A Chinese alternative? Interpreting the politics of China's `New Left'

By Lance Carter

June 2010 -- Insurgent Notes -- In a country where the Communist Party (CCP) has dominated “left-wing” politics for over sixty years, dissent has often been deemed a “right-wing” or “counterrevolutionary” affair. Subsequently, many dissidents and parts of the general population have embraced the term “right wing” as implying something anti-authoritarian or progressive. To make things more confusing, since 1978 the CCP itself has moved farther and farther to the right while still claiming to be socialist. All this has contributed to a very strange political environment in mainland China.

On the one hand, Chinese liberals employ the rhetoric of individual rights, parliamentary democracy and free market capitalism in opposition to the state, yet find themselves in open support of the CCP’s drive to “liberalise” and push forward market reforms. By contrast, the Chinese “New Left” is left defending many aspects of the pre-1978 Maoist system and the last vestiges of state control over the economy while opposing state-driven market policies. With but a few exceptions, what remains is either tacit or explicit support for the CCP on both sides of the political spectrum. This rather bizarre phenomenon is related to the peculiar nature of the contemporary Chinese state. Thus, a clear understanding of the nature of the state is indispensable if the Chinese “left” is to have any hope of moving away from both its authoritarian past and its current capitalist trajectory.

In China, the terms “left” and “right” or “radical” and “conservative” produce somewhat different associations in the popular mind than what we are used to in the West. While in most capitalist countries “left” and “right” are understood largely in economic terms, in China these concepts tend to be deeply entangled within a framework defined by the state, the Communist Party and nationalism. As a result, Chinese political debates have tended to presume a rigid dichotomy between “left-wing” state socialism and “right-wing” capitalist liberal democracy. The denominations “radical” and “conservative” are equally problematic because they are not fixed to any objective criteria and refer merely to the degree to which one desires change in the status quo. The latter terms have become particularly ambiguous in China since the 1980s, when CCP ideologues began to present Maoism as a “conservative project” and neoliberalism as a “radical” freeing of productive forces.1 Despite attempts by a few intellectuals within the “New Left” to move away from such simplicity and distortion and create a more nuanced political landscape for China, such efforts have failed in at least two respects. First, these intellectuals have not succeeded in disentangling Chinese “left-wing” political debates from an excessive identification with the state. Second, and more importantly, what achievements have been made in the realm of academia have so far failed to translate into concrete political action.

The term “New Left” was first used by Chinese liberals in a pejorative sense to describe a group of intellectuals who emerged during the 1990s as opponents of market reform. With the repudiation of “radicalism” that began in China after the ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the designation “leftist” came to be associated with militarisation, ideological controls, national isolation and ascetic egalitarianism. Because of these adverse associations most intellectuals within the New Left reject the label yet continue to use it for lack of a better term. Irrelevant to its negative connotations however, the term has also been disputed on ideological grounds by scholars like Wang Hui. Wang sees the crude dichotomy between liberal and New Left as a myth created by Chinese neoliberals intent on appropriating liberalism for themselves. Wang insists that “liberals” in China actually divide into two categories—the first, socially progressive liberals (which would include members of the New Left); and the second, neoliberals and neoconservatives.2 A similar remark was made by Xudong Zhang who pointed out that “an advocate for New Deal-style economic and social policies in China was considered to be a liberal in the 1980s, but ‘New Left’ by the century’s end”.3 This has prompted some to embrace the name “liberal left” (ziyou zuopai) in order to stress the group’s continuity with the proponents of “democratic socialism” and “humanistic Marxism” of the 1980s.4 While this enthusiasm for liberalism may seem reassuring to a more conservative Chinese audience, it leaves non-Chinese radicals rather disheartened.

By all accounts, the New Left does not maintain or seem to desire a unified ideological perspective. Its emergence should be understood against the backdrop of the fall of the Soviet Union, the harsh neoliberal shock therapy impressed upon Eastern Europe, and the massive restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOE) and dismantling of social welfare that began in China in 1993. In the 1990s, as the Chinese state moved from an authoritarian “left” to an authoritarian “right” position in an attempt to duplicate the success of the Asian tigers, Chinese liberals began to call for increased “liberalisation” and a further push toward the “right”. It was this shift within the doctrine of liberalism that caused a rupture with and the eventual formation of the New Left.

In a certain sense then the theoretical positions of the New Left were born in opposition to a neoliberal turn among Chinese intelligentsia and the world at large. Despite claims of being grounded in the liberal tradition, in reality, most in the New Left have been heavily influenced by Marxism (though some identify with both traditions). Many are advocates of developing a novel form of market socialism which would blend aspects of both capitalism and socialism. That being said, however, the New Leftists also manages to evade easy definition. This is in part due to the plural nature of their ideological commitments. But more importantly it is because they embrace aspects of both Western liberalism and Marxism on the one hand and elements of Maoism and Confucianism on the other. In fact, one of their main points of contention with Chinese liberals is over the uncritical appropriation of values and institutions historically specific to the West. This tendency to reject universal values and the linear development path offered by modernity clearly distinguishes the Chinese New Left from not only their liberal opponents but also from Leninist and social-democratic orthodoxy. Some have noted that this postmodern slant shares certain continuities with Maoism.5 Whatever the case may be, the desire to move beyond the simple binaries of tradition and modernity, capitalism and socialism, democracy and dictatorship has received considerable support among some of the intellectuals associated with the New Left. It has even led some to hope for the creation of a “Chinese alternative”.

Wang Hui is perhaps the best-known scholar associated with the Chinese New Left. He has published widely in both Chinese and English on issues relating to literary criticism, Chinese intellectual history and contemporary politics. Unlike the other prominent figures in the New Left, Wang was educated in China, not the United States (though he has since spent considerable time abroad). Wang is by far one of the most original thinkers in China today. Both his polemical work and intellectual history borrow heavily from world-systems and postcolonial theory. However, his uniqueness is reflected in a Daoist-inspired advocacy of transcending binary oppositions and a Foucauldian desire to recover subverted histories with which to continually critique the present. It is through this project of recovering lost history that Wang has tried to approach the question of a Chinese alternative.

In contrast to Arrighi and others who have dealt with this question,6 Wang Hui does not see China’s current development path as representative of a meaningful alternative. Moreover, he has shied away from a serious proposal for what a Chinese alternative might look like. Instead, Wang has taken on the more modest task of outlining a history of attempts by Chinese intellectuals to criticise, resist and transcend global capitalist modernity. Wang first came to prominence in 1997 for an article he wrote in Tianya (Frontiers) entitled "Contemporary China’s Ideological State and the Question of Modernity".7 He has since published a four-volume intellectual history called The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought.8 In this latter work Wang interprets Chinese modernity as being rooted in fundamental contradictions. On the one hand, historically China recognised the necessity of entering into and competing within a modern system of nation-states. On the other hand, China’s modernisation process was based on resistance to certain aspects of modernity and was pitted against Western imperialism.9 Wang sees the project of Chinese “socialism” then as a failed attempt to build a Chinese alternative to capitalist modernity. He traces these attempts not only to the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party but more importantly to earlier encounters with socialism beginning in the late-Qing (1644-1911) and even further back to neo-Confucian critiques of the dramatic changes China underwent during the Song dynasty (960-1279). Thus, The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought is a genealogy of “alternatives to modernity” as conceptualised by Chinese intellectuals.

