During the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the most striking feature of the vast celebration of China’s claimed ‘five thousand years of history’ was the absence of any image of or reference to Mao. Mao was man, not god, people were eager to say, and in some ways the whole propaganda effort of the opening ceremony was to reclaim the narrative of ‘1949 and all that’ (to coin a phrase) and show that it was not due to the epic contribution of one single man but of a collective leadership. The expression ‘rule of law, not rule of man’ (fazhi, bushi renzhi) entered the canon of slogans. Even the Chairman’s former bodyguard, Quan Yanchi, produced a book backing this up, entitled Mao Zedong: Man, not God.
That any equivalence was possible between a leader and a deity at all in the modern era, especially one made by an ostensibly atheistic Communist Party, raised many questions. After 1978, the Party itself was partly in confused denial. Images of Mao stretched across the country, from the political centre in Beijing to the remote central square of Kashgar over on the western border close to Pakistan and Afghanistan. There, among a largely Muslim population, stands a vast statue of the Chairman, stretching his hands out to the desert. Such iconography was heavily symbolic. Xinjiang was to prove, during the period of the Chairman’s rule and afterwards, extremely contentious. Simply placing vast images of the main ruler there was never going to solve that problem. Yet the statue remains there to this day, long after many others have disappeared.
For the Party to remove the Chairman’s influence would be akin to parricide. The key figure who attempted to achieve this was someone closely associated with him for most of his leadership career, a septuagenarian called Deng Xiaoping. Deng had been, according to biographies based on archival material from Russia, an almost slavishly faithful follower of the Chairman’s edicts right from his first association with him in the 1930s, when Mao’s power base was still insecure and Deng was a mere military operative. But this loyalty was to stand Deng in good stead. For decades afterwards, his refusal to waver while those around him expressed doubts about Mao’s abilities was remembered by his leader. In the 1950s, during the first purges of intellectuals and the dissenting class (those, at least, whom the Party figured were dissenters), Deng used his considerable administrative abilities to direct the campaign. In the early 1960s, however, he revealed another side of his personality, one which was in the end not ideological, but profoundly pragmatic. When China’s economy was on its knees through the impact of the doomed Great Leap Forward campaign and the terrible series of famines from 1959 to 1962, Deng hoisted his cart to the bandwagon of Liu Shaoqi and, more importantly, the ultimate survivor, Zhou Enlai. The latter, China’s esteemed premier for decades, started to promote the ‘Four Modernizations’ – national defence, science, technology and agriculture as the key to re-energizing the economy. Briefly, support for these and more liberal policies became government policy. However, in 1966 Mao marked his spectacular return to front-line politics, with the start of the Cultural Revolution. For the first time, Deng’s loyalty had been put into question, and his association with Liu caused his removal from all positions and exile to provincial China. Most crucially, however, unlike Liu, Deng did not have his Party membership rescinded; this would have been as good as a death sentence.
Deng was able to survive, largely in rural Jiangxi, one of the Party’s historic revolutionary bases, working at a tractor factory (which was ironic, in view of his reported work in a factory in France at the start of his revolutionary career). Being away from the violent struggles in Beijing was a blessing. In 1959 his colleague Peng Dehuai, then minister of defence, had criticized Mao and his role in constructing the Great Leap Forward. For this, Peng was exposed to savage struggle sessions in the capital and sent to prison, where he died of tuberculosis in 1973. Liu Shaoqi was himself a major target of the Cultural Revolution, and sent from Beijing to his native Hunan, where he reportedly died in prison of untreated cancer in 1969, just one year after his excommunication from the Party. Deng’s suffering was largely vicarious. He was informed of his son being crippled during a struggle session in Beijing (reported in Chapter 1, along with its claimed links to Bo Xilai) only several years after the fact.
