HONG KONG - Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China, died 35 years ago, but his ghost continues to hover over Chinese politics. Portrayed in recent biographies published abroad as one of the great villains of the 20th century, he remains a revered figure at home - and an army of devotees aims to keep it that way.
Protectors of the Mao myth have discovered that one of the most potent ways to keep the Great Helmsman's memory burning bright is to take to the Internet, where numerous Maoist websites offer a steady stream of praise for his rhetoric and his policies, no matter how calamitous the results may have been.
The Great Leap Forward may have been a giant step backward that caused the deaths of tens of millions of people, but for the cyber guardians of Maoism it was a ringing success. The Cultural
? Revolution may have harassed, persecuted and killed millions more, but its militant slogans are still celebrated by defenders of the legendary Chairman Mao.
Despite their efforts, however, criticism of Mao by advocates of political reform is seeping increasingly into the national dialogue. Indeed, so alarmed are Mao's apologists that one idolatrous website, named Utopia and located at wyzxsx.com, has taken the pro-Mao campaign a step further by calling for the "public prosecution" of those who have mustered the temerity to ask hard questions about his still-elevated status in Chinese life.
So far, the site's manager, Fan Jinggang, boasts that he has collected thousands of signatures demanding punishment for two prominent critics of the Chairman - economist Mao Yushi and writer and former official at the China National Defense University, Xin Ziling. And Fan does not plan to stop there.
Later this month, he plans to formally present all complaints against Mao's detractors to the National People's Congress, the Chinese parliament, along with a call for legal action against them. He is also - in an ominous echo of the infamous "neighborhood committees" established during the Cultural Revolution to provide accounts of counter-revolutionary activities to authorities - exhorting "citizens" to report Mao bashers to local public security bureaus.
No one knows whether the Utopia campaign has any official backing, but we do know that one of the signatures collected by Fan is reported to be that of Liu Siqi, widow of Mao Anying, a son of communist China's first leader who was killed in the Korean War. The signature drive also corresponds with a huge Mao revival, led by Bo Xilai, the charismatic Communist Party chief in the sprawling southwestern municipality Chongqing, population 33 million.
Bo, 61, has made no secret of his desire to enter the nine-person pantheon of China's ruling Politburo Standing Committee at next year's party congress, during which President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will step aside and a fifth generation of leadership will be installed. If current expectations are borne out, Hu will be succeeded by Vice President Xi Jinping and Wen by Vice Premier Li Keqiang, but that still leaves lots of room for the nakedly ambitious Bo, who hopes to use his Maoist enthusiasm, as well as his crime-fighting credentials in triad-ridden Chongqing, to secure one of the remaining sacred seats.
Bo, the son of Bo Yibo, a revolutionary leader deified as one of the Eight Immortals of the Communist Party, became party leader of Chongqing in 2007; two years later, he launched the most sweeping campaign against organized crime that any city in China has ever seen. More than 2,000 people have been arrested - and not just the gangsters who once enjoyed free reign in the city but also the corrupt government officials and police who protected them. Due process may have been ignored and coercion and torture used to extract confessions, but the Chongqing party boss's war on crime made him a national figure.
Bo's brazen anti-triad crusade has been accompanied by his equally brash revival of Maoist spirit and rhetoric. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China in October of 2009, he sent text messages containing quotations from Mao's Little Red Book to everyone in Chongqing with a mobile phone. That means, thanks to Bo, the phones of 13 million people lit up with comforting Maoisms such as "The world is ours; we should unite for achievements" and "Responsibility and seriousness can conquer the world, and the Chinese Communist Party members represent these qualities."
In recent years, also thanks to Bo, more Mao statues than trees have been sprouting up around Chongqing. Over the past year, Bo's Mao-inspired Red Songs campaign has taken off. Now every television and radio station in the municipality is required to broadcast patriotic songs celebrating the revolution and the party, and every government official and student - from primary school to university - is required to sing them. Bo and his underlings have selected a total of 36 songs, the lyrics for which have been duly published in the local media, for the edification and entertainment of the general public.
"We must use every means to earnestly organize singing lessons for all cadres and people in order to enrich the masses with spiritual culture," a government notice explains.
But not everyone in Chongqing - or in the rest of China - wants to sing along. The Utopia signature drive was sparked by Mao Yushi's recent review of Xin's book, The Fall of the Red Sun, which presents a critical view of the Mao Zedong years. The 5,000-character review, posted last month on Caing.com, is just as hostile toward Mao's legacy as the book it presents.
At one point, Mao Yushi writes: "[Mao Zedong] was not a god, and he will be removed from the altar, divested of all the myth that used to shroud him, and receive a just evaluation as ordinary man."
That's what Mao romanticists are worried about - a thorough, official debunking of the mythology of the Great Helmsman. And their fears have been heightened by unconfirmed reports of a politburo decision last December to eliminate all references to "Mao Zedong thought" in future party communiques.
In the end, while Bo's politically astute enthusiasm for the spirit of the Mao era - its songs and tamer aphorisms - may help to make him one of the most powerful men in China at next year's all-important party congress, it is unlikely that the web campaign to persecute Mao's 21st-century detractors will ever gain official traction. The current Chinese leadership, like Bo, uses Mao when they need him and ignores him when they don't.
That - rather than Xin's book or Mao Yushi's review - is what really troubles the neo-Maoists of today. The spirit of Chairman Mao may be alive and well in Chongqing - but his policies are dead and buried, there and elsewhere in China.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com