Wang Hui’s interpretation of Chinese modernity as a kind of “anti-modernity” is closely connected to the issue of the nation-state. For Wang the Chinese nation was built on the contradiction between a multi-ethnic “empire” with the potential to transcend the system of nation-states and a Han nationalism rooted in the acceptance of China’s place within that system.10 Wang thus presents a deconstruction and subtle critique of Chinese nationalism and the state—which he appropriately describes as the natural political form of capitalist modernity. Yet for all his suspicion of the nation state, he seems to waver at the prospect of rejecting the state’s basic structural logic. Although he is rarely explicit about his own political views, this ambiguity is quite apparent in his more recent writings.

Wang’s latest work has focused on the problem of the de-politicization and bureaucratization of party politics.11 He convincingly argues that both one-party dictatorships and multiple-party representative democracies have bowed their heads to the interests of global capitalism; that popular struggles to eliminate class disparity have been replaced by compromise and bureaucratisation; and that society in general has become depoliticised. Wang sees certain aspects of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as having acted to correct these bureaucratic tendencies within the CCP. Here again using the past to critique the present, he highlights the pressing need for both “political and economic” democracy in China. He points to the possibility of mass participation in politics as a remedy to the potential bureaucratisation and de-politicisation of political parties. This call for participatory democracy (not to mention his sceptical attitude toward the Chinese state) allows Wang to challenge liberal claims about the supposed anti-authoritarianism of the free-market. It also makes him one of the more anti-authoritarian Chinese within the “left” political spectrum. But what exactly is meant by “political and economic” democracy? And how is China going to get there?

Wang Hui is not the only voice within the New Left to pose the question of a Chinese alternative. Much of Cui Zhiyuan’s work is centred around this issue as well. Unlike Wang however, Cui has focused less on abstract sociological problems and more on an analysis of concrete institutions in his critique of market reforms. A University of Chicago political science graduate, Cui was one of the initial “liberals” to break with the turn toward neoliberalism in the mid-1990s. The reaction to his 1994 article "Institutional Innovation and a Second Liberation of Thought"12 first established the name “New Left” as political terminology, which was branded upon Cui in a derogatory sense by his critics. Where Wang Hui frames his discussion of a Chinese alternative largely in historical terms, Cui Zhiyuan points to specific examples—such as rural industrialisation—in order to express this potential alternative in concrete terms. By the late 1980s, China’s rural industries had grown to employ a quarter of the rural workforce and were contributing to half of rural domestic product.13 Rural enterprises, or township and villages enterprises (TVE), consisted of local factories, mills and foundries geared primarily toward the production of light industry. These ranged from being genuine village collectives to private entrepreneurial ventures to offshoots of local government. However by the 1990s, growth in rural industry had begun to stagnate, China’s vast peasant population became increasingly seen as a hindrance to development, and calls for further marketization and urbanisation started to overshadow the past achievements of the TVEs. As academic opinion started to turn against the TVEs, Cui Zhiyuan, along with another well-known “left-liberal” Gan Yang, began to champion small rural industry and collectives as not only economically practical (in regards to absorbing labour and raising income) but as a possible alternative to Fordist models of large-scale capitalist industry. For Cui, TVEs were seen as a means of avoiding village dependency on industrial products from the cities, as well as a positive counter to increasing rural/urban disparity. Cui provocatively linked this to the legacy of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and Maoist attempts at local self-sufficiency. Many of these arguments were later incorporated into Wang Hui’s depiction of Chinese modernity as an anti-modernity. Thus, for both Cui and Wang rural industrialisation became seen as fundamental to China’s attempt to seek out and pursue an alternative to a capitalist model of industrial development.

Cui Zhiyuan has also written at some length about the prospects and meaning of democracy in China. Like Wang Hui, Cui is a proponent of “political and economic” democracy and is probably the one in the New Left with the most libertarian leanings. For Cui, democracy is not merely about a parliament and national elections but more importantly about “bringing politics into the economic sphere”. In several articles written over the past fifteen years, he has tried to uncover concrete examples of “native” institutions that could serve as a basis for moving ahead with local village elections and economic democracy in China.14 One of the things that distinguishes Cui’s approach from others is that he likes to take aspects of China’s past and present that are depicted as “backward” or “anachronistic” within liberal discourse and then demonstrate their actual similarities to current institutions in Japan and the West. By doing so, like Wang Hui, he is interested in cutting through the presumed binary opposition between capitalism and socialism. In addition, he intends to show how certain “collectivist” institutional structures can be both ethically just and practically efficient; and how modern capitalist nations have adopted these institutions to their advantage. Cui’s 1996 article "The Angang Constitution and Post-Fordism" is a good example of this.15 In it Cui compares the “workers' management” clause in the 1960 Angang Constitution of China’s Anshan Iron and Steel Complex with contemporary trends in the Japanese and US automobile industries. His suggestion is that certain institutions from the Maoist period are entirely compatible with the most advanced organisational methods and demands of modern industry. However, despite the radical implications of many of his proposals, Cui’s writings on economic democracy generally display sympathy toward profit- and management-sharing schemes which reduce the tension between labour and capital. This compromising approach is consistent with his vision of a Chinese “mixed” economy that blends elements of capitalism and socialism.

While Cui goes much further than Wang in trying to articulate what a Chinese alternative might look like, it remains somewhat unclear as to whether he believes China is actively pursuing such an alternative or is in need of a radical reorientation. In the early 1990s, as the New Left was starting to coalesce, universal integration of China into the capitalist world economy had only just begun to take off. As a result, novel experimentation and reform still seemed possible on a wide scale. Such hopes were the basis for Cui’s call for a “second liberation of thought” in 1994. But a decade later this optimistic attitude was to prove untenable in the face of the competitive realities of the capitalist world market. Following Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour” in 1992, a significant reorientation of China’s economy from a centrally planned system with limited markets to a kind of authoritarian capitalism in line with “the Asian tigers” began in earnest. Nine cities in the northeast and northwest and five cities on the Yangzi River were opened up to foreign trade and investment. New experiments in stock markets and private ownership as well as the granting of full business autonomy to state enterprises followed on the heels of these reforms.16 This marked the beginning of a massive restructuring of SOEs that persists into the present and has resulted in workers being laid off on an unprecedented scale. According to official statistics, in the ten-year period between 1993 and the end of 2002 layoffs in SOE and urban collectives amounted to 63 million jobs, with the biggest losses taking place after 1997. This represents a 44 per cent decrease in employment within the state sector.17 In addition to layoffs, increased urbanisation and capitalist-style boom-and-bust cycles began to define a new kind of development path for China. Cui Zhiyuan’s response to these changes was to advocate a “return” to the novel social experimentation of the pre-1992 period. In 2004 Cui began to promote the idea of what he dubbed a “petty-bourgeois socialism”.18 By this he meant a kind of market socialism that mixes both collective and state ownership of the means of production with private property and markets. Cui pointed to the economic writings of European “socialists” such as John Stewart Mill, Henry George and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon as examples of alternatives to orthodox notions of both capitalism and socialism. His arguments were also heavily indebted to US analytical Marxist thinkers such as John Roemer.19

When taken together—the development of rural industry, political and economic democracy, and market socialism—we begin to get a basic picture of what Cui Zhiyuan’s vision of a Chinese alternative would entail. But there are several obvious problems with this vision. First, as Wang Hui himself has pointed out, it shares a naïve belief in the possibility of reform to significantly shape the contours of a capitalist-driven economy. Second, presuming that we accept reform as a strategy of change, will reforms be won from the bottom up or handed down from the top? What is the role of the state in promoting a Chinese alternative and how does it differ from liberal strategies of tacit support and jockeying for political influence? Does Cui believe that China is moving toward this alternative? If so, what is there for him to be critical of?