Deng struck those who met him in later life as someone of great hardness and lack of feeling. None other than Margaret Thatcher found him cold and remote during her meetings with him discussing the fate of Hong Kong in the 1980s. In mitigation, he had experienced a spectacularly complex life; for decades he had lived on the side of a volcano – the capricious personality of Mao. From what is known of Deng’s life in the early 1970s, it comes across as a moment of spiritual crisis, leading to a kind of awakening. It is very hard for those in their adulthood to fundamentally change their view of the world and their values. It is not something that anyone simply does on a whim; usually it happens as a result of crisis. To profoundly engage in a new view of the world and one’s place in it is like a rebirth, with all the discomfort, pain and danger associated with that. Deng’s transformation is not something that can be documented in history books or records. However, he himself records the shock of seeing how impoverished the Chinese countryside remained and how little socialism had delivered there. He was also overwhelmed by the crippling of his son at the hands of the Red Guards. The political and personal merged. The earlier strands of pragmatism deepened, and when Deng finally regained influence and power after the death of Mao in 1976, it was these qualities that were to characterize his years at the centre of Chinese political life.
Had Deng wholly repudiated Mao, and done in effect what Khrushchev had done to Stalin in 1956, it would have been disruptive and perilous. China’s stability after 1976 could not be taken for granted. Old fissures ran deep and resentments from the Cultural Revolution were high. An era of new conflict and revenge was on the horizon. But Deng mandated a different framework.
His treatment of Mao typifies this. It is best exemplified by the famous 1981 document with the somewhat cumbersome title ‘Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China’. The product of a writing group within the Central Committee, the 1981 iteration of a similar resolution issued at the revolutionary base at Yan’an in 1941, before the Party had even come to power, was partly intended to take stock after so many dramatic years, but also partly to draw red lines, particularly over the power and influence of Mao. The Resolution gives a concise overview of the pre-People’s Republic era, during which the Party was struggling for power, and analyses the key stages from 1949 to 1980. It recognizes the achievements of the Party in unifying the country, and beginning the rejuvenation of the economy through reconstruction of infrastructure and industrialization. It also starts the attack on what its authors label ‘the leftist deviation’ line, in which class struggle alone was taken as the priority. The sections on the Cultural Revolution, of course, are categorical in their criticisms, calling the decade a disaster. But it is at this point that the role of Mao becomes a site of contention. While bearing the chief responsibility for the ten years of veering towards leftism, the document states that Mao was not alone in his culpability; he was misled and manipulated by opportunists and schemers.
There is a whole section finally evaluating the role of Mao, in which the idea that the Chairman was 70 per cent correct and 30 per cent incorrect was first conveyed (although it is never articulated in the document precisely in this way): ‘Comrade Mao Zedong was a great Marxist and a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist. It is true that he made gross mistakes during the “cultural revolution”, but, if we judge his activities as a whole, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary.’
In the Resolution, Mao is associated most positively and closely with a body of ideas, Mao Zedong Thought. It is these that, in the Resolution, are said to best represent the ideological lines of classical Maoism. They are, broadly:
While Mao the man therefore was problematic, limited and made strategic mistakes in his final years, Mao as embodied in Mao Zedong Thought is a different matter: ‘Mao Zedong Thought is the valuable spiritual asset of our Party. It will be our guide to action for a long time to come. The Party leaders and the large group of cadres nurtured by Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought were the backbone forces in winning great victories for our cause; they are and will remain our treasured mainstay in the cause of socialist modernization.’
In other words, Mao is dead, but Mao Zedong Thought lives on. The list of key attributes of this can be broadly divided into three main areas: economics, nationalism and political tactics. The first of them is the least credible – the economic. As Andrew Walder has shown in a recent study of the whole Maoist period, most of Mao’s thinking on the economy was lifted largely from the Soviet Union. It was the classic command economy model, in which prices, demand and supply were all decided by the central state bureaucracy, with targets handed down to local provinces to fulfil. Inflexible and inefficient, it had largely been eroded in the Soviet Union itself so that a huge ‘informal’ or unrecognized black market existed to try to plug the gaps that the state system left open. For China, pure adherence to such a primitive model meant that by the late 1950s there were already ominous signs of breakdown in sectors ranging from heavy industry even into the primary industries, the most difficult of which was agriculture. For reasons which still remain unclear, Mao adhered with almost religious fanaticism to this model to the end of his life.
Had he been purely an economic thinker, then Mao would have been consigned to the dustbin of history the day he died in September 1976. Evidence of the failure of his economic ideas is manifold. But of course, economics is more often than not intimately linked to emotions and ideas of status. It is here that the other two strands of Maoism come to the fore – Mao as a nationalist and Mao as a tactician. In areas that can be broadly described as geopolitics and politics, Mao still retains impact in China. It is to these that we now turn.
