The unofficial cult of Mao: instability in modern China

Charlie Hore places the recent construction and destruction of a giant statue of Mao Zedong in the context of the instability facing the Chinese ruling class

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Blink and you may have missed it, but there is already a contender for the strangest news story of 2016.

In early January, pictures began circulating of a massive statue of Mao Zedong (China’s leader from 1949 until his death in 1976) built in a field in the Chinese countryside.  The 36 metre high gold-painted statue appeared in the middle of fields in the otherwise unremarkable village of Zhushigang, Henan province, some 700 kilometres south of Beijing.

Why the local entrepreneur who reportedly spent the equivalent of £300,000 on the statue did so is unclear. The area has no tourist industry, and no historical link with Mao. It attracted widespread online criticism, with some commentators pointing out better uses for the money (140 times the province’s annual average industrial wage), and others mocking it for looking as though he was sat on a lavatory.

And now it’s gone. Within a couple of days of the pictures circulating, county authorities demolished it, claiming it had failed to get the ‘proper approval’, prompting inevitable references to Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’.

Whatever the reasons for its sudden appearance and equally sudden demolition, it has highlighted the very contradictory position that Mao occupies in today’s China.

Mao is still officially honoured as the founder of the People’s Republic and leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – his face is on all banknotes, there are statues of him everywhere, and there is a flourishing tourist industry based on his hometown of Shaoshan, Hunan province.

But there is also a growing unofficial cult, as the CCP-owned tabloid Global Times reported recently.  Over the last 20 years, nostalgia for Mao-era China has become a way of expressing discontent with the huge inequality and corruption that mark present-day China: “Under Mao, we were poor, but everyone was poor.” “In Mao’s day, officials were honest and didn’t steal.” That nostalgia is particularly pronounced among the 80 million former state industry workers who have lost their jobs in economic ‘reforms’ (as documented in Mun Young Cho, ‘The spectre of “the people”, Cornell University Press, 2013 and Au Loong Yu, China’s rise: strength and fragility, Merlin Press, 2012).

Serve the people?

Mao’s appeal isn’t limited to those old enough to remember the 1960s and 1970s – many people who want to organise against inequality and workers’ conditions today look to Mao for inspiration, as an American leftist Robert Weil described in 2006.

There are, for example, secretive chat-sites run for migrant workers by people who take their political inspiration from Mao. It’s impossible to know how widespread their use is, or what they contribute to organisation, but certainly in the big auto workers’ strikes of 2010 such sites were used to co-ordinate actions and exchange information between workers in different cities.

It’s not difficult to see the direct political appeal of Maoism for those in China. Mao organised the Cultural Revolution ostensibly to oppose “those people in power who are taking the capitalist road” – a phrase that might have been coined for Xi Jinping and his predecessors since Mao’s death.  In a country where the CCP still clamps down hard on any overt opposition to its rule, Maoism is the only critical political set of political ideas that people have easy access to. And as the awful realities of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution fade from memory, it’s easier to paint Mao’s heyday as a time when idealism and equality dominated.

There are parallels here with the recent rise in Stalin’s popularity in Russia – most obviously in that both are taken as symbols of national pride and prestige. But where in Russia that works wholly to Putin’s advantage, as he positions himself as a national hero in the line of Alexander the Great and Stalin, in China it’s more contradictory. Nationalism today works as the strongest ideological link between China’s ruler and its population, but it can also be a vehicle for expressing opposition to the government and the CCP. That’s why China’s rulers are hostile to any unsanctioned expression of political activity or ideas from below – they assume that anything they have not initiated will be hostile.

A single spark?

The ruling class had an awful year in 2015, and 2016 is shaping up to be little better. The year ended with a construction waste mountain collapsing in Shenzhen, killing at least 70 people. Following so soon after the massive chemical explosion in Tianjin city in August  and reports of the worst ever air pollution in Beijing, it showed not just the environmental damage that China’s runaway growth has done, but also the extent to which the government is unable to control the consequences of that growth.

That same lack of control was evident in the (mis)-management of the stock-market crashes. After they tried and failed twice to halt the slide in the summer, the ‘circuit-breaker’, put in place in the new year to halt trading if stocks fell more than a certain percentage, was triggered twice in just seven minutes!  And those falls have in turn driven falls on stock markets across the world in fear of what might happen to the Chinese economy.

The announcement that last year’s official growth rate of 6.9% was the worst since 1990 was simply the latest indicator that something is seriously wrong. Years of high investment have led to debt rising to some 200 or 250% of GDP; currency reserves are being spent at a faster rate than ever before; export trade is shrinking; and industrial profits fell for most of 2015.  There’s no question that the Chinese economy is experiencing its worst slowdown since 2008 – and this time, the government can’t boost it with massive state spending.