Both Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan, though acknowledging certain positive aspects of the Maoist era, actually trace their roots to the “humanistic Marxist” tradition that came to fruition in the 1980s, as well as sharing a lineage with earlier traditions such as the May Fourth movement (1919-1927). This seems to be one of the clear divides among those within the New Left. While some New Leftists such as Wang, Cui and Gan Yang have embraced the May Fourth spirit of pluralism and critique (while advocating a vague market socialism), others have affirmed a clear ideological commitment to a kind of “neo-Maoism”. This latter group would include scholars such as Gao Mobo, Li Minqi and Han Yuhai. Still others identify with a more “conventional” program of nationalisation of production and social democracy. A well-known representative of this third position would be Wang Shaoguang.

Although such ideological commitments are quite diverse, there are a few points where members of the New Left do in fact converge. Aside from their obvious opposition to neoliberalism, most of those associated with the New Left have also challenged (to greater or lesser degrees) the Communist Party’s official interpretation of Maoism. This is usually characterised by a tendency to treat the Cultural Revolution as a rejection of Soviet-style political economy and a struggle for China to forge its own path. The notion of Maoism as a Chinese alternative is something that has received considerable attention both inside and outside China since at least the late 1960s and continues to feature prominently within New Left debates. In light of this it may be helpful to briefly review the arguments for and understand the various complications surrounding this view.

As an ideological position, Maoism is somewhat hard to identify. This is due in part to the different phases of Mao Zedong’s life and the consequent changes in his thinking which accompanied these phases. Moreover, it is also due to the difficulty of separating Mao’s thoughts and actions from that of the CCP as a whole. Maoists tend to stress the differences between Mao and the Leninist orthodoxy of the CCP. This is usually accomplished by a careful examination of Mao’s writings, in particular his Critique of Soviet Economics,20 which first appeared in print during the early years of the Cultural Revolution. To his supporters, Mao Zedong Thought represents not only an alternative to capitalist liberal democracy but also to the Soviet path of devolution into “state capitalism”. In fact, the whole notion of socialism with “Chinese characteristics”—which became popular during the reform period—was largely carried over from earlier Maoist rhetoric. According to Maoists, the Maoist model of socialism is exemplified by peasant revolution, rural industrialization, national and local self-sufficiency, partial decentralisation of economic and political authority, mass participation in politics, the integration of mental and manual labour, and a strong emphasis on class struggle and voluntarism.21 In this interpretation (which is ironically similar to the CCP’s 1981 evaluation, only with the values negated) the Cultural Revolution looms powerfully in the foreground as an attempt by Mao to lead the masses in a revolt against party bureaucracy and toward the creation of a more democratic and egalitarian communist future. If we are to take these claims seriously then Maoism would surely appear much less authoritarian than say Stalinism.

There are some significant problems with this portrayal of Maoism however. The first is that it takes Mao’s writings and professed ideological commitments at face value and thus conveniently sidesteps much of the reality of Maoist political economy. The disasters associated with both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are often qualified either by blaming party bureaucrats (as opposed to Mao) for their failings or by claiming the true history of these events has been distorted in the post-Mao era. While admitting that the repudiation of Maoism and the restoration of Marxist-Leninist “orthodoxy” after 1978 have served a clear political agenda, the wholesale detachment of Maoism from its nexus within the Chinese Communist Party is another matter entirely. Such a task is not only quite formidable but also obscures the many parallels between Mao and the CCP. How can we judge Maoism on the basis of Mao Zedong Thought alone? After all Mao himself betrayed much of his “Maoist” rhetoric during the Cultural Revolution—this includes backing away from a more autonomous restructuring of the People’s Communes, turning against the workers' revolution in Shanghai and the various ultra-leftist groups, and even normalising relations with the United States.22 Surely Mao’s actions and not just his words are fundamental to an assessment of the sincerity of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution.

The second problem with this portrayal relates to means and strategy. While the stated goals of Maoism may be worthy of respect if taken at face value, the question of how to realise these goals is as important as it is overlooked. This is closely connected to the discussion of Maoism as a real alternative in practice. Although the Cultural Revolution and certain aspects of Maoist political economy clearly represent a decentralisation of power away from the party, they were supplemented with an ideological centralisation around Mao himself. While Mao presented his rift with other top-ranking members of the CCP as one of socialism versus state capitalism, it seems to have been equally related to the role of ideological controls in developing China’s productive forces (and building Chinese modernity). This again draws into question the sincerity of the Cultural Revolution as a genuine challenge to the status quo and an alternative path to socialism. One cannot brainwash, manipulate and coerce people to revolt if it is to have any kind of emancipatory potential. Such has more in common with obedience than with rebellion. Arif Dirlik’s insights into the contradiction between Maoist means and ends are quite helpful here.

…the Cultural Revolution was doomed to failure because the policies that motivated it, if they were to be workable, required a social and political context different from the structure of power that had been put in place after 1949…rather than challenge the existing structure of power as the Cultural revolution professed, Maoist policies ended up as instruments in a competition for the conquest of power within the existing structure, a competition that the Cultural Revolution did much to unleash.23

Though the view that Mao was opposed to party bureaucracy certainly has some legitimacy, his alternative vision of mass campaigns controlled ideologically from above seems to seriously contradict the idea of decentralisation and participatory democracy. The role of the state is crucial here. For it was precisely Mao’s position as Chairman, his control of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and his access to and manipulation of media outlets which enabled him to steer the Cultural Revolution. Despite the Maoist condemnation of party bureaucracy, the state apparatus was never challenged and its coercive powers as well as an ardent nationalism remained an integral feature of the Cultural Revolution. In practice therefore, Maoism, though somewhat divergent from the Soviet model, remains incredibly authoritarian in many respects; particularly in regards to its reliance on ideological controls and the coercive powers of the state.

Maoism as a Chinese alternative is thus highly problematic. Most neo-Maoists in the New Left have admitted the overall failure of the Cultural Revolution yet wish to vindicate Maoism based on its professed aims.24 But how are these aims to contribute to a Chinese alternative in the present if the means to achieve them have been proven so misguided in the past? New Leftists in general tend to remain silent on the issue of strategy. While people like Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan have harboured reservations toward the state, they have not suggested any alternatives to a top-down model of change supported by the state apparatus. Liberals and neoliberals, despite all their rhetoric, are avid proponents of state-lead market reforms and state protection of the private sphere. Why then do Chinese political debates lack a serious voice critical of the state? One reason is surely due to state control of the press and publishing agencies and the party’s blatant intolerance of dissent. Another reason may have to do with the legacy of a China divided from within and without and the sense of national vulnerability that is perceived to accompany a weak state. A third reason, however, stems from the state’s ambiguous role as both mitigator and patron of capitalism. No doubt it is this latter phenomenon that stands as the major obstacle to the creation of a real Chinese alternative.