The one experience that has united the leaders of China from 2001 to the present day is their period of political awakening during the Cultural Revolution. The so-called Third Generation leadership grouped around Jiang Zemin, whose ascendancy lasted from 1989 to 2001, were born in the 1920s and 1930s. Their most formative memories were of the Sino-Japanese war (1937–45), the Chinese Civil War (1945–49) and the roller-coaster ride that was the first decade of CPC rule from 1949. Many of them studied in the USSR, and their backgrounds were mostly technocratic. For the Fourth Generation around Hu Jintao, matters were different; they did not tend to study abroad, and their education, if it had started, was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution and the impact it had on universities and schools, many of which were hotbeds of radical activism. For this group of people, Maoism means a very different thing from what it means to their elders. For Hu Jintao, it meant serving as a political commissar at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing for a number of years, before being allocated work in the remote western province of Gansu.
The Fifth Generation leaders, notably Xi Jinping, hit their years of adolescence at the point when the social and political impact of the turbulent decade was at its peak. Xi himself was rusticated from 1968 to the central Shaanxi province. While the families of his colleagues Wang Qishan (senior leader of the CPC and Politburo member) and Li Keqiang (current premier) were not involved in some of the harrowing harassments of Xi’s family, they were also sent to be members of revolutionary production brigades. For Yu Zhengsheng (senior leader of the CPC), his elite family background and his father’s former romantic links with Mao’s fearsome wife Jiang Qing meant particularly harsh treatment. For anyone who was aged 55 to 70 in 2015, the Cultural Revolution carried a particular, unique meaning.
However, memories of this period are not uniformly bad. Academic Mobo Gao has argued that the Cultural Revolution operated for many as an era of liberation and free debate. Gao contends that it was, for those in the countryside, a period in which they were able to travel freely around the country making revolution, attacking their teachers, and freeing themselves from the shackles of traditional Confucian norms. But for members of the elite then, the Cultural Revolution was likelier to figure as a much less comfortable part of their experience. The few comments that Xi and Yu have made about their lives in the late 1960s point to a period of hardship and deprivation in which they lost their primary family networks and were forced into wholly new and sometimes challenging and hostile situations.
This means that when they refer to Mao in the context of themselves being his heirs and successors, they have to differentiate the man himself, at whose hands their nearest and dearest suffered, and under whose rule they themselves went through very tough experiences, and the man as a source of a body of ideas, tactical wisdom and nationalist messages, who still stands as an asset important enough for them never to confront him with direct criticism. The impersonal, almost mystical Mao is worth remaining loyal to. The man who physically, and with increasing erraticism, presided over the People’s Republic from 1949 to his death twenty-seven years later in 1976 is someone they would perhaps like to simply forget.
Mao and the Fifth Generation leaders
Xi Jinping, when he was fresh to the position of General Secretary of the Party in late 2012, undertook his first major provincial tour to Guangzhou, in the south of the country. This was a natural enough tip of the hat to the importance of this province during the early years after 1978, when the reforms linked with the post-Mao era had started. In essence, Xi was performing an act of pilgrimage, which included the holy of holies of the post-1978 Dengist high noon – the city of Shenzhen, which was chosen as the first of the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in 1980, and experienced explosive growth thereafter.
The problem was that Shenzhen also represented anathema to the orthodox, faithful Maoists. For them, the establishment of this parallel economy within the borders of China, adjacent to British-controlled Hong Kong and operating on a quasi-capitalist basis – making goods for export, dealing in foreign capital, allowing foreign ventures with companies from the USA or Europe, or Japan – was at best distasteful, and at worst at act of betrayal. Implementing the SEZs, which in the space of four years had expanded to fourteen, proved tough work. One of the key foot soldiers of this campaign was none other than Xi Jinping’s rehabilitated father, Xi Zhongxun, who occupied the position of First Party Secretary of Guangdong province from 1979 to 1981. His links to Deng and commitment to using joint ventures with foreigners to gain use of their technology and capital, and selling into their markets in order to accelerate modernization in China, meant that Shenzhen and its fellow SEZs were eventually to succeed. In this sense, the 2012 Xi pilgrimage to the south was as much a personal as a political and public act of acknowledgement and homage. It was saying something both about his political positioning, as a leader who was not interested in contesting the new consensus that Deng had been at the centre of, but also about his relationship to his father.
