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Mao portraits in anti-Japan protests a cause for concern for leaders

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 8:13am

The unexpected brandishing of images of Mao Zedong in anti-Japan rallies is more worrying than welcome for the Chinese government, even if it has sanctioned or encouraged such protests, analysts say.

Some protesters were seen carrying portraits of Mao and making references to him in chants and on banners during the widespread rallies, which have lasted for days.

On the surface, it is easy to link Mao with the protest movement, sparked by a territorial row in the East China Sea, as he is seen as the founding father of the People's Republic of China and has long been portrayed by the party as the nation's supreme leader during the resistance against Japan in the second world war.

However, some analysts said that a crucial factor behind the recent attention on Mao was public dissatisfaction with the nation's economic reform and open-door policy, started by Deng Xiaoping after Mao's death in 1976, and which has been continued by the current leadership.

Professor Liu Kang, who teaches Chinese studies at Duke University in the United States, said: "First, [the use of Mao's image] should be seen as being nostalgic, as many Chinese believe that Mao was the heroic leader of the war with Japan [in the 1930s and 1940s].

"And second, the phenomenon suggests there is widespread discontent with the current leadership and a dissatisfaction with policies."

Zhang Lifan , a political affairs analyst, said recent events suggest that there were competing political forces at play, as leaders are jockeying for influence and power ahead of the upcoming 18th party congress, when a new generation of leaders will be appointed in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

Zhang said he believed some leftist leaders, including the Maoist wing of the party, were using the anti-Japan rallies as an excuse to show support for the disgraced former senior politician Bo Xilai , who gained popularity among some citizens for his revival of "red" Maoist politics.

Zhang, formerly a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said some leaders were playing with fire by encouraging such a movement to cultivate nationalism.

The communist leaders should worry that such anti-foreign protests could spark a new political consciousness among civilians, as happened during the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement in 1919, he said.

"Some leaders may be encouraging the anti-Japanese protests to encourage nationalism, but they also must ensure that they do not become the target of attack," Zhang said.