As China’s GDP continues to grow at an astonishing rate (while much of the rest of the world languishes in recession) we would do well to remind ourselves that the likelihood of radical changes taking place there are slim. No meaningful alternative will be implemented from the top down. And there will be no significant challenge to the status quo so long as economic growth continues. Although the Chinese New Left has had some limited success in de-linking the positions of the “left” from those of the Chinese Communist Party, none of their ideas have yet developed into serious political demands. With the exception of some support from NGO and student volunteer groups, the New Left remains almost entirely academic in nature. Whatever one’s thoughts are on the idea of a “Chinese alternative” and the various problems that surround it, to think that an alternative of any kind is possible without a grassroots political base is pure fantasy.

In all fairness, however, without freedom of speech, press and association, support for any independent social movement will not be easily forthcoming. It is the ultimate irony that the Communist Party now plays the most important role in the capitalist exploitation of the peasant and working classes. The CCP uses the powers of the state (both local and central) to keep wages low, working conditions horrendous and squash dissent. Yet at the same time it is the state that has thus far prevented the complete privatisation of the economy (perhaps most importantly the privatisation of land). This contradiction presents a major obstacle to the Chinese New Left. If they are sincere in their attempt to break with the CCP and the old Stalinist “left” then a thorough examination of the state’s role in supporting capitalist exploitation is in order. This is true for not only the post-Maoist but for the Maoist period as well. While intellectuals like Wang Hui, Cui Zhiyuan and Gan Yang have begun to move in this direction, they hesitate to take their arguments to their logical conclusion. Moreover, their ideas have been largely confined to the realm of academic and political debate. As China’s role in the world economy becomes increasingly important, it is imperative that the Chinese left break free of the dogmatism, nationalism and authoritarianism which has defined its past. Only then can we begin to talk about alternatives.

[Originally published in Insurgent Notes #1. Posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]


  1. Zhang, Xudong, “The Making of the Post-Tiananmen Intellectual Field: A Critical Overview.” In Whither China? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, ed. Xudong Zhang (1-75). Durham: Duke University Press, 2001, p. 19.

  2. Wang, Hui, “Zhongguo ‘xinziyouzhuyi’ de lishi genyuan: zailun zhongguo dalu de sixiang zhuangkuang yu xiandaixing wenti” (The Historical Roots of Chinese Neoliberalism: A Re-discussion of Mainland China’s Ideological State and the Problem of Modernity). In Quzhengzhihua de zhengzhi: duan ershishiji de zhongjie yu jiushi niandai (Depoliticized Politics: The End of the Short 20th Century and the 1990s) (98-160). Beijing: Shenghuo dushu xinzhi sanlian shudian, 2008, pp. 143-145.

  3. Zhang, Xudong, “The Making of the Post-Tiananmen Intellectual Field: A Critical Overview.” In Whither China? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, ed. Xudong Zhang (1-75). Durham: Duke University Press, 2001, p. 16.

  4. Gan, Yang, “Zhongguo ziyouzuopai de youlai” (Origins of the Chinese Liberal Left). In Sichao: Zhongguo ‘xinzuopai’ jiqi yingxiang (Ideological Trends: The Chinese “New Left” and its Influence), ed. Gong Yang (110-120). Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2003.

  5. Dirlik, Arif, “Modernism and Antimodernism in Mao Zedong’s Marxism.” In Critical Perspectives on Mao Zedong’s Thought, ed. Dirlik, Healy, Knight (59-83). Humanities Press International, 1997.

  6. Arrighi, Giovanni, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century. Verso, 2007.

  7. Wang, Hui, “Contemporary China’s Ideological State and the Question of Modernity.” In Wither China? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, ed. Xudong Zhang (161-190). Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

  8. Wang, Hui, Xiandai zhongguo sixiang de xingqi (The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought). Beijing: Shenghuo dushu xinzhi sanlian shudian, 2008.

  9. Murthy, Viren, “Modernity Against Modernity: Wang Hui’s Critical History of Chinese Thought.” Modern Intellectual History, vol. 3 no. 1, 2006, pp. 158-159.

  10. Ibid., pp. 156-158.

  11. Wang, Hui, “Quzhengzhihua de zhengzhi, baquan de duochong goucheng yu liushi niandai de xiaoshi” (Depoliticized Politics, Hegemony’s Multiple Formations, and the Fading of the 1960s). In Quzhengzhihua de zhengzhi: duan ershi shiji de zhongjie yu jiushi niandai (Depoliticized Politics: The End of the Short 20th Century and the 1990s) (1-57). Beijing: Shenghuo dushu xinzhi sanlian shudian, 2008.

  12. Cui, Zhiyuan, “Zhidu chuangxin yu di’erci sixiang jiefang” (Institutional Innovation and a Second Liberation of Thought). Ershiyi Shiji (Twenty-First Century), no. 24, Aug, 1994.

  13. Meisner, Maurice, The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996, p. 232.

  14. Cui, Zhiyuan, “Wither China? The Discourse on Property Rights and Reform in China.” In Whither China? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, ed. Xudong Zhang (103-122). Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

  15. Cui, Zhiyuan, “An’gang xianfa yu houfutezhuyi” (The Angang Constitution and Post-Fordism). In Sichao: Zhongguo ‘xinzuopai’ jiqi yingxiang (Ideological Trends: The Chinese “New Left” and its Influence), ed. Gong Yang (214-226). Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2003.

  16. Meisner, Maurice, The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996, pp. 479-480.

  17. Hurst, William, The Chinese Worker after Socialism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 28-29.

  18. Cui, Zhiyuan, “Ruhe renshi jinri zhongguo: ‘xiaokang’ shehui jiedu” (How to Understand Today’s China: Analyzing a “Well-off” Society). Dushu (Readings), no. 4, March, 2004.

  19. Day, Alexander, The Return of the Peasant: History, Politics, and the Peasantry in Postsocialist China. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California Santa Cruz, 2007, p. 86.

  20. Mao, Tsetung, A Critique of Soviet Economics. Trans. Moss Roberts, Monthly Review Press, 1977.

  21. See Li, Minqi, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy. Monthly Review Press, 2008, pp. 24-66; and Critical Perspectives on Mao Zedong’s Thought, ed. Dirlik, Healy, Knight. Humanities Press International, 1997.

  22. Dirlik, Arif, “Revolutions in History and Memory: The Politics of the Cultural Revolution in Historical Perspective.” In Postmodernity’s Histories: The Past as Legacy and Project (19-61). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000, pp. 32, 41.

  23. Ibid., pp. 38-39.

  24. Apologists for the Cultural Revolution usually emphasise its achievements in the areas of mass education and health care, for which there is considerable supporting evidence.

