Maoist dogma in China fades to eerie whisper

AS Communist Party branch chief Sun Xueqin makes her rounds in this quiet Shenyang neighborhood, fading slogans on alley walls still conjure images of Mao Tse-tung's fanatical 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. ``Long live Chairman Mao,'' whispers one faint sign, its peeling white and yellow paint hovering ghostlike on a charcoal brick wall.

For neighborhood residents, such slogans are eerie reminders of the turmoil Mao unleashed during the Cultural Revolution, when rival factions of his murderous Red Guards terrorized this northeastern industrial city. For Ms. Sun and other party cadres, the slogans recall the greatest political catastrophe of the Communist Party's 40-year rule.

Through a sweeping program of reform, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping has tried during the past decade to restore public confidence in a party left discredited and ideologically bankrupt by Mao's radical campaigns. In Zhengyi, a densely populated commercial district in Shengyang, the lives of Sun and others involved in grass-roots party organizations reveal how the party has succeeded in replacing Maoist dogma with economic pragmatism. But through reform, the party has also freed forces that challenge its totalitarian rule.

Born in 1934 in the nearby city of Benxi, Sun, like many Chinese, was swept up in revolutionary fervor when Mao's Red Army ``liberated'' her hometown in 1948. In 1951, at the age of 17, Sun took her first job at an iron-smelting factory, where she was active in the communist-run workers' congress, or trade union.

Sun married a man who shared her political idealism, the secretary of the Communist Youth League at a local cement factory. In 1962, the couple moved to Zhengyi.

Like many inspired by Mao's charisma in the heady 1950s, Sun dreamed of becoming a Communist Party member, an honor bringing the highest social status. At that time, far more than in years to come, the party embodied the Spartan values of hard work, diligence, frugality, and self-discipline instilled during the 1935-36 Long March and encampment at the rugged revolutionary base of Yanan in northwest China.

Followed blindly by Sun and many other Chinese, the party easily imposed pervasive social controls. Moreover, the ideological zeal fostered by party activists enabled Mao to mobilize the Chinese for a string of radical movements in the 1950s and '60s. In 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, a destructive campaign to ``smash the old world,'' and eliminate his political opponents through ``class struggle.''

``I was afraid. Everywhere there was beating, smashing, and looting - how could I not be afraid?'' said Sun, now a middle-aged woman with cropped hair.

``Before going to work, we had to dance a `loyalty dance' to Chairman Mao,'' Sun said. ``Before each meal we had to say the `three devotions' [to the Communist Party, socialism, and Mao Tse-tung thought].''

At a neighborhood restaurant where Sun worked in the late 1960s, everyone had to bow before a giant portrait of Mao, hailed as the ``great helmsman.'' Decking the restaurant's doorway was a cotton banner declaring: ``Chairman Mao, may he live 10,000 years!''

That chaotic decade and Mao's personality cult shocked Sun and other faithful who had devoted their lives to building a communist Utopia in China. Millions of Chinese were persecuted, tens of thousands put to death, in nationwide ``witch hunts'' by Red Guards.

When the campaign finally ended with Mao's death in 1976, the Chinese were mentally and emotionally exhausted. The Communist Party, personified by Mao, had lost its revolutionary prestige.

When Mr. Deng took power in 1977, he inherited a party in crisis. To avoid the politically suicidal step of accusing Mao, China's communist savior, Deng placed the blame for the Cultural Revolution on Mao's widow Jiang Qing and three other leaders, labeled the ``gang of four.''

But while preserving Mao's reputation, Deng launched a wholesale revision of the ex-leader's political agenda. He renounced dogmatic adherence to Maoism in favor of a far more flexible, pragmatic ideology epitomized by the dictum ``seek truth from facts.'' The ideological shift paved the way for bold, market-oriented economic reforms. It also fundamentally altered the party's claim to legitimacy. The party would stand, not on radical doctrine, but on its ability to enrich China's 1 billion people.

``In the past, the party said a lot and did nothing,'' said Sun in an interview in her tiny neighborhood office. ``Now, we act first and talk later. That way, people think the party's word means something.''

``Efficiency and results are what count,'' Sun said, echoing the current party line. ``Just like a farmer, what matters is the harvest.''

Like millions of party cadres across China, Sun is expected to lead her community in attaining prosperity through economic reform - a job she performs with gusto.

In Zhengyi, Sun and her colleagues have organized residents to set up shops and enterprises to boost local revenues and reduce unemployment. The avid pursuit of wealth has coincided with the near-disappearance of Maoist-era political activism.

Zhang Suzhen, a 66-year-old jiji fenzi, or activist, and aspiring party member, heads a weekly ``ideological study session'' for elderly neighborhood residents. The group gathers in Ms. Zhang's sitting room and the only literate member reads aloud an article from a party newspaper.

``Then we talk about things, like who went to the market today, who came to visit, the children...,'' Zhang said.

Sun leads other, equally prosaic neighborhood party activities. They include running a neighborhood contest for ``best mother-in-law,'' mediating family quarrels, recruiting retired residents to patrol against crime, and sanitation.

But while the party's approach has changed, its cradle-to-grave surveillance of Chinese lives continues. Perhaps Sun's most intrusive and unpopular task is seeing that Zhengyi's 242 women of child-bearing age adhere to China's strict ``one-couple, one-child'' population policy. Sun watches for telltale signs of pregnancy and urges women to abort if they already have a child. If a woman refuses, Sun recruits higher party officials and the woman's employer to the effort.

``Combining forces usually takes care of things,'' said Sun. ``For several years, we have not had a birth outside the plan.''

In Zhengyi and communities across China, the initial success of Deng's economic reforms and ideological pragmatism has saved the party from its post-Mao credibility crisis. But Deng's reforms have also created new troubles for the 48 million-member party as it pursues the conflicting goals of retaining a political monopoly while expanding economic freedoms vital to China's modernization.

On one hand, Deng's loosening of economic controls has offered Chinese new opportunities to gain wealth and prestige outside the party apparatus. Party membership no longer guarantees high social status, and many young people avoid it, looking instead to business for greater profit and esteem.

Moreover, the proliferation of economic opportunities has led to rampant corruption within the party, as cadres nationwide shun the Maoist ideal of self-sacrifice and abuse their official powers to secure a share of China's new wealth. The party expelled 25,000 members last year in an effort to curb corruption - the top complaint of Chinese, according to official surveys.

Chinese Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang has warned that the party's image and credibility are being threatened anew by corrupt officials. ``If this problem remains unsolved, we'll lose the support of the people,'' Mr. Zhao told the party Central Committee in September.

Finally, Deng's decision to stake the party's reputation on its ability to raise living standards has run into trouble. As double-digit inflation erodes buying power, unemployment rises, and China enters a period of economic retrenchment, public dissatisfaction with the party leadership is growing.

Yet party cadres like Sun stress that despite the problems, most Chinese are still better off than they were a decade ago. ``Now that we're opening to the outside and enlivening the economy, people are richer and richer,'' Sun said. ``In the past, could I wear these fancy clothes and earrings?'' she asked, pointing to her gray polyester pantsuit. ``Look at my gold ring,'' she said with a smile, thrusting out her hand.

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