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What China’s Mao revival does not mean
It makes great newspaper copy – a revival of Maoism in China’s biggest municipality under the aegis of a politician aiming to be elevated to the Standing Committee of the Politburo next year. So we have had stories of Chongqing awash with “red” songs and poems, and texts inspired by the Great Helmsman being read out the city’s television in prime-time while officials journey to the countryside to commune with the workers. An eight-storey bronze statue of Mao has gone up in the university district and the prison authorities are trying out a scheme to reform convicts through “redness” rather than labour.
Nor is it only in Chongqing that Mao is back in vogue. China’s “New Left” (or “neo-Comms”) argues that the Cultural Revolution was not such a terrible experience after all but fostered grassroots democracy. For them, Mao’s era was a time when the country stood up for itself and did not worry about what others thought of it. A petition has been signed by tens of thousands of people in Beijing denouncing an academic who suggested that Mao should be treated as a human being subject to normal human judgments rather than as a semi-divine figure.
The regime upholds the “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad” verdict on the Chairman handed down under Deng Xiaoping. Suggestions of political reform which surfaced last summer after off-message remarks by Wen Jiabao which I analysed at the time in a report were squashed by the Party establishment. This denial culminated in a hard-line speech by Wu Bangguo, number two member of the Standing Committee and President of the National People’s Congress, at the closing session of the legislature in March.
This seems somewhat strange in a country that was meant to have shed ideology and to have embraced material growth as its lodestar. So some recipients of our research have asked whether the retro politicking will have an economic impact. Do the campaigns to paint the past in a more glowing hue mean that politicization will engulf economic decisions? In the phraseology of the Chairman’s era, is China set for a period of debate during which latter-day Maoists try to make being “red” as important as being “expert” and argue that market-led reform has gone too far, producing instability and social tensions?
The aristocracy stakes its claim
The answer is no. The revival of Maoism is a show, put on by Bo Xilai in Chongqing and backed by Xi Jinping, the heir apparent to Hu Jintao, for their own purposes. Sons of prominent Mao-era figures, even if their fathers suffered during the Cultural Revolution, both men aim to use the evocation of an earlier and supposedly purer stage of China’s evolution to burnish their claims to belong to the natural Party aristocracy. They hope thus to show that they are better fitted to rule than the graduates of Hu Jintao’s Youth League, their claims buttressed by hands-on administrative experience.
But they need to show their ability to deliver economic expansion to complement their Party pedigree. Xi did that in high-growth Zhejiang while Bo is currently doing his utmost to consolidate Chongqing as the growth capital of the interior, aiming at 12.5 per cent average annual development in the period to 2015. Both men have signed up to the new Five Year Plan.
A recent visit to the municipality with its 32 million inhabitants showed clearly that no slackening is in view in China’s biggest building site where the authorities offer companies tax holidays, cheap land and wage rates well below those in Guangdong, as part of the “Go West” programme analysed by my colleague Bo Zhuang in his report on the development of inland China.
Mao will continue to stare out over Tiananmen Square and from China’s bank notes. His name will be evoked by those who would, in truth, prefer not to see his record examined too closely. But today’s Party knows that its best way of preserving power is to deliver strong growth and no amount of induced nostalgia will be allowed to stand in the way.