'Princeling' descendants of Communist party heroes revive Marxist-Leninist teachings to combat graft;

By Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver Sun
January 10, 2011

One of China's vice-presidents, Xi Jinping, is in line to become the Communist Party leader and the country's president today after being appointed to a key military position.
Photograph by: Handout, Files

There are tantalizing indications that the anointing of the fifth generation of post-revolution leaders in China next year will be marked by a return to the Marxist-Leninist political philosophy of the dynasty's founder, Mao Zedong.

Observers in China and Asia are speculating about an impending Maoist revival after official media enthusiastically reported on a visit early last month to the massive western city of Chongqing by the man slated to become the next Communist party leader and national president, vice-president Xi Jinping.

What made Xi's visit to Chongqing, one of the world's largest metropolises with 32 million people, seem a harbinger of things to come is that the city's party secretary, Bo Xilai, is an avid and indefatigable promoter of the thoughts and philosophy of Chairman Mao.

And Xi during his two-day visit was, according to China's state-controlled media, unstinting in his praise of Bo and the Maoist revival.

He applauded Bo's campaigns of "singing red songs, studying the Maoist canon, telling Mao-era stories, and passing along Mao's dicta. These activities have gone deeply into the hearts of the people and are worthy of praise," Xi said.

Bo, who like Xi is a "princeling" son of a hero of the Communist revolution of the 1930s and '40s, sees a return to Mao's unequivocal Communist morality as the antidote to the social ills that have overtaken China since the campaign of economic reform began 30 years ago.

When Bo was appointed Chongqing's party leader in late 2007, after several years as China's minister of commerce, he decided that a reaffirmation of Mao's thought was the solution to the problems of corruption, moral degradation, ideological confusion, and the entrenchment of fraud and dishonesty as normal behaviour that are threatening the continued rule of the Communist party.

Since mid-2008, Bo's officials have organized 128,000 "Red-song" shows and 28,000 public recitations of Mao's writings. About 130 million cellphone and computer text messages containing Mao's thoughts and mottoes have been sent to school and college students.

Along with this campaign of moral renewal, Bo launched a campaign against the intertwined corrupt relationship between triad gangsters, the police and party officials in Chongqing.

About 2,000 people have been tried and punished in what has been perhaps the most persistent and effective drive against China's endemic corruption.

And it is here that we can get a whiff of the politics of the succession as Xi prepares to replace party leader and president Hu Jintao starting in September 2012.

Bo's predecessor as party secretary in Chongqing was Wang Yang, now the party leader in southern Guangdong province.

At the very least Wang must have ignored the institutionalized corruption in Chongqing on his watch. More likely he was a beneficiary.

But Wang is a protege of President Hu and rose to prominence through the ranks of Hu's power base, the Communist Youth League.

So Xi's praise for Bo's Maoist campaign is being seen as both a slap at Hu and, perhaps, the start of an attempt to create a ruling alliance among the "princelings." Xi is known to believe, like the imperial dynastic families before him, that only the descendants of revolutionary leaders have the right to run the party and rule the country.

The Maoist revival is also a snub to Hu's attempts to reverse the moral decay of the Communist party and Chinese society by promoting a re-branded and modernized version of the social compact between the ruler and the ruled set out by the philosopher-sage Confucius.

Retro Confucianism hasn't caught on, but Xi is not alone among the nine members of the inner core of the Communist party, the Politburo Standing Committee, in admiring the Maoist revival.

Last August, Li Changchun, the standing committee member in charge of ideology, attended some of Bo's Maoist song concerts and is reported to have "highly praised" the campaign.

There is much public speculation in China that come the change of leadership next year, Bo has his eyes on replacing Li as the ideology czar in the party's inner sanctum.

After Xi's Chongqing visit, a commentator in the state-controlled People's Daily newspaper wrote with breathless approval that the incoming leader's support for the "Chongqing Model" carries an important message.

His backing of Maoist "core socialist norms" set out "for all members of society, basic yardsticks and criteria for discriminating between good and evil, and for differentiating between meritorious and detrimental behaviour."

Xi's support for Bo's Maoist campaigns, said the commentator, is a signal the "system of core socialist values should be applied in other regions."


For every action there is a reaction. Maoism was a reaction to the historical period in which it emerged. The socialist revolution was being stymied and curtailed by a vigorous and transcendent imperialism that had not yet exhausted its reserves. There were great victories of the national democratic revolution in China, Vietnam, Cuba and elsewhere. These revolutions were deflected from their natural course of develop and were prematurely put on the socialist road. It was that or face defeat at the hands of US imperialism. Socialism could not be created democratically as it should have been because of the forces arrayed against it both internally and externally. Only an authoritarian model could succeed under such extreme conditions. The Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc failed for a multitude of reasons, the primary one being that it failed to integrate into the global capitalist economy as a independent player. Hence it was left in the dust. How could a fledgling socialist economy based on pre-capitalist, semi-feudal economic relations and an authoritarian political culture create a thriving advanced socialist political, social and economic democracy? It was an impossibility. Moreover the defects of a premature socialism imposed on conquered nationalities in Eastern Europe by the Soviets after WWII were insurmountable.

China was a different case. The national democratic revolution was an indigenous development and part and parcel of China's organic development and entry into the modern world. But China's traditional culture was and is so ingrained in its political economy that it could not be thwarted. The China of today is a necessary interregnum that has allowed for the unprecedented development of the productive forces. The legacy of the premature socialism of the Mao era will serve as a beacon for the establishment of socialist relations of production at a much higher level than was previously possible. A fully mature socialism emerging in China is thus inevitable and will serve as the catalyst for the worldwide socialist transformation that will occur during the 21st century.


Post-Mao Chinese Left: Navigating the Recent Debates

July 16, 2011

By Zhun Xu. Guest contributor, Sanhati. The author is a member of the Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

This year saw an unprecedented rise in political fights among the Chinese leftists. An outside observer might surprisingly discover such big differences on the “left” when all of the major leftist online forums began publishing harsh political polemics from opposing camps. Various issues are discussed, but the practical political stake is whether the left should be a political ally of the current CCP leadership or not, i.e. political program of a united leftist camp. One group, which mostly posts on one of the largest online leftist forum in China (Utopia, or wu you zhi xiang), has been a long supporter of the government and tries to consolidate the leftists under its pro-CCP flag and advocate reforms under current regime to “restore socialism”; while other groups, mostly publishing on relatively smaller online forums, take a different stance and argue that socialism cannot be built under the current capitalist state. The pro-CCP people accused other groups as “extremists”, and their opponents also called them “reactionary and opportunist”.

Who are our friends and who are our enemies? This is the most fundamental question for any political program. There has always been huge difference in the answers to this question among the Chinese left.

Some people argue that although China became largely a capitalist society and the class conflict between the workers and the new rich people including the CCP cadres and compradors, the major contradiction is between the Chinese as a people and “imperialist power” like the US.

Zhang Hongliang, a famous political writer on the internet and professor at Minzu University of China, is often times regarded as the spiritual leader of this camp. In Zhang’s articles, class conflict is always important, but racial conflict is more vital for him. It is unpleasant to find many reactionary ideas in Zhang’s writings, for example, Zhang repeatedly claimed that the Anglo-Saxon people (that is their preferred word to describe imperialists) have the huge genocide plan of killing Chinese people. In his own words: “racial conflict has changed class conflict fundamentally, nowadays class struggle is not about who controls the state anymore, rather it is on whether China is going to be destroyed (by Anglo-Saxon people and its allies). The solution to the danger of “genocide”, according to Zhang Hongliang, is to wholeheartedly embrace the government and defeat both the “imperialists and its allies” and the “left extremists”.

