Power struggle behind revival of Maoism

By Willy Lam

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.

(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)

(Copyright 2009 The Jamestown Foundation.)