Mao colossus strides a divide
By Cristian Segura

BEIJING - When Hu Jintao assumed the supreme leadership of China in 2002 his priority was to dispel the increasing feeling that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was losing contact with the masses while promoting a wild capitalism for the benefit of the urban elite.

Under Hu, the CPP's promotion of a better redistribution of wealth in a "socialist-capitalist economy" has given renewed significance to the "New Leftists", thinkers who over the past two decades have advocated classic socialist methods to compensate for the imperfections of the capitalistic economy.

The most recent chapter of this trend is a profound re-study of Mao Zedong's ideals and a benevolent revisionism of his legacy by prestigious scholars, both in China and abroad. Mao led the People's Republic of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976.

The global financial crisis has given analysts of Marxism a new role as protagonists, and intellectuals from some of the world's top universities are rethinking Mao Thought as a way to help close growing social and wealth gaps. In doing this, they are also trying to cast new insights toward the New Leftist movement itself.

Ban Wang, professor of Chinese literature and culture at Stanford University, rejects defining this "upsurge of interest" in Mao's thinking as New Maoism because "it is not a systematic restoration of the whole package of Mao's thought".

Some of Mao's ideas are interesting because they can be used, Wang said. "Mao's thought teaches us a method for investigating China's real circumstances at a specific time," he said. "But this epistemological value is also harnessed to a vision of a socialist future radically different from capitalism. Though times may change, certain workable responses in the Chinese experience to recurrent problems may still have life and validity."

Maoism as a political alternative doesn't exist in China. From the beginning of the reforms in late 1978 until the 1990s, his heritage was discouraged as the CCP searched for a new voice for its rhetoric. Although liberal factions retain an important position of power, top cadres of the party often use quotations from Mao to give them a voice. CCP think-tanks such as the Central Party School or the Chinese Academy of Social Science are breathing new life into Mao's Credo in their lectures and research projects.

As Wang assures, "The new upsurge of Mao thinking makes strategic uses of Mao's legacy: there are many usable elements in Mao's thought, such as the mass line as a guide for understanding and adjusting the fluid relationships between the state, regions, society and individuals. The mass line is also at the center of the notion of intra-party democracy. There are also questions of national independence and state sovereignty, which were what the Chinese revolution fought for and which persist in the relation with Taiwan and minority areas. State sovereignty is related to economic sovereignty, manifest in the policy of economic self-reliance."

Foreign scholars commonly accuse the New Leftists of feeding nationalist movements.

"Using the claim that China should assume a more powerful role in international and security affairs while replacing the beneficiaries of the old world order, neo-leftist analysts have once again revealed their inclination toward their own brand of nationalism," according to Bernt Berger, an expert on China security policy at the University of Hamburg. "The assertive nationalist rhetoric behind recent neo-leftist statements appeals to a growing number of people who are dissatisfied with corruption ... This rhetoric traditionally had a hint of counter-imperialist or post-colonial emancipation and self-assertion," Berger wrote in a 2009 report for the ISN Security Watch.

Wang arrives at the same conclusion as Berger, though without acknowledging the nationalist inconvenience. "Revolutionary theories and practices crystallized by the term 'Mao Zedong Thought' are the engine of China's drive from a semi-colonized, beleaguered country to an independent nation-state, now proudly standing by other nations ... There are websites, forums and academic studies devoted to the discussion and elaboration of revolutionary and socialist motifs. The new-found confidence in China's rising power seems to say that despite all the trials and tribulations, socialist builders, after all, did something right."

Disenchantment with globalization, that began and was encouraged by the Western world, is a focal point for the revival of Mao and the new leftists. A book written by several critics of current CCP policies, Unhappy China: The great time, grand vision and our internal and external challenges, was last year's political bestseller. Wang Hui, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Tsinghua University in Beijing and probably an icon of the group, expressed regret over the new left label because it was formulated in the US and Europe. The New Leftists, as happened with concepts such as "Rightists" and "Old Leftists", could be misunderstood in China as a new faction of dogmatic elites, according to Wang Hui.