Other people presented the same perspective as Zhang’s. Kong Qingdong, professor at Beijing University, made the claim that those who want to overthrow the current regime by revolution are crazy “fundamentalist Marxists”, and there is no difference between them and imperialists together with their Chinese allies.

Zhang and others’ writings are popular among younger readers, including left-leaning students and nationalists. Although most of them repeatedly claim that they are Maoist communists, they do not really use Marxist analysis. They would like to throw out concepts like “class struggle”, “imperialist” etc, but as we have seen, their real message is a nationalist one, even with some Nazi flavors.

Others in this camp do not necessarily have the same ideas as Zhang or Kong, but they all seem to agree that given the existence of imperialists and their compradors, “save the Party” is more or less identical to “defend our country”. Therefore, they tend to believe that the ruling class in China is ultimately their friend while anyone opposing to the ruling class must be their enemy. In order to reconcile this view with the clear neo-liberal turn in the last three decades, they argue that while it is true that China has been going down a capitalist path, this is only because the anti-Mao faction held power and chose the way of capitalism, as long as the true “socialists” in the Party got power, China could be taking a totally different route!

The other camp had quite different perspectives on the nature of the Chinese society and the major enemy of the left. Although it is still difficult to generalize their politics, they view class conflict between workers and capitalists as the most important issue. Instead of dividing the Party leaders into the pro-socialism faction and pro-capitalism faction, they tend to treat them both as political representatives of the bourgeoisie and they just have different attitudes on how to build capitalism (and their family wealth) safely. Therefore, it does not make sense for Marxists to become allies of the government to fight against “imperialism”. In fact, both the domestic bourgeoisie and the imperialists should be our enemies.

Clearly, the two camps have opposite views on China from the very beginning, but why did they stay at relative peace previously and suddenly began to fight each other? Some historical background and current context should be discussed to help us answer this question.

It would be unimaginable for such a debate to take place in China for most of the recent 30 years. After Mao died in 1976, the communist party leadership quickly cleaned out all the leftists from the central committee and began taking a long but steady transition to capitalism as we can see now. Why the CCP changed its mission is another question which has been discussed elsewhere.

To accompany this transition, the previous revolutionary period was demonized as much as possible and “to be rich is glorious” became the official ideology. The “old” revolution doctrines were considered to become outdated or extremist or even “reactionary” for China’s enlightenment/development.

Plus, in a short period, the unleashed market brought some positive changes to the life of Chinese people while some key elements of socialism were maintained, like nearly full employment. Therefore, the intellectuals as well as many working class people believed the “reform” was the way to go. The major contradiction of China, at that time, was believed to be the pure conflict of the old regime and reform.

Of course, everything changed when the economic reform reached much difficulty in the late 1980s. Huge inflation unprecedented to Socialist China greatly affected people’s life, no need to mention that the increasing income polarization and huge corruption always came hand in hand with marketization. People became more and more suspicious about the ongoing reform and the CCP itself, which, combined with other political factors, led to the nationwide political demonstrations in 1989 which also happened in other Soviet countries. The difference was that in China the movement was soon defeated by the military force. This brought an end to the chaotic 1980s.

Although the 1989 movement itself was due to many negative outcomes of the neo-liberal turn of the CCP, there were no real self-conscious leftists by that time and no Marxist solution was provided. Instead, the vision from the petty bourgeois leaders of the movement was neo-liberal capitalism, not much different from the CCP itself in essence. Indeed, after a short 3-year break, in 1992 CCP began to officially embrace “market economy”, and the shift to capitalism was accelerated greatly. It was from here that political oppositions to the current neo-liberal model began to emerge.

Many Chinese intellectuals referred to the 1980s as their good old time since that was the only decade when most Chinese intellectuals seemed to have a consensus, clearly a right wing one. It was not the case anymore since the 1990s, when some people began to re-evaluate the transition to capitalism and re-appreciate the importance of the socialist period from 1949 to 1979. These people were not alone. The whole society was going through a thorough structural adjustment and workers and peasants bore all the costs. In the urban sector, millions lost their lifetime jobs because of the privatization and the working class began their nationwide struggles since then. These depressed, extremely exploited people still remembered clearly their good days under a socialist society, so they had nothing but socialism as their goal. In the countryside, the tension between peasants and state was palpable because of the stagnant revenue in face of increasing expenses and corrupted, sometimes violent local bureaucracy. The long process of fighting the neo-liberal turn to capitalism gave birth to the post-Mao Chinese left inside workers, peasants and petty bourgeoisie (including intelligentsia). The late goodbye to the “golden” 1980s actually announced a new era of modern China’s political history.

There are, broadly speaking, three most important sources of leftists in today’s China. They share some of their politics, but still differ on a number of ones.

The first group was the veteran of the Chinese Revolution in the last century. Many of them experienced civil war, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and maybe once supported the neo-liberal transition, but gradually began to stand against it. Although they are not part of the ruling class because of their politics, they still have relatively closer relationship with the CCP than others.

The veterans share socialism as their goal although their interpretations might be very different (from Soviet model to more radical versions). They also have complicated attitudes towards the CCP, on the one hand, they dislike the political program of the current regime, on the other hand, it was once a revolutionary party that they joined for the good of the people. So within the group there are divergent opinions, some try to believe that CCP can be steered towards socialism again (if the top leaders change minds, for example), and the rest gradually lean towards the idea that a thorough reform or revolution is needed to build socialism.

The second group came from the intellectual/petty bourgeoisie. They were part of the privileged people in the 1980s when the CCP tried to build a political coalition with them in order to isolate workers and peasants. However, with the good 1980s gone, petty bourgeoisie’s political weight decreased gradually because the CCP has already defeated the workers and peasants. The deepening of marketization and privatization has made them the new victims.

The intellectual/petty bourgeoisie group does not have a general political goal; often times their politics is a combination of several distinct elements, including the “new left” tradition from the west, nationalist sentiment and some parts of the Chinese revolutionary tradition from the Mao era. Radicalized ones tend to work with workers and other leftists to build future revolutionary path to socialism, while more liberal people prefer some sort of social democracy/regulated capitalism and put their hope in the peaceful changes from above.

The last group has its roots in workers, including the ones who had experiences under socialist period and the ones who became workers in more recent time. Workers have a natural tendency to be hostile to capitalism, in particular, the Chinese workers suffered greatly during the transition to capitalism; but they as a class did not become conscious until the nationwide layoff in the 1990s. The older generation saw the huge contrast between the Mao era and the current era, so they had very strong will to rebuild socialism in China; the younger generation only has experiences under capitalism, and generally they were not as politically sophisticated and organized as the older ones, but the severe exploitation by the new capitalist class make them resent the current regime.

In general, the workers, especially the old generation, are the most revolutionary ones in that they have nothing to lose in abolishing the current regime. Unlike the other two groups, they do not have any more hope in the ruling class as they have been hopelessly waiting for a “left turn” in recent two decades.

