Leaders must fully embrace reform to end people's yearning for Mao era

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 December, 2013, 4:47am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 December, 2013, 6:41am

It remains a conundrum of China's economic miracle that so many people still openly yearn for a return to the Mao era. That not only says something about discontent with inequality and injustice and disgust at rampant official corruption, but also about the whitewashing of the history of Mao Zedong's reign in order to safeguard one-party rule. President Xi Jinping did not attempt to solve it in his speech to mark the 120th anniversary of Mao's birth, instead performing a balancing act. While praising Mao's teachings, Xi said revolutionary leaders were not to be worshipped like gods, nor should they be "negated" completely because they made mistakes. Historical mistakes could not be blamed on individuals. Xi followed the line of former leader Deng Xiaoping that Mao's achievements, which include uniting the country after civil war, outweighed his failings.

Xi's speech was watched closely for clues to the direction in which the mainland is heading because he has sent mixed "left" and "right" messages - firstly in Maoist rhetoric to consolidate his power and tackle corruption, and secondly in support for reforms to give the private sector a bigger role in the economy.

It will have come as a disappointment, but not a surprise, to liberals within China and people outside who have argued that in order to move on, the Chinese leadership must come to terms with the need for transparency about the disasters and calamities of Mao's rule of the 1950s and 1960s by giving a full account. Indeed, one reason for nostalgia for the Mao era, when everyone was poor and therefore equal and corruption could not flourish, is that the leadership has not told mainlanders the truth. The young generally have no idea what he was responsible for. But that is one thing the leadership cannot yet bring itself to tackle, because Communist Party ideology and the legitimacy of its rule is still based on Mao's teachings. To do so would be seen to totally negate the party's origin and founding principals. Hence Xi's balancing act.

That said, China cannot turn back. But Maoist ideology and economic development need to be reconciled. The reason corruption and income disparity so mar China's achievements, provide ammunition for leftist opponents of reform and prompt people to yearn for Mao's days, is not that reforms have failed. It is that they are far from complete. They will remain so until the leadership shows the will and courage to embrace more transparency, accountability and the rule of law. A new generation of party leaders should push on with them.