However, this did not mean that Xi was interested in repudiating Maoist history. On the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth, almost exactly a year later in December 2013, Xi Jinping delivered an oration with the rousing title ‘Carry on the Enduring Spirit of Mao Zedong Thought’. At the centre of this was commitment to ‘the viewpoint and method crystallised in the Thought’, which featured three key tenets: seeking truth from facts, the mass line, and independence. Addressing the first, Xi declared somewhat grandly that ‘we must acquire a deep understanding of a matter as it is, see through the surface into the heart of the matter, and discover the intricate link between matters amidst fragmented phenomena’. It was, however, less in the philosophical and more in the tactical vein that Xi proceeded to extol the true enduring virtues of Mao Zedong Thought. China, he admitted, was ‘still in the primary stage of socialism’. This was its objective condition and would ‘remain so for a long time to come’. In the mission of modernization, under socialism with Chinese characteristics, the key task was to stick close to the Maoist principle of ‘the mass line’. The people, after all, ‘are the creators of history’, the masters of the Party, its lifeline, the sole basis of its legitimacy and power. ‘Before the people we are always servants,’ Xi declared. ‘The supreme political advantage of our Party is its close ties with the people. The future and destiny of any political party is determined by the popular support for it. Popular support is what we draw our strength from … The grand goal of our Party can never be realised without popular support.’ This shows the importance of tactical Maoism – assertion of the Party unified under one leadership as the source of wider social and national unity, the one route towards what can be described as Chinese modernity on its own terms, not as the servant or victim of others.
That brings Xi to the Maoist nationalist pillar – the defender of China for the Chinese, where they, with the Party as their supporter and unifier, are able to be masters in their own land, and in control of their destiny. ‘Adhering to independence means that Chinese affairs must be dealt with and decided by the Chinese. It means taking the part of socialism with Chinese characteristics, upholding independence according to the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence with the outside world and never accepting anything that harms our sovereignty, security or development interests.’ Adhering to Deng meant adhering to a body of economic thinking that operated within the political parameters that Mao Zedong Thought offered – tactical adherence to the Party and its ideological and organizational unity, and fidelity to a nationalist mission that would be achieved through these tactics – China as an independent, strong, powerful nation.
These ideas are supplemented by comments made by Li Junru, former deputy at the Central Party School in Beijing, ostensibly the CPC’s key think tank. ‘When will the portrait of Mao Zedong be taken down from the Tiananmen Rostrum?’ Li asks rhetorically in his English-language book on the CPC. ‘It will never happen!’ he explains. Li offers three reasons. The first relates to nationalism. ‘Mao Zedong was a national hero. He stood at the head of a movement rectifying the disaster and humiliation of national subjugation and genocide’ from 1840. ‘It was under his leadership that the CPC and the Chinese People saved the nation from disaster and humiliation.’ In addition, Li argues that Mao was a great thinker, and a gifted scholar. ‘All countries have their national heroes who are worshipped for their outstanding contributions to the state and the people.’ Worship here is a telling term; the simple fact is that, as a nationalist, Mao still has great resonance.
Having your cake and eating it: Mao and contradiction
For all the claims that Mao is a great Marxist and made major theoretical contributions to the Party, the consensus is largely that his writings on the whole (setting aside the question of whether or not they were mostly written by him) indicate only a superficial understanding of the deeper reaches of the German philosopher’s thinking. Mao was attracted, by his own account, to ideas taken from Marx that had practical use in China. Marx on social struggle, on historic determinism and dialectic, therefore, was applicable very broadly to conditions in China when he was growing upand becoming a revolutionary. It became a legitimizing tool in the struggle for power towards 1949, and in maintaining that power afterwards. But concepts like alienation, or even a basic understanding of the philosophy underpinning Das Kapital, seem not to have detained Mao much.
His true intellectual passion, it became clear as the years went on, veered more towards classical Chinese philosophy, and the vast literature of political thought and poetry that had emerged for many centuries in imperial China. It was to the Han Dynasty classic from over a millennium and a half before, The Mirror of Governance (Zizhi Tongjian), by Sima Guang, that Mao turned for inspiration in the Cultural Revolution. His love of the classic novels The Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Journey to the West is well documented. It was in these that he most found nourishment and inspiration.
