Last week, self-proclaimed Marxist labour activists across China were rounded up by the authorities. Many were students or graduates of some of the country’s most prestigious universities.
Peking University – my own alma mater – has reportedly taken extreme measures to prevent further dissent. In late October, Cornell University cancelled exchange agreements with Renmin University following its blacklisting and surveillance of known student labour activists.
These are the latest developments in an ongoing crackdown on labour activism that began in July when attempts by employees of a Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen to form a union were met with physical abuse and arrest. Student activists formed the Jasic Workers Solidarity Group, writing open letters, and demonstrating and petitioning on their behalf. These protests gained the support of older Maoists, who brandished portraits of Mao and placards declaring the workers’ innocence.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s position is clear. Party-run People’s Dailyargued the Jasic workers had acted illegally, with some allegedly using force to barge onto company premises, and in their effort to form an independent trade union (current regulations stipulate that all unions must be registered with the state-affiliated All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which has been criticised for inadequately representing workers’ interests). People’s Daily also claimed the workers’ cause had been hijacked by “external forces” and “ulterior motives”, including funding from an unregistered Western NGO.
These developments highlight a fundamental contradiction between the image of itself the Party has promulgated and the underlying substance of its governance model.
The 1982 amendments to the constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) indicated that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had set upon a path to evolve from a party of revolution to one of governance. This was the difficult mission led by Deng Xiaoping, following the death and destruction wrought by the decade-long Cultural Revolution and the excesses of Mao’s cult of personality.
China needed stability in order to recover from the chaos and tragedy enacted under Mao’s rule. The Party agreed to build strong institutions and introduce a so-called ‘collective leadership’ system to ensure this stability and prevent the the concentration of power in any one individual.
The 1982 constitutional amendments reinstated the then-defunct position of President (or ‘State Chairman’) and mandated a limit of two consecutive, five-year terms for the President, Vice President and National People’s Congress (NPC) members. This encouraged incumbent leaders to groom protégés to take up the mantle after their time was up.
China’s internal politics is notoriously opaque. Nevertheless, for more than three decades Sinologists and scholars relied on these conventions for clues into the CCP’s machinations. Such assumptions have now completely eroded with the CCP’s proposal, announced on 25 February, to remove the term limit clause from the constitution.
A couple of hours before state news agency Xinhua broke the news, it ran this brief article:
Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, stressed the important role of the Constitution.
‘No organization or individual has the power to overstep the Constitution or the law,’ Xi said on Saturday when presiding over a group study session of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee.
But Party leaders would not be ‘overstepping’ if they act within the re-written rules.
When the elimination of the term limit clause is considered in conjunction with other proposed constitutional amendments, it is clear the Party is making institutional changes to cement its control over all aspects of state decision-making.
The 19th Party Congress closed earlier this week with the announcement that ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ would be enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) charter. This eponymous ideological contribution is the first since ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’ was posthumously written into the charter in 1997, and the only ‘Thought’ since ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ was introduced as the CCP’s guiding ideology in 1945.
Even before this announcement, commentators were drawing comparisons between Xi and Mao. Australian scholar Geremie Barmé calls Xi the ‘Chairman of Everything’. Since early last year, such allusions have become popular, especially following Xi’s designation as the Party’s ‘Core Leader’ in March. Xi’s anti-corruption drive, which some argue is being used to consolidate his personal power by purging rivals, is also reminiscent of Mao’s campaigns.
An official state media release suggests that the Party charter will not shorten Xi’s contribution to the more pithy ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the same vein as ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ or ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’, but maintain its full, somewhat awkward title. This is a small but significant detail.
George Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Politics and the English language’ that ‘political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. In political language, Orwell said, ‘one almost never finds a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech’. This is especially true of the CCP’s carefully cultivated and scripted political language.
All political movements and institutions face decisions of continuity and change. The CCP leadership understands that at certain times it must change, or at least be seen to be doing so, in order to continue to rule. Evolution rather than revolution has been a bastion of China’s political life since Deng Xiaoping took the helm. The CCP’s political language is instrumental – it enables those in power to take ownership of certain ideas in order to increase their potency, and justify the Party’s continuity and change. Thus, each generation of leaders espouses a ‘new’ ideology, which is in fact simply an extension of and improvement upon their predecessors’.
For all Party leaders since Deng Xiaoping, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has been the guiding light.
On 18 October the Chinese Communist Party began its weeklong, quinquennial Party Congress.
My comments to the Agence-France Presse (AFP) appeared in SBS News.
But Xi may lobby to retain his 69-year-old right-hand man Wang Qishan, who heads the leader’s signature anti-graft campaign. This would create a precedent for Xi himself to remain in charge beyond retirement age in 2022.
“If Xi expresses intent to lead beyond his 10-year limit, this would be reminiscent of the Mao era, which would be damaging to Xi’s legacy and call his legitimacy into question,” said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Sydney-based researcher and co-author of China and the New Maoists.
On 24 July China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection officially announced that former Chongqing Party Chief Sun Zhengcai has been placed under investigation for ‘serious discipline violation’.
