Red Rhetoric Heats Up as Mao Turns 120

With the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth close on the horizon, the Irish Times reports on the festive mood in Shaoshan, Hunan province—the Great Helmsman’s birthplace—and the “delicate balancing act” that China’s leaders must preform in honoring the late revolutionary and PRC founder:

Grandma Tang Ruiren is gearing up for a major celebration to mark the 120th anniversary of chairman Mao Zedong’s birth in his hometown of Shaoshan on December 26th. But the central government in Beijing is keen to tone down the festivities.

The local government is planning to spend hundreds of millions of yuan on the celebration, but Chinese president Xi Jinping has called for a “pragmatic” event to mark the Great Helmsman’s anniversary.

The founder of modern China is a controversial figure, at home and overseas, because of the disastrous agricultural collectivisation reforms of the Great Leap Forward and the destructive ideological zealotry of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In Shaoshan, however, he is revered.

“We have everything ready for our 120th anniversary, lots of red food, peppers, and the bosses of our chain of 300 Mao Jia restaurants are getting ready,” says Tang. [...] [Source]

Earlier this month, a bejeweled golden statue of Mao ultimately destined to rest in Shaoshan was unveiled. Meanwhile, amid fresh austerity rules launched by Xi Jinpingcentral authorities ordered a much lower profile for a planned commemoration in Beijing. This brings to light the ideological tightrope that China’s leaders must walk when reflecting on Mao’s vital place in Party history, and the contradictory notion of being “red” in China today. The Wall Street Journal reports on the “Beijing Founding Figures Group,” a “red song” choir whose members are all descendents of high ranking Party members:

If a choir that is committed both to socialism and exclusive membership restrictions seems like a contradiction, perhaps it is because of the increasingly malleable notion of what it means to be “red” in China today. Red is considered the color of the revolution, but it is also the color of an entrenched ruling party. In Chinese politics, red has long been associated with the left, or those who endorse a more traditional interpretation of Marxist ideology. But what’s considered “left” has changed over time, and there are divisions within the Chinese left about economic policies and even democratic reform.

[...] A willingness to glorify Mao’s accomplishments while glossing over his failures is part of what it means to be “red” to the Founding Figures. But perhaps even more important is their nostalgia for the socialist-egalitarian policies of the Mao era, most of which have fallen by the wayside amid China’s three decades of capitalist-style economic growth. [Source]

The South China Morning Post notes that reverence for Mao Zedong is on the rise in all ranks of Chinese society:

Today, reverence for the late leader is on the rise. President Xi Jinping often pays tributes to Mao and looks to him for inspiration to manage the country. Ordinary people, especially from the bottom social strata who have not benefited from the country’s economic boom, miss his reign and some even set up shrines at home to worship him. Statues of the great leader continue to be erected across the country with fanfare.

Indeed, analysts and party faithful say Mao has more popular support today than at any time since his death in 1976.

[...] Party liberals and analysts say the Maoist revival is due to the failure to fully account for Mao’s mistakes. A 1981 consensus on party history faulted Mao for initiating the Cultural Revolution, but said his contributions “far outweighed” his errors. “They have not comprehensively reflected upon the party’s history nor learned a lesson… this has had serious consequences,” says Du Guang , a retired professor at the Central Party School. [Source]

[...] But for many, the anniversary of Mao’s birth only reminds them of what has been lost.

“Society used to be fairer under Mao. He provided the poor with housing and food,” says Guo Qinghua, 46, a former cleaner who has been repeatedly detained for petitioning the government over her dismissal by a former employer. “Deng abandoned us, but Mao never did.”

The SCMP reports further on sustaining veneration of Mao—even by the children of those who suffered under his rule:

As the Communist Party prepares to commemorate the 120th anniversary of chairman Mao Zedong’s birth on Thursday, sons and daughters of communist leaders who at times suffered under his rule have defended his record and praised his legacy.

Chen Xiaolu , the 67-year-old son of Chen Yi , a founding military commander in the People’s Republic who was criticised during the violence and political upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, said that despite Mao’s errors he still considered him a great leader.

[...] Chen, like many of the “red second generation” whose parents were party elders, said China’s unprecedented growth over the past few decades would not have happened without the founding of the People’s Republic under Mao.

Political persecutions and the millions who died in a famine during the drive to industrialise during the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s were a cause for sadness, but Mao’s legacy as the father of the nation was assured, they said. [Source]

In another report, SCMP talked with Mao’s former secretary Li Rui. Li, who faced years of persecution after falling out with the Chairman, has been dedicated to reform for years. While Li is disappointed that Party ideology seems to be moving towards Maoist conservatism, he says that a fondness for Mao must continue in the Party as a source of legitimacy:

For years, Li and other reformist party elders have repeatedly urged the new generation of leaders to implement political reform and constitutional rule. But they have been disappointed that party ideology has instead taken a conservative turn. “My China dream is a dream for constitutional governance,” Li says.