That slowdown is now having a major impact on those countries that have grown in recent years through selling commodities to China – Australia, Brazil and Chile, to name but three, are all facing the possibility of recession as Chinese demand slows. The currency devaluation announced in the summer is both an expression of China’s fears for the world economy, and a measure to improve China’s competitive position at the expense of its rivals.

There have also been serious setbacks in diplomatic and military matters. China’s aggressive pursuit of claims over islands in the South China Sea has driven a number of its neighbours to look to Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ as a source of protection.  And the same fears are also boosting support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the other prong of Obama’s China strategy, as a counter to China’s economic power in east Asia.

It’s not all bad news, of course. The IMF’s decision to make the yuan one of the world’s reserve currencies is a belated recognition of the power of the Chinese economy,  and the launch of the Asian Investment Development Bank in the face of US hostility similarly shows the extent of China’s ‘soft power’ in the region.

But the overall outlook is bleak, and has not been lightened by the Taiwanese Presidential election, which has just unseated one of Beijing’s closest allies in part because of fears about China’s influence in Taiwan.

Contradictions among the people?

Domestically, that growing nervousness has been shown in a rise in authoritarianism, with Xi Jinping’s campaign against official corruption (which has claimed a number of very high-profile victims) being used increasingly to hit at opponents inside the CCP, while there has also been a wholesale attack on the legal profession, the bizarre case of the five Hong Kong booksellers who sold books critical of China’s leaders seemingly kidnapped by China  and growing attacks on workers’ rights activists and organisations.

The attacks on labour activists came in a year that has seen recorded strikes double from the 2014 total, with a noticeable increase towards the end of the year. Two-thirds of them in are construction and manufacturing, with the vast majority being defensive, often over failure to pay wages or wage cuts. Employers are tightening the screws as profits fall, but unlike 2008, where the crash was so sudden that factories just closed overnight, allowing workers no space to fight back, the downturn is taking place more slowly. As a number of recent studies have shown Chinese workers retain a capacity and a willingness to fight back against individual employers, even though almost all forms of unofficial organisation are banned.

Strikes are part of a wider pattern of ‘mass group incidents’ – demonstrations, riots and protests – which arise from a multiplicity of localised causes such as illegal land sales in villages, official corruption, pollution and environmental concerns , and nationalist rejection of Chinese rule in the western areas of Tibet and Xinjiang.

These protests aren’t part of one overall movement, and there is no automatic solidarity between one issue and another – especially not over Tibet and Xinjiang, where most Chinese workers and peasants would side with the Chinese government. But the various eruptions are rooted in the same social and economic conditions, in particular the massive increase in inequality over the last 20 years, which has led to the poorest quarter of Chinese households owning just 1% of China’s wealth.

As the saying goes ‘Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not after you’. A statue of a dead ruler in a field in the middle of nowhere isn’t the most obvious challenge to one of the world’s most powerful states – but could it become a rallying point for opposition? What China’s rulers fear more than anything else is the emergence of something that can pull together all those who are dissatisfied for different reasons, as the student revolt did in 1989.

And there is a very faint echo of Tiananmen Square here. One of the last acts of the students occupying the square was to erect a statue of the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ on 30 May, a sign that they were intending to continue occupying the square in central Beijing, and the act which probably triggered the decision to send in the army on 4 June. The Mao statue was almost certainly not a reference to that – but who knows whether the connection would have been made if it had stayed up? We will never know the precise reasons why Mao’s successors destroyed the statue – but its destruction gives some indication of how nervous about the future they are. China’s century is turning out to be a remarkably unstable one.

There are 2 comments

  1. Maodun

    Who cares about the student statue in 1989 – if you want to create some historical linkage between this bizarre statue and the 1989 protests then you don’;t have to go that far, we can simpyy point out the much more relevant and important fact that the process of restructuring was still ongoing in 1989 and had not yet reached the point of actually pressing state-owned enterprises into privatization, being instead centered around the introduction of contracts and the stepping-up of workplace discipline, and for that reason the worker participants in the 1989 protests carried pictures of Chairman Mao, shouted his slogans, and formulated their demands and protest tactics in a form that was recognizably derived from the experiences of the Cultural Revolution. And therein lies the clue that Charlie Hore is simply wrong to try and create a forced equivalence between the status of Mao in contemporary China and the nationalist fetishization of Stalin in Russia – because Mao as a symbol and source of legitimization has been involved in oppositional protests and movements in a way that has never been true of Stalin in post-Soviet Russia, and that fact in turn does ultimate reflect very important difference sin the political and historical trajectories of the PRC and the Soviet Union, namely that the PRC under Maoism did embody more space and opportunities for struggles outside the direct remit of the state, and that Mao as a thinker is vastly more complex and theoretically interesting than Stalin could ever be.

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