other conservative forums, Mr Mao is being called a            “capitalist running dog”. He is subject to taunts of “cow            ghost” and “snake spirit”, terms used during the darkest            days of the cultural revolution to humiliate and demonise            people who often ended up tortured or beaten to death. One            group has collected 10,000 signatures to support its demand            that police go after the economist for alleged subversion            and libel.

These bitter public feuds reflect splits at the very            top of the party, with factions embracing or repudiating Mao            to advance their own agendas. Persistent rumours are            circulating in Beijing that more liberal members of the            senior leadership have suggested dropping all references to            “Mao Zedong thought” in future official documents, a highly            symbolic move that would break with decades of tradition.

The ideological battles have even spilled out into            the tightly controlled official media. In the past month,            People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece used to keep            cadres up to date about the correct line, stunned the public            by running a series of five editorials that appeared to call            for political reforms.

Just as officials were lecturing foreign diplomats            and journalists that jailed artist Ai Weiwei was a troublemaker            undeserving of their attention, one article warned of the            need for greater tolerance of dissent. The final piece in the            series said China would achieve stability only by allowing            people to make their voices heard rather than suppressing            them.

According to a senior editor at a state newspaper,            the series was an initiative of editorial staff with tacit            backing from above. But the backlash came almost            immediately. Last week, a further editorial in the People’s            Daily called for political discipline and criticised some            cadres for “irresponsible” comments on ideology.

.              . .

Beyond the battle for power at the top, the struggle            over Mao’s legacy has come to symbolise a more fundamental            ideological split – a divide between those in the leadership            who advocate moving towards a more liberal, participatory            political system and a more hardline group that rejects            anything to do with western-style democracy.

Representing the more liberal faction is premier Wen            Jiabao, whose frequent enigmatic references to the need for            greater democracy and tolerance have been taken by some as            support for substantive political reform. Although some            analysts believe Mr Wen enjoys some support from President            Hu, for now the factions arguing against such liberalisation            are clearly in the ascendant. “China is at a crossroads,”            says Wan Jun, a university lecturer and online commentator.            “The fierce clash of ideas exposes the crisis facing            socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

That is a direct stab at the reforms of Deng            Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, who tried to undo a large portion            of the dictator’s work. For more than 30 years, Mr Deng’s            model worked. Increasingly market-oriented economic reforms            allowed people to grow much richer, and kept them mostly            satisfied with the lack of political reform. In light of the            global financial crisis and the damage wrought on the            credibility of western elites, some Chinese leaders claim            their country’s development model represents a rival set of            values.

But internally, many of those involved in the            party’s ideological quarrels agree that the dividends of Mr            Deng’s model are running out. They cite increasing            corruption, social unrest and income inequality; as well as            serious economic imbalances, an unsustainable growth model            and an erosion of the party’s authority.

It is this daunting list of problems that will            confront those of today’s aspirants who manage to secure a            position in the new leadership. The ghost of Mao can help Mr            Bo and his fellow contenders only so much.

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