Rebirth of Maoism in China. Modern-day strains spark yearning for Mao-style puritanism
BEIJING — ``Mao Zedong was fine, a dime was worth a dime. Deng Xiaoping may be okay, but a dollar's worth a dime today.''
-Popular Chinese saying
WHEN local officials decided to remove a statue of Mao Zedong from a public square in the northeastern town of Dandong some months ago, residents rebelled.
Hundreds of people surrounded Mao's tall marble likeness for several nights in a row, forcing officials to postpone plans to expand a railway station beside the square, according to Chinese sources. The statue has yet to be moved, city officials say.
The late Chairman Mao, once worshiped as ``the great helmsman,'' is inspiring renewed veneration in China a decade after his utopian dogma and radical policies were disavowed by pragmatic leader Deng Xiaoping.
Around the country, Chinese are again wearing Mao badges from the 1960s and '70s, hanging portraits of Mao, burning joss sticks before Mao ``memorial'' tablets, singing Mao's anthem ``The East is Red,'' and reciting ditties glorifying the Maoist era.
Grassroots support for Mao is most striking in places where the chairman once commanded fierce loyalty, like northeastern China and his home province, Hunan. It has surged along with the popular discontent over inflation, income inequalities, crime, and corruption that are accompanying Mr. Deng's market-oriented economic reforms.
This ``second deification of Mao'' - unlike the contrived personality cult that peaked in the late 1960s - is arising spontaneously among poorer workers and farmers, the official paper Peasants' Daily commented last week.
At the same time, several Mao loyalists ushered out by Deng in the late 1970s have mysteriously reappeared in the official press. Some, including Mao's mistress Zhang Yufeng, have written articles sympathetic to Mao. Others, like former party radical Wang Li, espouse revisionist views of the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, portraying themselves as victims, not orchestrators, of the brutal campaign.
The two trends, one popular and one elite, reveal a small but significant countercurrent to the sweeping ``de-Maoification'' launched by Deng after Mao's death in 1976. Complex in origin, they have sparked concern both among Chinese intellectuals persecuted by Mao and reformers who seek to bury the Maoist age.
``A traditional force has risen up [against de-Maoification] and voiced its opposition,'' says Shao Daosheng, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Science. ``The image of Mao as a great leader ... has influence today. We cannot deny that.''
Popular nostalgia for the Maoist era reflects in part anxiety over the social strains from China's rapidly changing economy. As double-digit inflation erodes wages and competition widens income gaps, some Chinese seek a return to Mao's egalitarian regime of fixed prices and salaries.
Workers in industrial Shenyang, capital of northeastern Liaoning Province, are proudly pinning old Mao badges to their jackets, residents say. ``Some people are nostalgic about the days when salaries were low and prices were also low,'' Liaoning Governor Li Changchun says. ``Everyone has freedom to put on a badge of Chairman Mao. I have a lot of those badges in my home.''
Rampant corruption, rising crime, and declining moral standards have also stirred a sentimental longing for Mao's more puritanical rule. ``The masses feel insecure. They resent the hooligans, corruption and lack of social order ... So they cherish the Mao period,'' explained Song Tingming, a Cabinet official.
Chinese in several provinces have called for reviving Maoist moral slogans of the '50s, including the campaign to ``Study Lei Feng,'' a soldier hailed for his good deeds and devotion to Mao.
Amid reports of official graft, some newspapers have hailed Mao for ``living a simple life'' and praised his generosity. A popular joke notes how Mao's son, Mao Anying, died ``on the front line'' in the Korean War, while the son of Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang deals in color TV sets.
The rekindled reverence for Mao also signals a deep-seated desire among many Chinese for a paternalistic, all-powerful ruler able to provide spiritual guidance and order in what they view as an increasingly chaotic society.
``In times that lack an authoritarian leader ... The Chinese will go looking for one,'' says Mr. Shao. ``This mentality of dependence is nurtured from birth.''
Many Chinese - from factory workers and farmers to journalists and intellectuals - are alarmed by a perceived weakening of control by central party leaders. ``We should rethink Mao's authority,'' says a party theorist, requesting anonymity. ``If we had a person with Mao's authority today ... nothing would be impossible.''
On an emotional level, Chinese ``seek a supernatural force or a great leader to deliver them'' from their fate, Peasants' Daily said April 8. Like ``Buddha'' or ``God,'' the deified Mao ``gives them a kind of hope,'' the paper said. The worship of Mao fills a spiritual void felt today by Chinese of all ages, it said.
As popular reverence for Mao rises, several of the chairman's former allies have made unexplained reappearances in the official press - signaling to some Chinese a lingering loyalty to Mao in party and Army ranks.
``Within the leadership and Army there are a lot of people who didn't suffer during the Cultural Revolution, who benefitted from it. They cherish the memory of Mao,'' says Wu Zuguang, a prominent playwright whom Mao persecuted along with countless Chinese intellectuals.
Most disturbing to intellectuals like Mr. Wu has been the case of Wang Li, a notorious member of Mao's Cultural Revolution directorate, who was freed from jail not long ago. In a Dec. 23 interview in a Shanghai newspaper, Mr. Wang portrayed himself as a victim of the tumultuous campaign. Moreover, it was revealed that Wang has a private car and a spacious, red-carpetted apartment, perks of a senior cadre.
Leading intellectuals question why Beijing has allowed figures like Wang to defend themselves, while forbidding the publication of unofficial appraisals of the Cultural Revolution and Mao.
They argue that unless Beijing allows the publication of detailed research on Mao and the origins of the Cultural Revolution, China will always face the risk of political campaigns, personality cults, and ideological fanaticism.
Officials admit that Chinese youths are ignorant of the Cultural Revolution. Yet despite its criticism of Mao in 1981 and its pledge to ``thoroughly negate the Cultural Revolution,'' the party has resisted opening Mao's status or the destructive decade to public judgement, fearing that such a reappraisal could discredit veteran leaders and the whole party.
The party propaganda department last year banned the publication of unauthorized Chinese and foreign works on the Cultural Revolution, singling out those ``touching on the moral character of individual leaders.''
``Much of Mao's negative legacy has not been eradicated - his leftism, his xenophobia, his emphasis on class struggle. If we don't get rid of this, China cannot move forward,'' says a scholar at the Institute of Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong thought.