The Chinese people will not allow a return to the old Maoist days

The leadership is warming to leftist rhetoric as a way to shore up the party's legitimacy amid unprecedented pressure from social discontent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 4:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 4:48am

On Boxing Day, President Xi Jinping is expected to lead the mainland's top officials, both incumbent and retired, to sing the praises of Mao Zedong on his 120th birthday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Xi is to give a keynote speech lauding the country's most famous son and expounding the implications of his legacy, which will be carefully studied at home and abroad for his own true political colours.

He will have to tread a careful line in delivering his narrative at a time when he has shown a propensity for Maoist rhetoric in moves aimed at consolidating his power and tackling corruption. At the same time, he has also tried hard to push ahead with reforms aimed at giving market forces "a decisive role" in the economy. This has given an increasingly distinct impression that he is going "left" in ideology but "right" in economic development. Such a mixed message has seen both the liberals and Maoist conservatives scrambling for every opportunity to push their own agendas and influence over where the mainland is heading.

In a sense, the ideal solution should have been for Xi to play down the wrangling between the Maoists and liberals and continue the "white cat, black cat" pragmatic approach favoured by the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping .

But why has the mainland leadership warmed to the Maoist rhetoric?

The answer may lie in the need to shore up the legitimacy of the Communist Party by stirring up nationalism at a time when it is under unprecedented pressure because of rampant corruption and widespread social discontent over a widening income gap and injustice as well as increasing international concern over China's rise.

Despite the atrocities and calamities Mao's policies brought to the nation, Mao still occupies a unique place in the history of China as he ended the civil war, united the country, founded the People's Republic and enabled the Communist Party to become one of the longest ruling parties in the world. From a nationalist perspective, Mao ensured that the Chinese people had finally and truly stood up following decades of "shame and humiliation" brought about by Western imperialism.

For the new generation of leaders, repudiating Mao as many liberals have argued would be equal to repudiating the legitimacy and the origin of the party.

On the other hand, despite the Maoist rhetoric and Mao's influence over the party and across the country, it is impossible for another Mao Zedong to rule China, as Li Rui , one of Mao's former secretaries, rightly pointed out in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

Moreover, while the leaders may find it expedient to cite Mao and adopt his tactics to consolidate power and shore up the party's grip, the history of the party over the past 30-odd years has shown that the forces that prevent it from turning "left" would always in the end prevail over the Maoists. But such constant wrangling means that the mainland's progress has been, and will be, uneven.

Much has been reported and written in the overseas media about the worrying trend of mainlanders worshipping Mao almost as a god and longing for the corruption-free egalitarian days under his reign.

This is partly because of discontent over widespread social ills and partly because of the party's efforts to suppress the dark history of Mao's reign of terror in the 1950s and 1960s.

But thanks to greater openness, the explosive growth of the internet and the mainland's integration with the outside world, more and more mainlanders have grasped a better and deeper understanding of the history of the party and the country.

As mainlanders become richer and hundreds of millions join the middle class, they have become a formidable force to push for progress in the country, demanding more transparency, accountability and rule of law to protect their property and rights.

Even for mainlanders who claim they long for Mao's era, most merely want a greater effort to root out corruption, narrow income inequality and tackle injustice to achieve a more equitable society.

As they watch aghast at what is unfolding in North Korea where Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed and unleashed a wave of terror against ordinary people in the name of the party and loyalty to the leader, the last thing mainlanders want is to go back to the dark old days.

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