The New Left and the intellectual supporters for a restoration of Mao's ideals share a mistrust of liberalism and globalization. But Ban Wang says that new Maoism is "more indebted to classical Maoism". Their defense of Mao's teachings is strident because "these have been prematurely consigned by liberals to the dustbin of history", Ban Wang says.

It is common among new Maoist intellectuals to search the dark periods of contemporary Chinese history for positive experiences.

Words and Their Stories: Essays on the Language of the Chinese Revolution, a forthcoming book edited by Ban Wang, documents examples of these in the Mao era. Wang is convinced that during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) there was an earnest intention to decentralize power in favor of the "creative potential of the rural masses". The CCP made significant improvements to public health in rural areas during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Wang asserts.

China took several steps toward modernization in that decade, making progress on gender equality, a more direct communication between the government and the people, new genres of opera and literature backed by Jiang Qing - Mao's wife and member of the Gang of Four - and a proud feeling against individualism because people believed they were relevant and "part of something", Bai Di, director of Asian Studies of Drew University, said in a recent interview with Revolution, the magazine of the US Revolutionary Communist Party.

Of the Cultural Revolution purges, Bai said, "There were people who were trying to return to the old hierarchy in society ... I don't think these people wanted to go to capitalism, they were trying to take people back to old tradition, and they were trying to retrench back to feudalism."

Was Mao Really a Monster? is a collection of essays by 15 international scholars and posed this question in response to Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's best-seller that became famous for the ferocity of its attack on Mao's actions. Almost all the essayists criticize Chang and Halliday for a lack of neutrality and rigor. "We make a counter-argument in the revolution's critical defense at a time when revisionists histories of the great social revolutions are in the ascendancy," Gregor Benton, professor of Chinese history at Cardiff University, and Lin Chun, professor at the London School of Economics, wrote in the introduction to the book, which they co-edited and published in 2009.

A minority of radical leftists go even further. There is at least one organized underground Maoist association, the Chinese Maoist Communist Party, and others claim to have founded new Maoist parties. The Chinese Maoist Communist Party has published its founding principles on websites like maoflag.net. This online forum was shut down temporarily in 2007 after posting a message signed by 17 former top CCP officials and Marxist scholars criticizing the party for being too capitalist.

Above ground, the Beijing bookstore Utopia is at the heart of Maoism activism in China. The store sells all Mao's written works and other papers that support the Great Helmsman's legacy. Located in the university district of Haidian, Utopia organizes weekly gatherings with scholars and all kinds of social activities.

Rebecca Karl, expert on Maoism in Asia at the New York University Department of History, considers it wrong to call these movements Maoist. "They would have to be revolutionary to be Maoist," she says. She views the New Left as a group of thinkers who are "more like social democrats" in their criticism of capitalism and undemocratic practices.

While it is true that nostalgia and radical support for Mao's legacy is found among a tiny minority, the intellectual activity in favor of revisiting Mao's tasks and thoughts has echoed in the corridors of power. "A number of party cadres are invoking Maoist values, including radical egalitarianism, when formulating public policies,'' Willy Lam has written. ( See Power struggle behind revival of Maoism
Asia Times Online, November 23, 2009.)

Vice President Xi Jingping, the favorite to succeed Hu as premier and often considered a representative of the liberal wing of the CCP, uses quotations and the ideas of Mao and has even paid respects by visiting places of importance to the Great Helmsman's life. Bo Xilai, the party chief of Chongqing municipality and former minister of commerce, is the highest CCP representative directly attached to Mao's restoration. Bo has involved himself in Maoist propaganda campaigns in Chongqing, with his government sending Mao quotations to citizens by SMS, and building Mao statues.

Using Mao's figure as a respected icon to unite the people under the wing of the CCP has an undeniable logic. Yang Yao, director of the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University, warned recently that despite measures implemented during the Hu era to hold back social imbalances, the situation is getting worst. "Since the CCP lacks legitimacy in the classic democratic sense it has been forced to seek performance-based legitimacy instead by continuously improving the living standards of Chinese citizens. So far, this strategy has succeeded, but there are signs that it will not last because of the growing inequality."

Cristian Segura is a European journalist based in Beijing.