Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Power struggle behind revival of Maoism

November 27, 2009

By Willy Lam
China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 23
Jamestown Foundation
November 19, 2009

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership
tries to convince United States President Barack
Obama and other world leaders that China is
eagerly integrating itself with the global
marketplace, the ultra-conservative norms and
worldview of Chairman Mao Zedong are making a big comeback in public life.

In provinces and cities that foreign dignitaries
are unlikely to visit, vintage Cultural
Revolution-era (1966-1976) totems are
proliferating. In Chongqing, a mega-city of 32
million people in western China, Mao sculptures -
which were feverishly demolished soon after the
late patriarch Deng Xiaoping catalyzed the reform
era in 1978 - are being erected throughout
government offices, factories and universities.

A newly constructed seven-story statue of the
demigod in Chongqing's college district dwarfed
nearby halls, libraries and classroom buildings.
Not far from the Helmsman's birthplace in
Juzhizhou village, Hunan province, the latest
tourist attraction is a sky-scraping, 32-meter
torso of the young Mao. Moreover, the
long-forgotten slogan "Long Live Mao Zedong
Thought" has been resuscitated after banners
bearing this battle cry were held high by college
students and nationalistic Beijing residents
during parades in Tiananmen Square that marked
the 60th birthday of the People's Republic.

There are at least three dimensions to Maoism's
resurgence in China. One is simply a celebration
of national pride. Given the fact that the
Helmsman's successors ranging from Deng Xiaoping
to President Hu Jintao have imposed a blackout on
public discussion about the great famine and
other atrocities of the Mao era, most Chinese
remember Mao as the larger-than-life founder of
the republic and the "pride of the Chinese race".

The contributions of Mao were played up in this
year's blockbuster movie Lofty Ambitions of
Founding a Republic, which was specially
commissioned by party authorities. Thus, Central
Party School theorist Li Junru, who gained fame
for his exposition of Deng's reform programs,
recently characterized Mao as a titan who "led
the Chinese people in their struggle against the
reactionary rule of imperialism and feudalism, so
that the Chinese race [could] stand tall among the people of the world".

Moreover, according to a conservative
theoretician, Peng Xiaoguang, the enduring
enthusiasm for "Mao Zedong Thought" -
particularly among the young - testified to the
intelligentsia's search for an "ultimate faith"
that could speed up China's rise, particularly in
the wake of the global financial crisis.

The other two dimensions of the Maoist revival
portend struggles and changes within the CCP; it
is emblematic of the CCP's shift to the left, as
well as the intensification of political
infighting among the party's disparate factions
(in China, "leftism" denotes doctrinaire
socialist values, emphasis on the party's
monopoly on power, and a move away from the free-market precepts).

It is well known that since the Tibet riots in
March 2008, the CCP leadership has tightened the
noose around the nation's dissidents as well as
activists of non-governmental agencies. Yet in
the wake of the international financial meltdown,
economic policy has also displayed anti-market
tendencies, if not also a re-assumption of values
such as state guidance of the economy, which were
observed during the long reign of the revered chairman.

This is evidenced by the phenomenon called guojin
mintui, or state-controlled enterprises advancing
at the expense of the private sector. In areas
ranging from coal and steel to transportation,
state-controlled firms are swallowing up private
companies. Moreover, government-run outfits are
the major beneficiaries of the $585 million
stimulus package announced late last year, as
well as the $1.1 trillion worth of loans extended
by Chinese banks in the first three quarters of the year.

Even more significant is the fact that a number
of party cadres are invoking Maoist values
including radical egalitarianism when formulating
public policies. While Mao was said to have
ushered in the new China by pulling down the
"three big mountains" of feudalism, bureaucratic
capitalism and imperialism, his latter-day
followers are engaged in an equally epic struggle
against the "three new mountains", a reference to
runaway prices in the medical, education and housing sectors.

Nowhere is this ethos more pronounced than in
Chongqing, whose leadership has vowed to develop
so-called "red GDP". This is a codeword for
economic development that is geared toward the
needs of the masses - and not dictated by the
greed of privileged classes such as the country's
estimated 30 million millionaires.

For example, while real estate prices in cities
ranging from Shanghai and Shenzhen are sharply
increasing, Chongqing cadres have pledged to
ensure that at least one-third of all apartments
in the metropolis are affordable to workers and
farmers. The Chongqing party secretary, Bo Xilai,
has indicated that the key to the CCP maintaining
its perennial ruling-party status is "whether it
is tightly linked with the people and the
masses". "Chairman Mao put it best: we must serve
the people with all our hearts and minds," Bo
noted. "The party will become impregnable if
cadres from top to bottom are tightly bonded with the masses."

As with most political trends in China, the
resuscitation of Maoist norms is related to
factional intrigue. Jockeying for position
between two major CCP cliques - the so-called
Gang of Princelings and the Communist Youth
League (CYL) Faction - has intensified in the
run-up to the 18th CCP Congress. At this critical
conclave slated for 2012, the fourth-generation
leadership under President Hu and Premier Wen
Jiabao is due to yield power to the fifth
generation, or cadres born in the 1950s.