Therefore, the post-Mao left gradually formed two major camps as we have introduced at the beginning, differing on the nature of the CCP and means to achieve a better society. The radicalized parts of veterans and petty bourgeoisie joined the workers on overthrowing the current regime and constructing socialism (but not rejecting possible progressive reforms), while the more conservative parts of them gather around the goal of progressive reform (and exclusively reforms) under the current regime. The conflict has been there for a long while, but since the post-Mao left is relatively young and weak in various aspects and the dominant right-wing has been always very hostile towards any dissent, the two camps mostly worked together on the issues they share the same opinions, for example, they both oppose neo-liberalism and imperialism. Moreover, Mao is the flag held by all camps. As a side-note, although Mao has been demonized for so many years, his reputation remains extremely high among people, and increasingly so. In my experience, it is very rare nowadays to find an active Chinese leftist who is not a self-claimed Maoist, although the term “Maoist” might refer to different meanings.

This harmony between the “reform” camp and “revolution” camp could be maintained solely on the basis that the power of the left wing remains weak and the ruling class kept playing hardball with working class people. However, in recent years, the situation dramatically changed. First, a new wave of labor movement together with the world economic crisis greatly terrified the capitalists and the cadres, who are forced to begin changing their strategies to maintain order. The growing mass actions against the local government also manifest Chinese people’s huge resentment towards the current capitalist regime.

Second, as the contradiction of neo-liberalism unravels, lots of former middle or right-wing white collar/petty bourgeoisie people began joining the left wing. This significantly increases the impact of the left.

Not surprisingly, there arise politicians who deliberately behave more “left” than others. The most notable example is Bo Xilai, son of one of the former leaders of the CCP and currently the party leader of Chongqing Municipality, who started the huge campaign called “Praise Red & Destroy Black (chang hong da hei)” in recent years. The essence of the campaign is to destroy the gangs and maintain a good social order (destroy black) and educate people with so-called “red songs/books” which includes both revolutionary legacies and other purely old songs (praise red).

Bo, a charismatic cadre, likes to quote from Mao in his speeches and talk with passion and candidness like a revolutionary leader in those good old days. His programs and talks are well received among people and it is not very unrealistic to assume that he could easily win a national election if there is one. As a matter of fact, Bo’s program is a clearly capitalist one; there is nothing changed in the economic model, they embrace sweatshops and big capital just like other places do. The improvements like providing low-rent public housing and a safer society are pretty limited. Bo is definitely not building socialism (besides his lip service), although a good number of leftists try to convince themselves that he is the one (or one of the ones).

All these new factors contribute to the end of the harmony. Lots of signs suggest that left wing now has more say in the politics and even some of the high level cadres began to send a “leftist” message to people. This inevitably reinforces the confidence of “reform” camp in restoring socialism via the CCP as if the party is a neutral vehicle which can be turning left or right depending on the leaders. They began praising Bo Xilai and others as true socialist leaders who inherit the legacy of Mao and follow the revolutionary tradition. However, the other camp points out that the “left turn” is both very limited in its scope and opportunistic in its practice, and they find it unacceptable to be a political instrument of the ruling class. Thus it is only a matter of time for the fights between the two camps to start.

Based on this context, the internal struggles among the Chinese left are nothing but the natural results of the development of the left and the decline of the neo-liberalism. Its implications are twofold. First, it implies the leftist impact in China has reached a new high level due to the people’s continuing struggles against capitalism, and even part of the ruling class begin to “turn left” on purpose. Second, the left wing is now facing a historical moment; if the “reform” camp wins, the Chinese left wing will become a political partner of the CCP and cease to be a revolutionary force; but if the “revolution” camp successfully radicalizes the left wing, then the Chinese left should be able to play an important role in binging an end to neo-liberalism and capitalism in general in China and the world.

Some factors are likely to have significant impacts on the “choice”. First, is a Chinese version of welfare state possible in the near future? In other words, is the Chinese bourgeoisie willing and able to give up some of their privileges and redistribute part of their profits and rents to the working class? Second, is the Chinese left able to figure out new ways to mobilize and organize the mass as the early CCP cadres successfully did 80 years ago? My answers to these two questions are no and yes, but of course only time and practice can tell the results.



23/09/2011 / CHINA


A group of Maoists commemorating the 35th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s death in the northern Chinese city of Taiyuan was violently broken up by police. Chinese authorities have no patience for these Mao-lovers, who seem to have forgotten the former communist leader’s authoritarian streak and retained only the idyllic vision of a fairer society. One Chinese Maoist gives us his account.
The unrest occurred on September 9, when several dozen Maoists gathered in Taiyuan, chanted revolutionary slogans and delivered inflammatory speeches based on Mao’s Little Red Book. At the end of the demonstration, police tried to arrest the leader of the movement. Other protesters rallied to protect him, shouting “Long live Chairman Mao!” Nine people were arrested, but the organiser managed to escape. Most participants were active members of the website “Utopia”, the biggest leftist forum on the Chinese Web.
For this new generation of Maoists, the Chinese Communist Party has betrayed their leader’s roots by succumbing to capitalism and world trade. As a result foreign companies have been allowed to run amok in China, exploiting the country’s low-paid workers and wreaking havoc on the environment. In today's China, where disparities between groups are rapidly growing, Maoists are attracting an ever-growing following among the poor and working classes, which have been hard hit by unemployment and inflation. Their growing popularity, however, has also drawn the wrath of local authorities.
Though he has been gone for over 30 years, Mao’s legacy is still controversial. His supporters mainly remember the progress made under his rule, from 1949 to 1976 – rapid industrialisation, improved literacy, lower death rates… Yet they overlook the era’s darker chapters.
Mao imposed a Soviet-style rule on China, with a one-party system and economic collectivism. His vision of a ‘great leap forward’ is widely considered to have had catastrophic effects, leading to one of the biggest famines in the country’s history. In 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to ‘purge’ the party of its ‘political enemies’. Overall, Mao’s rule is believed to be one of the deadliest periods in Chinese history, with an estimated 50 to 70 million deaths.
Maoists commemorate the death of former communist leader, Mao Zedong, before being arrested by police in the city of Taiyuan in China's Shanxi province.

“A small group of people controls the country and exploits the rest of the population”

