Mao Yushi and Critics Put Ideological Gulf on Display

Mao Yushi, the 84-year-old economist who last year won the Cato Institute’s Milton Freedom Prize for Advancing Liberty, is a prominent voice on one side of China’s ideological gulf — his free-market advocacy and progressive political stance has made him a spokesman representing the polar opposite of the “Red Culture” leftists once personified by fallen Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai. In 2011, his polemic essay “Returning Mao Zedong to Human Form” (Mao Yushi is not related to the deceased revolutionary) prompted leftists and nationalists to campaign for his arrest. Mr. Mao’s recent comments on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute have prompted a new wave of criticism from Chinese nationalists. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In a campaign that some have likened to the political persecution that took place under the Cultural Revolution, the 84-year-old scholar has been the target of abusive, late-night phone calls, a wave of attacks on microblogs as well as disruptions of his lectures. He has been denounced as a traitor and targeted by demonstrators.

[…]“The islands have no GDP, no tax revenues and no real value,” Mr. Mao told the Wall Street Journal, repeating public statements he has made previously. “It’s fine to be patriotic, but we have to be realistic about things.”

He took a mild swipe at political leaders of both countries, saying they shouldn’t be creating fresh tensions and instead should be working to reduce existing ones. ”Political leaders are using taxpayers’ money for pointless pursuits,” he said.

Remarks like these have touched a raw nerve.

”Those who advocate giving up the Diaoyus – aren’t they traitors? …Mao Yushi is a traitor wearing the clothes of an academic,” wrote one angry user of the Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblogging platform, where much of the criticism has unfolded.

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Reporting from a promotional event for Mao Yushi’s new book, the New York Times’ Didi Kirsten Tatlow has more on the harassment of Mao Yushi, how he is dealing with it, and what he sees as the bigger picture:

We had come to hear Mr. Mao talk about his new book, “Where Does Chinese People’s Anxiety Come From?” But the conversation moved to how the 84-year-old engineer-turned-economist, first branded a political “rightist” by the Communist Party in the 1950s, was coping.

“Of course, we’re being harassed at home, so my wife cannot sleep peacefully, and I’ve also been affected,” said Mr. Mao.

“But I feel that is a small issue,” he said. “What’s a truly big issue is how we as a society should view this bifurcation of opinion, how we can resolve this difference of positions.”

The differences speak of a society increasingly fractured into rich and poor, pro-state and pro-individual, a skewed left and right — all the issues that Mr. Mao addressed at the gathering, kept deliberately small to maintain security.

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In a follow-up New York Times’ blogpost, Tatlow explains how two Mao’s represent starkly opposed political camps within a one-party state:

The first Mao is that Mao, who commands a group of loyalists from beyond the grave and whose legitimacy is enormously bolstered by the Communist Party’s refusal to repudiate his legacy, despite some acknowledgment that he did some wrong — a legacy that includes the violence of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted about a decade and finally ended with his death in 1976.

[…]The second Mao is Mao Yushi, a popular, 84-year-old engineer-turned-economist, a figurehead for greater economic and political freedoms who is an outspoken critic of the other Mao’s legacy, which he says poisons China and must be removed. (He is not related to Mao Zedong.)

The political groups the two Maos represent work broadly like this: on college campuses around the country, and elsewhere in society, there is a “ziyou pai,” or “freedom faction,” made up of adherents of Mao Yushi’s viewpoint (he is one of its best known representatives but by no means its only one).[…]

There is also a loosely named “wumao pai,” or “50-cent faction” (named after citizens who, for a small fee or even voluntarily, “guide” public opinion on social media and in public debates in line with the government’s views). This group is very loyal to the party and mostly incorporates the Maoist rump, though there is tension, as the Maoists often accuse the party of not being Communist enough.

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Also see a 2012 article by Willy Lam on Maoist revivalism within the CCP that helps to elucidate China’s ideological split.