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Jun 10, 2011 | 12:16 GMT

5 mins read

China Political Memo: Revisiting the Legacy of Chairman Mao

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
On April 26, a book review appeared on the economic website caing.com in which the author maintained that Mao Zedong should be remembered as a human being instead of a deity. In his review of the book "Fall of the Red Sun" by retired People's Liberation Army (PLA) officer Xin Ziling, prominent Chinese economist Mao Yushi also questioned Mao's legacy and said his revolutionary approach and struggle for power caused more harm than good. The central thesis of Xin's book was much the same. In response, a leading leftist website called Utopia (wyzxsx.com) published a series of pro-Mao articles in late May that rebuked Mao Yushi and Xin Ziling, and claimed it has collected thousands of signatures demanding "public prosecution" of the two. Fan Jinggang, the manager of Utopia, said he will formally present the petition to the National People's Congress on June 15. So far, about 20,000 signatures reportedly have been collected, including a number of signatures by relatives of Chairman Mao and by some well-known people claiming to be leftists. From a legal point of view, no one in China denies that the controversy is more a case of political theatrics than anything else. But it does suggest an escalating ideological struggle between China's conservative neo-leftists and its Western-leaning liberals, and perhaps the potential for a rising strain of Maosim among the populace. The struggle is nothing new; it has been a running theme throughout the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC) — from its revolutionary period through Mao's regime and after the opening-up. Before the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, however, the labels were more distinct; those embracing Marxist ideology were clearly leftists and those who opposed it were clearly rightists, and the political battle lines were drawn accordingly. After the Cultural Revolution, this demarcation was diluted by the CPC, which did not want another round of polarized ideologies to create yet another mass movement and more social instability, and today the ideological division is more nuanced and more widely discussed. Once largely theoretical, the issues are now being debated in chat rooms and through social media, and the various messages are going to a much greater audience than Party stalwarts and academics. The rising neo-leftists can support CPC-style economics and politics and still criticize social inequality and injustice, while the liberal right takes it a step further by advocating for Western-style political institutions and economic development. Naturally, since they cater to CPC ideology, leftists in general are favored by the Party and are nurtured to reinforce its authority. Of the various websites involved in the dialogue, the aforementioned Utopia, which was established in 2003 and is leading the charge in the current pro-Mao campaign, is considered the leading leftist site. It is unclear to what extent Beijing backs the website, which features content written by politicians, academics and well-known authors, some of whom label themselves as leftists. Meanwhile, the pro-Mao campaign it has advocated has been clearly corroborated by political behavior in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing. Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai is leading a sweeping "Red Culture" campaign to promote a Maoist revolutionary tenor in word, song and imagery, which is all part of his bid for membership in the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee during the 2012 leadership transition. Still, authorities in Beijing have not shown strong support for the pro-Mao campaign. While Mao's legacy represents a cornerstone of CPC rule over the People's Republic of China, and there is no doubt that Mao remains popular, particularly in rural areas, Beijing does not want the campaign to develop into an old-style revolutionary movement. The Party has spent decades trying to distance itself from Mao's mistakes and wants to prevent any repeat of the instability they caused. A moderate left is more to Beijing's liking than the radical Maoist version. Beijing also fears that an increasingly polarized ideological struggle will shape public opinion and create a national dialogue over which path — to the left or to the right – would best facilitate China's future growth. Such a national debate was quite heated from the late 1980s and again in the late 1990s. A renewed division would jeopardize the coherence of the CPC, particularly during a period of leadership transition, with growing economic problems and the threat of social instability challenging the Party's abilities. One of the most important implements in the Party's tool kit is ideological control. Amid economic problems that threaten the CPC's legitimacy as well as a constant bombardment of Western ideas, manifested most recently in the Jasmine gatherings, promoting a softer neo-leftism could be a beneficial approach for the Party. This year's 90th anniversary of the CPC also provides a platform for the Party to reinforce its grip. Still, Beijing will be cautious of any extreme movement — Maoist included — that could emerge from the current debate.

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