At best, Marx equipped Mao with a dynamic vision of reality, but one which was fundamentally posited on contradictions. Once more, the real ballast was supplied by Daoism, a body of ideas reaching back to the earliest recorded dynasty, the Shang, and set down in oracular form. The Way or Dao celebrated counterpoised forces, the struggle for the achievement of balance in society constantly undermined by the rise of new forces and situations. Flux was the god of this view of the world, and it was to flux and dynamism that Mao himself appealed in perhaps the only one of his works that claims to have made a distinctive and original contribution to the corpus of Marxist theoretical works: ‘On contradiction’. ‘The law of contradiction in things, that is, the law of the unity of opposites, is the basic law of materialist dialectics,’ Mao begins. Contradiction is universal, ‘present in the process of development of all things; it permeates the process of development of each thing from beginning to end. This is the universality and absoluteness of contradiction.’
This 1937 essay (issued repeatedly as a separate pamphlet for cadre study) analyses Chinese history, in particular recent history, as the manifestation of this clash between opposites. For Mao, the world and nature were like an orchestra full of instruments clashing with each other and producing cacophony moving to harmony, then disintegrating again. Proletariat clashed with landlords, the rich with the poor, the West with the East, the old against the new, the Nationalists with the communists. The issue was that they needed to clash: this was a law of nature, and so resisting contradictions, trying to impede their playing out with each other, meant resisting the reality of the world itself. ‘Contradiction’, Mao asserts, ‘is present in all processes of objectively existing things and of subjective thought and permeates all these processes from beginning to end; this is the universality and absoluteness of contradiction.’ ‘The struggle of opposites is ceaseless,’ he concludes, ‘it goes on both when the opposites are coexisting and when they are transforming themselves into each other, and becomes especially conspicuous when they are transforming themselves into one another; this again is the universality and absoluteness of contradiction.’ Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin might be cited in this study, but the real inspiration behind it is the Daoist struggle for unity through opposition.
It is unsurprising that someone subscribing to such a worldview should have practised tactical approaches that seemed to go out of their way to incite and encourage struggle in their politics and philosophy. Reading ‘On contradiction’, it was almost as though Mao thought the point of politics was striving for struggle, rather than bringing in harmony and peace. Starkly stated at the heart of his work is this celebration of constant fight, out-and-out attack between forces, and a world which is existentially based on conflict. Subscribing to such a philosophy means that events like the Cultural Revolution with their upheaval and turbulence were highly defensible and positive. They happened with a kind of inevitability and were the entire reason for politics, because they showed that contradictions were being worked through.
Even less surprising, therefore, is that this faith in contradictions justified a capricious, mercurial politics, on the part of both Mao and his followers. Accusations that they were being self-contradictory, or disruptive, were only thrown back in the face of their conservative accusers as proof that they were, in fact, promoting the Chairman’s fundamental worldview correctly. Struggle and conflict were the point, and their avoidance was counter-revolutionary.
It is easy to see why this aspect of Mao’s thought remains deeply problematic for the Communist Party. The Party is no longer a force for revolution, but for governance and stability. And contradictions, fights, battles are inimical to these goals. In the Hu Jintao era (2003–13), the attempt was made to remedy the Maoist legacy in this area of high ideology by appealing to another slice of traditional Chinese thinking – worship of harmony. Contradictions had to eventually reach a synthesis – and harmony, the harmonious society (hexie shehui) was the key. For the more cynical, this preaching about harmony was necessary because Chinese society had become intrinsically chaotic and contentious under its own steam, with vast differences in wealth and prosperity. Even so, stepping back from this, followers of Mao’s logic could state that this was nothing more than proof that in the upper reaches contradiction still reigned. The glory of contradiction, for the big thinkers past and present who invariably got excited by Mao and his ability to paint on the epic scale, was that it granted the ultimate intellectual get out of jail free card. Subscribers to this worldview were liberated from the constraints of logic, and handed a simple, utterly infallible interpretive tool, one with deep political usage, that could divide the world up into black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, left and right, at a stroke. What politician serious about power would not want to avail themselves of some of the advantages that might flow from this worldview?