Bo and Vice President Xi Jinping, two prominent
politburo members who also happen to be
"princelings", or the offspring of party elders,
are among the most high-profile architects of the
Maoist revival. Implicit in the princelings'
re-hoisting of the Maoist flag is a veiled
critique of the policies undertaken by Hu and his
CYL faction, which have exacerbated the
polarization of rich and poor and even led to the
betrayal of socialist China's spiritual heirlooms.

Bo is the son of party elder Bo Yibo, who was
dubbed one of the CCP's "eight immortals". As
former minister of commerce and governor of the
northeastern Liaoning province, Bo was often
praised by multinational executives for his
generally progressive views on globalization. Yet
after moving to Chongqing in late 2007, the
charismatic regional "warlord" has launched
numerous campaigns to popularize Maoist
quotations, doctrines and even Cultural
Revolution-style "revolutionary operas".

In less than two years, Bo cited the Helmsman's
instructions in at least 30 public speeches. The
60-year-old princeling has also asked his
assistants to text message sayings by Mao to the
city's netizens. Bo's favorite Mao quotations
include: "The world is ours; we must all take
part in running [public] affairs"; "Human beings
need to have [a revolutionary] spirit"; "The
world belongs to young people. They are like the
sun at eight or nine in the morning"; and "Once
the political line has been settled, [the quality
of] cadres is the deciding factor".

Vice President Xi Jinping, the son of the late
vice premier Xi Zhongxun, is also a keen follower
of the Great Helmsman. The 56-year-old Xi, who
doubles as president of the Central Party School,
likes to sprinkle his homilies to students of the
elite cadre-training institution with Mao's words of wisdom.

Xi's repeated emphasis on grooming neophytes who
are "both politically upright and professionally
competent" echoes Mao's dictum on picking
officials who are "both red and expert". While
talking about "party construction", or ways to
ensure the ideological purity of CCP cells, Xi
noted that the leadership must learn from the
"great party-construction engineering project
that was successfully pioneered by the
first-generation leadership with comrade Mao Zedong as its core".

When he is touring the provinces, Xi likes to
celebrate "proletariat paragons" first lionized
by Mao. While inspecting the Daqing oilfield in
Heilongjiang province last September, the vice
president eulogized the "spirit of the Iron Man
of Daqing", a reference to the well-nigh
super-human exploits of Wang Jinxi, the legendary
oilfield worker. Xi has also heaped praise on
"heroes of the masses", such as the
self-sacrificing fireman, Lei Feng, and the
altruistic county party secretary, Jiao Yulu.

It is easy to see why princelings should take
full advantage of their illustrious lineage. As
the famous Chinese proverb goes: "He who has won
heaven and earth has the right to be their
rulers." This was the basis of the "revolutionary
legitimacy" of the first- and second-generation
leadership under Mao and Deng respectively.

As the sons and daughters of Long March veterans,
princelings regard their "revolutionary
bloodline" as a prime political resource. Thus,
while visiting the "revolutionary Mecca" of
Jinggangshan in Jiangxi province last year, Xi
paid homage to the "countless martyrs of the
revolution who used their blood and lives to win
over this country". "They laid a strong
foundation for the good livelihood [we are
enjoying]," he said. "Under no circumstances can we forsake this tradition."

Similarly, while marking the October 1 National
Day last year, Bo urged Chongqing's cadres "to
forever bear in mind the ideals and hot-blooded
[devotion] of our elders". "Forsaking [their
revolutionary tradition] is tantamount to betrayal," Bo instructed.

By contrast, affiliates of President Hu's CYL
faction - most of whom are career party
apparatchiks from relatively humble backgrounds -
cannot aspire to the kind of halo effect that the
likes of Bo or Xi appear to have inherited from their renowned forebears.

Even as China's global prestige has been
substantially enhanced by its "economic miracle",
party authorities have repeatedly called on all
members to ju'an siwei, that is, to "be wary of
risks and emergencies at a time of stability and
plenty". In addition, princelings, who are deemed
to have benefited from the revolutionary - and
politically correct - genes of the Long March
generation, seem to be the safest choices to
shepherd the party and country down the road of
Chinese-style socialism under new historical circumstances.

Moreover, while the Hu-Wen team has staked its
reputation on goals such as "putting people
first" and extending the social security net to
the great majority of Chinese, it cannot be
denied that negative phenomena such as social
injustice and exploitation of disadvantaged
classes have increased since the turn of the century.

The reinvigoration of Maoist standards, then,
could prove to be the biggest challenge to unity
within the Hu-Wen administration. Steering the
ship of state to the left might temporarily
enable the Hu leadership to garner the support of
advocates of 1950s-style egalitarianism - and
blunt the putsch for power spearheaded by Bo, Xi
and other princelings. Yet, turning back the
clock could deal a body blow to economic as well
as political reform - and render China less
qualified than ever for a place at the head table of the global community.

* Dr Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a senior fellow at The
Jamestown Foundation. He has worked in senior
editorial positions in international media
including Asiaweek newsmagazine, South China
Morning Post, and the Asia-Pacific Headquarters
of CNN. He is the author of five books on China,
including the recently published Chinese Politics
in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New
Challenges. Lam is an adjunct professor of China
studies at Akita International University, Japan,
and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank