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China’s return to Maoism

opinionChina’s return to Maoism

With the ascendance of Xi Jinping and his consolidation of power, China, perhaps, owing to the necessity of power struggle and fissures in the party line, is harking back to the Mao era, Marx and Marxism, red tradition, the countryside campaign, state dominated economic growth, hyper-nationalism, and wolf warrior diplomacy.



The post 1949 internal and external dynamics in China were determined by “war is inevitable” and “class struggle” paradigms. Mao Zedong, the then the supreme leader of China,made an immediate choice of “lean to one side”, but as the differences with the Soviet Union grew, the paradigm shifted to “to fight with two fists”(两个拳头打人), confrontation with both the superpowers. Internally, as the “class struggle” took center stage, various campaigns such as the “Three Antis”(corruption, waste and bureaucracy) of 1951,“Five Antis”(bribery, theft of state property, tax evasion, cheating on government contracts, and stealing state economic intelligence) of 1952, the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” between 1957-59, and finally the ten years of chaos in form of the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-76) were launched one after another for the need of political struggles that inflicted untold miseries on the Chinese people. The “Red Guards” holding Mao’s “Little Red Book” went on a rampage, attacking and killing the “imperialists”, “bourgeoisie”, “capitalist roaders”, intellectuals in those vicious “struggle sessions”.Even the Confucius and Buddhist statues and temples were vandalised. It has been estimated that during the “Cultural Revolution”, also pronounced as “10 bad years of great disaster” (十年浩劫), between half a million to two million people were killed and millions left scarred. If the fatalities caused by the man-made famine of 1959-61 are counted, a study titled “The Demography of China’s 1958-61 Famine: A Closer Examination”by Zhao Zhongwei and Anna Reimondos (2012) points todeaths in excess of 30 million.

Though the Communist Party of China (CPC) never carried out a serious appraisal of the “Cultural Revolution”, however, after the demise of Mao, the CPC did hold Mao responsible for the “great proletarian revolution” that he spearheaded. The resolution passed by the Sixth Plenum of the 11th Central Committee on 27 June 1981 entitled “On questions of Party history” pronounced him as arrogant and remarked that he “divorced himself from practice and from the masses, acted more and more arbitrarily and subjectively, and increasingly put himself above the Central Committee of the Party.” Nevertheless, the resolution also exonerated him of the crimes by noting that “his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes.” The criticism was perhaps necessary as China opened to the outside world, dismantled the planned economy gradually and allowed criticism of the “Cultural Revolution” by intellectuals. Since then, many writings appeared on bookstalls across China, depicting death and destruction. Some narrations of the scarred victims are too graphic and have been known as “scar literature” (伤寒文学)in China.

However, with the ascendance of Xi Jinping and his consolidation of power, China, perhaps, again owing to the necessity of power struggle and fissures in the party line, is harking back to the Mao era, Marx and Marxism, red tradition, the countryside campaign, state dominated economic growth, hyper-nationalism, and wolf warrior diplomacy. Early in February this year, the CPC officially released the new version of A Brief History of the Communist Party of China, a designated textbook for the study of Party history. The new edition doesn’t list the “Cultural Revolution” as a chapter in the contents, but makes it a part of the chapter entitled “Exploration and tortuous development of socialist construction” (1949-1976) and downplays the deaths and miseries inflicted by the “Cultural Revolution” on people as well asthe role and motive of Mao Zedong for launching the “Cultural Revolution”. The most striking feature of the new Party history is that Xi Jinping and his New Era occupy one-fourth of a century of party history, thus outweighing the socialist construction and the reform era of his predecessors. Undoubtedly, without the shock of the “Cultural Revolution”, the CPC would not have experimented with liberalization. On the other hand, the kind of economic, culturaland political space created by the reforms and individual economy in the last four decades has come back to haunt the CPC of its dangers, especially distrust of the authority by the millennial population. It is for these reasons that people are increasingly witnessing the following phenomena of the so called “Red China” in Xi’s new era.

One, literary inquisition/persecution or the so-called wenziyu(文字狱), refers to official persecution of intellectuals for their writings. The literary inquisition starting from the “burning of Confucian classics and burying scholars alive”(焚书坑儒)during the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC) to present day has gone unabated. Surprisingly, some of these were due to the naming taboo, i.e. even a single Chinese character that is part ofthe emperor’s personal name was also forbidden in writings. In recent years, Chinese characters which are negatively associated with Xi Jinping’s surname “Xi” (习)have been proscribed from the Chinese internet. For example, Cui(翠)character (emerald green) has “xixi” (习习)on top and “Zu”(卒)at the bottom.If the disassembled characters are translated it implies Xi or Xi twins are dead.The bottom of Cui(翠)character is also read as “cu” (卒),which means a pawn, therefore one can imagine the sensitivities related to these characters. Another hilarious example is how the characters such as “louxi” (陋习bad habits) have been changed to “louren” (陋刃bad blades)in a slogan “Raise the standard of civilized hygiene, get rid of bad blades” (提高文明卫生水平革除陋刃) owing to the naming taboo. Netizens drawing comparison between Winnie the Pooh and Chinese President have also been censored.

Two, censoring of former Premier Wen Jiabao’s letter, a tribute to his late mother published by Macao Herald is another case of literary inquisition. The reasons behind the censure are attributed to Wen’s veiled criticism of Xi Jinping’s policies and the “Cultural Revolution”. One, the former Premier said in his tribute, “I retired (我退休了), after having worked in the Zhongnanhai for 28 years, including 10 years as Premier.” This is construed as his veiled attack on Xi Jinping changing the Constitution and wanting to become President for life. Two, he castigated the “Cultural Revolution” many a timein his letter, contrary to idolizing the symbols of “Cultural Revolution” in the new era. He wrote, “During the ‘Cultural Revolution’, his father was imprisoned in a school and often subjected to barbaric  (野蛮的) ‘interrogation’, beatings and abuses (“审讯”和打骂)”. Third, he envisaged a China that is “full of fairness and justice” (公平正义), hinting that he has opinion about the direction in which the Chinese society is heading.In the same vein, when Chinese originChloe Zhaowon the Best Director award for her film “Nomadland” at the Golden Globes in February, the film was censored in China, only for one reason that a decade back she had described China as “a place where there are lies everywhere”. The “witch hunt” and purges of the “virus carriers” are not limited to Hong Kong and Xinjiang,the mainland Chinese too have faced the brunt. For example, recently a 19-year-old Wang Jingyu, a resident of Chongqing municipality in Sichuan was arrested by the UAE police for extradition to China, according to Wang. Wang’s only “crime”was that early in February this year, he questioned China’s version of PLA casualties in the Galwanborder clash.Another netizen called Qiu Ziming, who also doubted the Chinese version of Galwan fatalities, was sentenced to 8 months in prison for “defaming heroes and martyrs” on 1 June 2021. Many such people have been pronounced as “bedbugs” (臭虫)for “criticizing and discrediting the heroes” by state media.

Three, elimination of political enemiesand opponents through campaigns like “Killing tigersand swatting flies”(打虎拍蝇) (tiger and flies are euphemism for corrupt, high and low ranking officials) and “sweep away black and eliminate evil” (扫黑除恶)are been persistently carried out. Right from 2012 until last year, around 4 million officials across military, judiciary, law enforcement agencies, finance sector have been investigated. These included top guns like Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua, Xu Caihou, Guo Boxiong andSun Zhengcai. Xi Jinping’s long-time confidant, Wang Qishan, Chairman of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) was instrumental in these campaigns. The Supervisory Commission that replaced the CCDI has been given sweeping powers to supervise over the malpractices related to corruption and other misconduct not only within the Party but across the entire government machinery and enterprises. As it has happened during the various political campaigns and movements including the “Cultural Revolution”, the CPC is encouraging people to report each other for “black and evil” offences. No wonder in 2020, 16,000 people across the country voluntarily turned themselves in to the discipline and supervision organs, and 66,000 voluntarily held themselves accountable for the problems, according to the official figures, strikingly synonymous to the “rectification” and “criticism and self-criticism” campaigns of yesteryears.

Four, crackdown on “tigers and flies” may have diminished the possibilities of potential “political coups” to some extent, but the factional feud has intensified and spilled over to state as well as private enterprises. Xi Jinping has clipped the wings of the Shanghai clique by way of striking hard on their investments in entities like Jack Ma’s Ant Group. Anti-monopoly crackdown has forced entities likeTencent and ByteDance to pay heavy fines and change the leadership at the top. Entrepreneurs like Sun Dawu and Zhang Zhixiong have been imprisoned for building agriculture and mining empires. Real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, a close friend of Wang Qishan, has also been probed and jailed for his criticism of Xi Jinping. It is perhaps the Ren Zhiqiang issue and investigation of Wang’s aide Dong Hong, a senior disciplinary inspector of the CCDI that are said to be responsible for a wedge between Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan. Though the people who have been investigated have been pronounced as “liberals” in China, however, the main reason is said to avoidpotential “financial coups” by these tycoons. With the state tightening its noose around the business empires created during the golden age of deep globalisation, the individual economy is expected to face a rough ride in the coming days.

Finally, the ghost of the “victimpsychology” added to the narrative of a “century of humiliation” and newly found economic and military prowess, perhaps has resulted in China’s assertiveness demonstrated by its military show-offs and wolf warrior diplomacy. This certainly is the microcosm of domestic political environment but devoid of theintensity of fear, mutual suspicion, distrustand policy paralysis of the “Cultural Revolution” when senior officials were browbeaten by the young red guards. Nonetheless, the undisputed role of Xi Jinping in foreign policy like Mao Zedong has been institutionalised and monopolised since his ascendancy to power, particularly after his thought was enshrined in the CPC and state Constitutions. If Mao Zedong wished to export communism to the world, Xi Jinping is selling the “Belt and Road Initiative” and notions such as “building communities of shared future” etc., with an unprecedented economic muscle, and the perceived superiority of the “Beijing consensus”. But don’t forget that China’s permanent membership to the United Nations Security Council was restored during the “Cultural Revolution”, and ice was broken with the USas relations with the Soviet Union turned hostile, a decision that has come back to haunt the US.

B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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