Twilight of harmonious China
From the turn of the twenty-first century, one of the few places where one could readily see the image of the founding leader of the PRC was on its money. During Mao’s life, and into the 1990s, the very idea would have been greeted with censure. Various denominations of notes, from the tiny yellow one-fen notes, up to 50 and 100 RMB, had images of tractors, ethnic minorities, or the unindividuated representations of the forces that had made modern China – intellectuals, soldiers, farmers.
For the man who had inspired an economy where 99 per cent of economic activity was in the hands of the state, prices set and wages regulated by the government, and, for a period at least, people across the country worked in communes rendering money unnecessary, this is somewhat ironic. His face, at least as it had appeared on statues and in portraits, has been removed from many public places and is no longer even remotely as ubiquitous as it once was. But now it is in the hands of people throughout the country, on money, the very thing that has truly replaced him in the affections of the overwhelming majority of Chinese people.
Fascination with money reached heights as zealous as those around Mao in the area of deep reform and marketization. From 2000, China entered a period of skyrocketing development, with its economy quadrupling in size in a decade despite the global economic crisis in 2008. The Communist Party Mao had founded became like Midas, turning every sector or economic activity it touched to gold, producing profits for its state and non-state sectors, so that, more than it ever was in his lifetime, Mao’s image was universal – albeit on the notes that lubricated the great communist capitalist cavalcade that China had become in the era after his death.
Wealth had caused conflict and greed. Social unrest rose markedly, testified to by soaring budgets for public security. Local officials had grown rich in the great sell-off of farming land for development and a host of other corrupt practices designed to achieve a single goal – getting vast amounts of money. The middle class in the cities had followed suit, creating a vast property bubble. It was in this context that the main leader in China, the self-effacing and scholarly Hu Jintao, preached the virtues of harmony. His words were largely lampooned, as the wealth of some officials reached into the billions.
There were plenty who regarded this era of harmonious China as the exact opposite. For them, the country had gone badly wrong. In the Hu years, the actions of Maoists demonstrate disillusionment with China’s chosen development path.
On 21 December 2004, four Maoists were tried in the city of Zhengzhou in central eastern Henan province for handing out leaflets that denounced the restoration of capitalism in China and called for a return to the ‘socialist road’. The leaflets had been distributed in a public park on the occasion of the twenty-eighth anniversary of Mao Zedong’s death. Two of the defendants, Zhang Zhengyao, 56, and Zhang Ruquan, 69, were both found guilty of libel, and each given a three-year prison sentence. The case has since generated expressions of solidarity in leftist circles within China. Postings to a leading leftist website in China subsequently set out an abridged translation of the incriminating leaflet, the commemorative piece entitled ‘Mao Zedong forever our leader’, as well as a commentary by an author who went to Zhengzhou to show solidarity on the day of the trial.
The leaflet was a distillation of the key claims made against the reform process since 1978:
From their direct experience, the Chinese people realized that Mao Zedong and they themselves were intimately bound together, in good times and bad, in victory and defeat: with Mao Zedong as their leader, Chinese people were the masters of the country, and enjoyed inviolable democratic rights. They lived a happy life, confident, optimistic and reassured of ever better days ahead. But after Mao Zedong passed away, the working class in China was knocked down overnight by the bourgeoisie; they are no longer the masters of their own country. In this society of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ money means power and social status. The wealth polarization has driven working people into abject poverty; as a result, they have lost their social status and all the rights they had enjoyed previously. They are no longer dignified socialist labourers; instead, they are forced to sell their labour power as commodities for survival: they have become tools that can be bought freely by the capitalists.
Almost a decade later, a writer called Li Tie was jailed for ten years for subversion in Wuhan. Li Tie, a self-branded Maoist, had used Mao’s writings to defend human rights and greater equality. ‘[Li says] he studies Mao’s writings every day, and that Mao runs through all his writings, and that he is a protector of the Chinese Communist Party. He says Mao called for a democratic society, but that something he wrote back in the 1930s is of no use in the 21st century.’ Perhaps the most unpalatable aspect of Li’s actions, at least for the authorities, was that he was promoting democracy during the so-called Arab Spring from 2010 to 2011, when widespread demonstrations and uprisings occurred against governments in the Middle East, with regimes in Tunisia and Libya being toppled. Not surprisingly, the Beijing government was extremely sensitive about any attempts to link these protests with expressions of dissatisfaction towards it within China.