Hua Quiao was born in 1972 and lives in Shanghai. He’s a Maoist photographer and activist, and blogs for the website Utopia. Although members of Utopia usually avoid speaking to the foreign press, he agreed to speak to us through an interpreter.
I’m a Maoist, and I feel both leftist and socially conservative. Utopia, the website I write for, owns a bookstore in Beijing. That’s sort of our headquarters. But our ideology is very controversial in modern-day China, and it’s often simpler and safer for us to communicate online.
Today, the structure of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 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.
"Some associate Maoism with a difficult period of our country's history"
Before his death, Mao predicted that capitalism would make a comeback in the country. That’s exactly what happened. Nevertheless, some members of the CCP [such as Bo Xilai, the leader of the communist party in the province of Chongqing] are once again leaning more toward the left. Of course, some still associate Maoism with a difficult period of our country’s history.
"Capitalism poses many problems, especially in terms of social equality"
Nevertheless, the results of 30 years of ‘reform’ and opening up the world markets [ a shift begun in the 1980s by one of Mao’s successors, Deng Xiaoping], are mixed at best. Yes, living standards have improved for some, and people have more freedom. But the gap between the rich and the poor widens every day. I experienced China coming onto the world market in the 1980s, and entering the World Trade Organisation in 2000. My conclusion is that capitalism poses many problems, especially in terms of social equaliy.
Today, people use Mao’s teachings and theories to express their discontent against the government. That’s what irritates authorities, and they remain very wary of our movement. [According to another of our Observers in China, the CCP uses Mao’s image to serve its own purposes, but when Maoists refer to him to express their discontent, they are immediately silenced]. Mao didn’t deliver the solutions to all of our socio-economic problems. These solutions must come from confrontation and debate different political forces. Only a multi-party system will allow our country to move forward.
There are many small informal political groups these days, but they’re not allowed to be parties so to speak of. They communicate and spread their ideas on the Web, sometimes on the field. Some even form alliances. I know that Shanghai police closely monitor members of these groups on a daily basis.
I personally created a virtual political group : ‘The party of the Chinese Revolution’. I’ve been contacted several times by police, but so far it hasn’t gone any further. I signed Liu Xiabao’s Charter 08 for democratic reform because I agree with most of his principles. Of course, some Maoists are opposed to a multi-party system. But I think the core principles of our ideology are based on human rights, freedom and expression and democracy. We will head in that direction".

"The Maoists are idealists"

Chan Wenting is a student in the Chinese city of Xian.
The maoists are very active on Chinese social networks. They prole social justice and equality, but to me they are idealists. I’m a little sick of websites like Utopia. It’s users attack or insult readers who don’t share their beliefs or seem too 'western' to them. They call them 'traitors'. But I think their arguments don’t stand, I don’t take them seriously.
However, even though I don’t agree with them,I think they should be free to express their opinion. In Mao’s day, politicians were less greedy and there was little or no corruption. But knowing and appreciating that does not mean going back to that system. Life was particularly hard at that time.”

Cheng Wenting

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ségolène Malterre.


BEIJING — “At the center of the center of China lies a corpse that nobody dares remove.”

So runs the memorable opening line of “Behind the Forbidden Door,” a book published in 1985 by the Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani.

Today, 35 years after Mao Zedong’s death, his corpse still lies in the grandiose Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in the center of Tiananmen Square, the granite plain that is the symbolic center of this nation of more than 1.3 billion. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people stand in line, sometimes for hours, to view, for a few seconds, the embalmed body of the man so many Chinese still revere.

Yet 45 years ago, on May 16, 1966, this same man began the Cultural Revolution, an orgy of political violence that killed perhaps two million Chinese.

Mao’s preeminence in China is linked to his role in founding the People’s Republic in 1949. Yet his controversial political legacy, of which the Cultural Revolution is just one example, is growing more, not less, disputed, with time.

At stake is nothing less than long-stalled political reform, say some Chinese analysts and retired Communist Party officials.

“An honest, earnest, serious assessment of Mao based on facts” is “necessary,” Yawei Liu, director of the Carter Center’s China Program in Atlanta, said in an e-mail.

Mao’s legacy overshadows China to this day, so “without such a thorough verdict, it would be hard for China to launch meaningful political reform,” Mr. Liu said.

In China, the debate over Mao’s legacy is growing increasingly heated, conducted via Web sites, articles and books.

Broadly, liberals and pro-market forces stand on one side; leftists and Maoists on the other. The leftists, perhaps better organized, operate scores of Web sites, including the popular Utopia (www.wyzxsx.com), Mao Zedong Flag (www.maoflag.net) and Red China (www.redchinacn.com).

Behind this florescence of often-aggressive debate lies the pressure of decades of fast economic growth on the country’s rigid political framework, little changed since Mao’s day. The government has responded by trying to better manage social conflict and increasing repression.

The liberal faction harbors a wide range of opinion. Some see Mao as a deeply flawed figure who had his achievements. Others see him as merely power-mad, even a Machiavellian killer.

Leftists see Mao as a symbol of days when people were more equal and many things, including basic social services, were free or subsidized. Curiously, some rich businessmen belong here, too, having benefited enormously from the political stasis of the last decades.

A recent essay by the liberal economist Mao Yushi, “Returning Mao Zedong to his Original Person,” has highlighted the controversy.

Mr. Mao, who is no relation to Mao Zedong, accused the former leader of hypocrisy and unusual cruelty.

The Cultural Revolution was merely a ploy to destroy his many critics after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward famine, which killed around 30 million people, Mr. Mao wrote.

Evidence of cruelty is found, for example, in Mao’s indifference to the fate of friends he drove to suicide, wrote the economist, and that of President Liu Shaoqi, whom Mao first attacked, then pretended to save, only to have Mr. Liu expelled from the party on his 70th birthday, before dying, untended, in jail in 1969.

A document circulating online purporting to detail a proposal by top Communist Party officials to remove Mao Zedong Thought from party work, documents and policies, has also sharpened debate.

The supposed Politburo document, No. 179, dated Dec. 28, 2010, is said to have been proposed by Xi Jinping, the man expected to become China’s next president, and Wu Bangguo, the head of the National People’s Congress.

Even if a hoax — the internal workings of the Politburo are almost entirely opaque, and it is almost impossible to verify its authenticity — the document has refocused attention on the issue of Mao’s legacy among commentators and party officials.

A retired official at China’s National Defense University, Xin Ziling, reportedly called the document a “turning point” in Chinese politics, in an interview circulating on the Web. Mr. Xin could not be reached for comment.

“All this stuff indicates how central Mao is to China’s political orthodoxy,” said Mr. Liu of the Carter Center. “A clear verdict and break with Mao will pave the way for real political reform to take place.”

Leftists have reacted strongly to Mr. Mao’s essay, and the apparent move to delete Mao from official ideology. Some said that Mr. Mao, the economist, should provide evidence of his claims, or face the courts. Others reflected on the political value of Mao for the party.

“Separated from Mao, the Communist Party has no glory left!” said one commentator, Li Lin, in a typical entry on maoflag.net.

In Tiananmen Square on Sunday, Wang Yanjuan, 50, was one of thousands inching forward in line outside the mausoleum.

“For us, Mao Zedong is the founder of our country. We deeply admire him. He lives in our hearts,” said Ms. Wang, who is from the northeastern city of Shenyang. “In his day, education was free,” she added.

Her 76-year-old mother, in Beijing for the first time, had only one request: to see Mao’s body. “She doesn’t want to do anything else,” Ms. Wang said. “When we’ve done this, we can go home.”

Inside the mausoleum, suddenly, he’s there, flat on his back inside a thick crystal coffin. His face glows orangeish under bright lights.

His springy gray hair is neatly combed back at the sides. He is dressed in a gray tunic, the Communist Party flag — gold hammer and sickle on a red background — draping his body from the chest down. An armed honor guard of two soldiers stares somberly ahead.

Back outside, Ms. Wang, for whom this is a second visit, appeared satisfied. “That was very good,” she said.

What does her mother think?

“It’s the same for her. Very good,” Ms. Wang said. But, pointing at her 20-year-old daughter, up ahead, she said: “My daughter, she’s young and doesn’t care so much. I don’t think young people could accept Mao’s times as we did.”