Liberal economist Mao Yushi warns of a 'leftist revival' in China

Prominent liberal Mao Yushi says he has been the target of increasing attacks by people angry over his criticism of patriarch Mao Zedong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 May, 2013, 8:52am

In recent weeks prominent liberal economist Mao Yushi has experienced first-hand the leftist revival taking shape on the mainland.

First, Mao, 84, was bombarded last month by insults and even death threats by anonymous callers angered by his criticism of the party's patriarch, Mao Zedong.

Then, he was singled out by a conservative newspaper affiliated to the Communist Party mouthpiece as a potentially divisive force for his critical views of the regime. He was also forced to tone down a speech in Changsha, Hunan - Mao Zedong's hometown - after being derided by a group of leftists as a traitor.

On April 25, during another speech at a symposium in Shenyang, Liaoning, the economist was disrupted by a leftist historian who was removed by security.

But what shocked Mao Yushi most of all was a May 6 editorial in the party-run Global Times that criticised his challenges to mainstream political thought but made no mention of the leftist attacks on him.

"It's common knowledge that Global Times is a government-run newspaper that is usually very measured in what it says or does not say," said Mao Yushi, who is not related to the former party leader. "But why did it decide to pick on an academic who believes in sensible dialogue rather than the militaristic attitudes of Maoist leftists?"

The editorial made him question the commitment to reform under Xi Jinping , who took control of the party in November.

"Can we conclude that the new leaders also agree with those who oppose reform and opening up?" said Mao Yushi, whose support for free-market economics was recognised last year by the Cato Institute, a United States think-tank.

Indeed, the campaign against Mao Yushi is part of broad effort by leftists to revive Maoism, a movement which has fallen out of favour over three decades of economic reform by the Communist Party. The campaign has gained momentum as the new leadership seeks to tighten ideological control and crack down on dissent.

Mao Yushi said that the leftist revival underscored just how little the mainland public really knew about Mao Zedong's record and his tumultuous Cultural Revolution, in which millions were persecuted as neighbour turned on neighbour in a drive to root out capitalism and impose his doctrines.

In January - before he was officially installed as president - Xi gave an address speaking out against attempts to discredit Mao Zedong, warning that doing so could topple the political regime and plunge the country into chaos.

The new party leader also urged people not to use China's achievements of the past 30 years as a way to call into question the record of the three decades when Mao reigned.

More recently, the party issued a decree banning discussions of seven taboo subjects at schools, including freedom of speech, judicial independence, civil society and past errors of the party.

Last week, writer and blogger Hao Qun - better known as Murong Xuecun - had his microblog accounts shut down, as did other prominent liberals such as China University of Political Science and Law professor He Bing and rights lawyer Si Weijiang .

The leftists, meanwhile have grown more vocal, with several groups hoping to push the new leadership into authorising a grand show to commemorate Mao's 120th birthday in December.

"If they can get their own way, it will be a major victory for them because it amounts to an assurance of what the political landscape would be in China," said Chen Ziming , a Beijing-based political commentator.

Li Yuhui , another mainland political commentator, said concerns about the government retreating to the left were legitimate. He noted that Xi's comments on Mao Zedong were particularly shocking, given that his two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao , avoided saying anything about the late party leader.

"I believe a majority of the public has been surprised by his overt endorsement of Maoism because it's a show of disregard towards a greater number of people caught in the middle," he said.

Qiao Mu , a communications professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the recent leftist revival had much to do with a sense of anxiety among leaders over a theoretical void in ideological control.

Incidents of social unrest have been on the rise as a yawning wealth gap has developed. Xi might be playing to the perceived social equality of the Mao years to placate bitterness among those who feel they have missed out on the benefits of the economic boom.

Qu said the social changes since China opened its doors in the late 1970s have made a return of the Cultural Revolution less likely. But the era's legacy of ideological control remains.

"The Cultural Revolution-style control can come back to haunt the nation, particularly in certain sectors such as the media and school system as we see right now," he said.