My comments to the Agence-France Presse (AFP) appeared inthe Daily Mail.
Sun, who had kept a low profile, had even been touted as Xi’s potential successor, said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Sydney-based researcher and co-author of “China and the New Maoists”.
“His downfall signals a growing sense of insecurity among Xi and his followers,” van Nieuwenhuizen told AFP.
While the exact reasons for his fall are unknown, “we do know however that Sun had been promoted as a protege of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao,” she said.
“Xi could therefore consider Sun a threat to his own agenda and political ambitions; other proteges of Hu have also previously been held back from seeking higher positions under Xi.”
For China, 2016 is a year of anniversaries. It’s been 95 years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), 50 years since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and 40 years since the death of Mao Zedong, Communist China’s founding father.
More than ever, the CCP is fighting for control over its historical narrative. This struggle is perhaps manifested most acutely in the treatment of Mao; the CCP continues to walk a tightrope of being unable to refute Mao’s legacy (given Mao’s role in legitimising the CCP), yet wanting to prevent the resurrection of his cult of personality status.
As long as the CCP continues to conveniently distort the truth about the extent of destruction enacted at the hands of Mao and silence scholarly inquiry, it risks giving ultra-nationalists license to monopolise the interpretation of Communist China’s history and glorify Mao’s legacy, including the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This would ultimately threaten the CCP’s current mandate of maintaining social stability and developing a so-called ‘moderately prosperous society’.
Despite wishing to act as the final arbiter of its history, the CCP has never completely clarified what constitutes ‘accurate’ or ‘inaccurate’ interpretations of Mao’s legacy. ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ remains enshrined in China’s constitution. The famous 1981 Resolution on Party Historical Issues, released five years after Mao’s death, states that he ‘made gross mistakes during the “cultural revolution”, but, if we judge his activities as a whole… his merits are primary and his errors secondary’.
Speaking in December 2013 to mark Mao’s 120th birthday, President Xi Jinping remarked that simply ‘because leaders made mistakes, one cannot use these mistakes to completely negate their legacies, wipe out historical successes, and descend into the quagmire of historical nihilism’.
Over the past few years, several neo-Maoist websites have attracted strong followings. The most popular of these,Utopia, is home to daily commentary from public figures extolling the virtues of Mao Zedong Thought.
In April 2015, Bi Fujian, TV personality and former host of CCTV’s annual Chinese New Year Gala, was secretly filmed mocking Mao in a sarcastic rendition of a Cultural Revolution-era song at a private dinner function. He was subsequently shamed and sacked for ‘serious violation of political discipline’.
On 2 May, a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution was staged in the iconic Great Hall of the People, where Chinese leaders deliver important addresses, political meetings are held, and foreign dignitaries are hosted as guests of the state. The concert featured a selection of 30 ‘red’ songs performed by girl group 56 Flowers. The songs included ‘Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman’, an ode to the power of Mao Zedong Thought, and were set against a backdrop of propagandistic imagery and slogans from the era.
Following public outrage at the celebration of the Cultural Revolution’s ‘ten years of turmoil’, the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre issued a statement claiming its management was duped by an organisation fraudulently using the name of a CCP propaganda office to stage the performance. However, state media in fact actively promoted the concert in advance. Indeed, it would have been impossible for the performance to go ahead (especially at such a significant venue at such a politically sensitive time) without the express approval of relevant CCP organs.
This struggle over history extends beyond China’s shores and directly affects overseas Chinese communities, many of whom experienced the devastation of Mao’s policies first hand. In response to planned Mao tribute concerts at the Sydney and Melbourne Town Halls, almost 3000 people signed an online petition to stop it from going ahead. At a small media event held by the concert’s organisers on 25 May, several angry members of the Australian Chinese community turned up in protest. The performances have since been cancelled, with the City of Sydney citing ‘concerns regarding the potential for civil disturbance’.
While Xi has warned against society’s descent into ‘the quagmire of historical nihilism’, the CCP should perhaps be more concerned about extricating itself from the quagmire of neo-Maoism. Extensive measures are taken to silence advocates of democratic reform, but conservative voices could potentially become China’s most destabilising force. The CCP is currently ill-equipped to address this possibility.
The book was co-authored with Professor Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London.
The book explores Mao Zedong’s enduring symbolic and political importance, and the impact of Maoist ideas in popular online and social media. It also examines the state’s efforts to draw on Mao’s image as a source of legitimacy, even as it attempts to control and sanitise his influence.
Stanford University’s Andrew G. Walder described China and the New Maoists as
… a lucid and absorbing account of the Party’s fumbling attempts, in the authors’ words, to ‘extricate itself from the quagmire of neo-Maoism.’
Julia Lovell, literary translator and lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, called the book
[a]n extraordinarily concise, informative and insightful account of the legacies of Mao Zedong for contemporary China… They have written an essential guide to one of the key political, cultural, social and economic conundrums of China today.
China and the New Maoists is available for purchase online and in bookstores.