He says the current leaders’ fondness for Mao is not altogether surprising because they believe they must defend everything that he stood for. “No Mao, no new China,” he says, quoting a well-known propaganda slogan.

“They were raised by the Communist Party, they grew up wearing red scarves,” Li says. “Away from Mao, the Communist Party and Marxism, then they are not legitimate. They have to safeguard their origin.” [Source]

President Xi’s hardline campaigns against free expression and dissent have led some to draw comparisons between his tactics and Mao’s. As part of a crackdown on Party corruption, Xi has conjured Mao-era self-criticism sessions. The New York Times covers recent self-criticisms, noting that many see these sessions as “empty political rituals” aimed at to satisfy the public:

Wielded with often violent results in the days when Mao Zedong was China’s paramount leader, “criticism and self-criticism” sessions have been resurrected by President Xi Jinping as “the most powerful weapon” for rallying the Communist Party and the Chinese people behind his push to liberalize the economy while fortifying the party’s control over this nation of 1.3 billion people.

The sessions are officially known as “democratic life” meetings for their ostensibly open atmosphere — though they take place behind closed doors. The meetings, a crucial element of Mr. Xi’s so-called mass-line campaign, are intended to bolster the party’s legitimacy among a public increasingly disgusted by official graft, gross mismanagement and unseemly activities that involve sex, overpriced liquor or luxury watches, or sometimes all three. In the year since Mr. Xi came to power, cadres have been encouraged to “experience the grass-roots” difficulties of everyday life while yielding to a crackdown on extravagance and other perks of officialdom, according to pronouncements in the state news media.

Resolutely opposed to subjecting the party to the rule of law and potentially undermining its hold on power, Mr. Xi, analysts say, is selling the self-criticism campaign as a substitute capable of taming official malfeasance and inoculating the party against the possibility of political unrest. [Source]

With the Xi administration toting Maoist methods and a red vocabulary while still signaling sincere commitment to reform and some citizens longing for the revolutionary days of old, an op-ed from the SCMP says that the mainland’s red nostalgia may be mostly symbolic

[...W]hy 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.

[...] 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.

[...] 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. [Source]

The Global Times looks at the Mao debate that has taken the spotlight on his birthday anniversary to determine that he was indeed “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong,” and that those who disagree with this assessment are driven by “political motivations”:

We must admit that Deng Xiaoping’s remark about Mao’s life that he was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong” represents the mainstream ideas about Mao. As the Cultural Revolution faded, most Chinese people began to recognize his mistakes as well as his achievements. That Mao is a great man has a strong foundation in Chinese society. Some think Mao has had an infamous reputation in society. This is only a naïve delusion of these people.

The outside world uses its own judgment when it evaluates Mao, as the revolution he led also changed the world to some extent. The performance of the CPC in the future is key to their evaluations because its performance and Mao’s groundbreaking course are always interrelated.

[...] There is no historical or current evidence that is convincing enough to denigrate Mao. Voices that completely deny or support him are both highly polarized. Currently, the demonizing voices are mainly from the West, which also criticizes China’s socialist system.

Those who criticize Mao do so out of political motivations rather than a desire for genuine historical debate. Those who try to undermine China’s politics in the name of debating history should be resisted by China’s mainstream society. [Source]

Offbeat China looks at netizen commentary to the Chinese-language version of the above Global Times editorial to show that many from China’s younger generation have come to their own conclusions about the late Chairman:

“After reading the real history, I can forgive you [Mao] because I know how to forget. After learning that you’ve slaughtered millions of Chinese, I can forgive you because I know mercy. But living in today’s China, and seeing millions of thickheaded Mao fans, I cannot forgive you because you’ve made an ancient civilization with thousands of years of history a joke of the human kind; because you’ve made China in the 21st century look like Qin Dynasty. Mao, you are a criminal condemned by history.” One netizen 上海康康7 bitter commented.

[...] One netizen 向军姐夫 commented: “I don’t agree that Mao has done more good than bad. Quite the opposite, in fact.” Another W王H昊 further explained: “The 30% good Mao has done was to the Communist Party. The 70% bad Mao has done was to all Chinese people.”

China’s younger generations, unlike their parents or grandparents, didn’t grew up under the direct influence of Mao. On the contrary, they gradually learned, mostly from the Internet, about the horrible turmoil that their parents and grandparents have went through in Mao era. [Source]