In 2009, an event in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, held by nine Maoists declaring their allegiance was broken up by police. A report quoted one of the participants as stating that
Today, the structure of the Chinese Communist Party isn’t the same as what it was under Mao. Before, most members were peasants and workers, now they’re all bureaucrats. Just as Karl Marx had predicted, China’s society is breaking up into different classes. One small group of about 3,000 Chinese leaders and several dozen foreign entrepreneurs, controls the country and exploits the rest of the population. The Maoists want to return to a real Communist party, not one that exploits the working class.
From these three events over the last decade, one can see the same competition for the mandate of Mao that occurred among revolutionary Red Guard groups in the Cultural Revolution a generation before, referred to above. One can also see a general diversity of opinions parading under the banner of Maoism, with some promoting ideas like multiparty democracy and legal reform that would usually be seen as distinctly un-Maoist. The one thing they have in common is anger at the rising social inequality and at the bureaucratic, elitist nature of the Communist Party now. Some of these ideas are truly unsettling and subversive to the CPC in its twenty-first-century guise.
Mao overboard: Maoism in the outside world
Of the three widely accepted great dictators of the twentieth century – Stalin, Hitler and Mao – Mao is the one whose image outside his home country is the least reprehensible, owing perhaps to ignorance of who Mao was and what he did. It would be hard to imagine images of Hitler’s or Stalin’s faces appearing as comfortably in modern art as those of Mao, who is notably the subject of some of Andy Warhol’s most iconic paintings.
There were Westerners during Mao’s life who were taken by what could be termed ‘Romantic Maoism’. French intellectuals as diverse as philosophers Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva were attracted to some of the theatre and dazzling dialectic contradictoriness of the Mao cult and Maoism. They experienced this first-hand during a visit to China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s. Within France itself, Jean-Paul Sartre and director Jean-Luc Godard referred admiringly to Mao, and there were student activists during the 1968 riots who admitted they took inspiration from the Chairman’s words that ‘to rebel is justified’. In the UK, hotbeds of radicalism like the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) had multiple groups declaring they were Maoist.
Elsewhere it was less benign. The Cambodian returnee, Saloth Sar, undertook a tour of China in the early phase of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 under his adopted name, Pol Pot. Ideas there were to figure when he became the shadowy head of Democratic Kampuchea in 1975, toppling the former regime, emptying the country’s cities, and imposing the harshest agrarian form of leadership the era saw, ultimately leading to the deaths of up to a third of his compatriots (1.5 million). Chinese embassy staff were some of the few foreigners still allowed to remain in Pol Pot’s fiercely nationalist, anti-foreign country, and even they were appalled at the excesses they witnessed, and tended to remain behind their compound walls for safety. Pol Pot sought partial refuge in the People’s Republic after the Vietnamese brought down his government in 1979. The Chinese never disowned him. But nor did they advertise his brand of Maoism.
A similar thing might be said of Maoist fighters in Nepal, who continue to wage their domestic wars today. In Africa, Latin America and farther afield, though, the simple fact is that despite China financially supporting some revolutionary forces in other countries in the 1960s and the early 1970s, Mao’s global impact was not ideological or through inspiration of rebellious political parties, but largely through lower-key, cultural dissemination. By the early part of the twenty-first century, Mao had become the most dreaded of all things: an icon.
As an icon, Mao was associated more with a style of clothing – the so-called Mao suit. This is ironic, because the particular suit, which looks like a uniform, with no tie or shirt, and a closed jacket and plain trousers, is more accurately described as a Sun Yat-sen suit. It was Sun, the president of China in 1911 after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and then nationalist leader till his death in 1925, who had actually pioneered this style.
Perhaps indicative of this low-key presence in the minds of modern Europeans and Americans of China’s highest-profile, most contentious and domestically influential modern leader was a simple event in late November 2015 when, during a debate over financial matters in the British Parliament, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, tossed a copy of the Quotations from Chairman Mao – the infamous ‘Little Red Book’ – across to Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. McDonnell subsequently said this was to highlight the ways in which the British government under the Conservatives was getting too close to the Chinese and seeking to sell large parts of the British economy to them. The ploy backfired, however, with Osborne scooping the book up, inspecting it, and shooting acidly back at McDonnell, who had once been a member of the British extreme left, ‘Oh, look! It’s [your] personal signed copy!’