China marked Mao Zedong’s 120th birth anniversary on December 26. How do leading Chinese intellectuals look at the reform path ahead for the country? In the first of a series, liberal economist Mao Yushi speaks of threats to political and economic reforms from interest groups

The Communist Party of China (CPC) finds itself in an awkward position as it goes forward after commemorating the 120th birth anniversary of the most important of its founding fathers. A year ago, the CPC’s propaganda chiefs decreed that Mao Zedong’s 120th birth anniversary, which fell on December 26, would be celebrated with fanfare, aimed at underlining the Great Helmsman’s lasting contributions in founding a new China and, at the same time, boosting the party’s legitimacy at a time when it is struggling to renew its ideological appeal.

But in the weeks leading up to the anniversary, the party appeared to have had a change of heart. First, the official broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV), said it would cancel a long-planned 100-episode television series about the life of Mao, scheduled to coincide with his birth anniversary. Then, the CPC’s new leader, President Xi Jinping, on a visit to Mao’s native Hunan province told provincial officials any planned celebrations needed to be “pragmatic.”

Divisive issue

What is clear is that Mao’s legacy continues to be a divisive issue in China. For those on the conservative Left, Mao’s political authoritarianism is often framed as a platform to oppose economic and political reforms, which they view as a fundamental threat to the party’s future. Those on the liberal Right, who favour market reforms and political loosening, see his persisting political legacy as an obstacle.

The Party under Mr. Xi finds itself caught in the middle, the respected economist Mao Yushi told The Hindu in an interview. “Today,” he said, “the party is facing many contradictions. Mao Zedong’s path, and the CPC’s path, are different. Mao Zedong believed in the need to establish an equal society. Now we have an unequal society. Mao believed in Communism. Today, the party follows Capitalism. So there is a contradiction.”

Mao Yushi has, over the past two decades, become one of China’s most influential intellectuals. An economist by training, the 84-year-old retired scholar (no relation to Mao Zedong) heads the pro-reform Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing, which he established with four other economists two decades ago when China was beginning to embark on its second round of reforms. Famed in China as an economist — several of his works have become best-sellers there — he has also emerged as the country’s most prominent critic of Maoism in recent years. Two years ago, he faced threats to his life as several thousand Mao supporters put forward a petition demanding his arrest after he wrote a brave article criticising Mao’s legacy. Unsurprisingly, he sees “Mao’s supporters” as “the biggest threat” to the CPC — and one reason behind the restrained celebrations this year. “Mao’s supporters think our road today is completely wrong. So there is no way the ruling party can celebrate this anniversary as a big event.”

Going forward

Professor Mao sees the party’s new leader, Mr. Xi Jinping, who has now been in office for a little over a year, as appearing “confused” about plotting a course forward, leaving “both liberals and Maoists disappointed.” On Thursday, December 26, Mr. Xi seemed to attempt a careful balancing act in a speech at a symposium to mark Mao’s anniversary held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing — just about the only official event to commemorate the occasion. While he defended Mao’s legacy by describing him as “a great figure who changed the face of the nation and led the Chinese people to a new destiny,” he also said “revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings.”

In the year he has been in office, Mr. Xi has made clear he plans to go forward with economic reforms that include boosting the role of the market and trimming the power of the influential state-run sector, according to an ambitious blueprint unveiled at the Central Committee’s third plenum in November. Mr. Xi has himself sought to invoke comparisons with former leader Deng Xiaoping, who unveiled China’s reforms at another third plenum meeting, in 1978. At the same time, he also hit out at those questioning Mao Zedong’s legacy and seeking to negate the results of the first 30 years of the CPC’s history — a turbulent time that saw the Great Leap Forward (1958) that resulted in famine and tens of millions of deaths, and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) where Mao’s Red Guards persecuted millions.

State enterprises

Mao Yushi, however, believes that enabling the Chinese people to have a true understanding of Mao Zedong’s legacy is crucial for the country’s political future. In 2011, he penned an article arguing for the restoration of “Mao Zedong as a man,” highlighting his direct responsibility for the famine and the Cultural Revolution, events which find “no mention in our textbooks.” He said the first 30 years of new China were “a misery,” while “the backstage boss who destroyed the country still has his portrait on Tiananmen Square.” His article triggered a storm of controversy, angering Party mouthpieces, conservatives and the Left, but winning praise from historians and progressives. Although he faced death threats and calls from neo-Maoists for his arrest, the Chinese government did not take any action.

“The government tries to cover Mao’s crimes,” he said. “In textbooks, there is nothing about Mao’s crimes. It never talks about the three years’ great famine, how many people died. The young generation does not know the past history. The history they study is fabricated history, so it gets people’s ideas very confused” about the need for political reforms and democratisation. “The future of change in China on the political side,” he added, “depends on how big is the force of the pro-Mao people. Economic change depends on how strong vested interest groups are.”

He sees state-owned Enterprises (SOEs), which still control vast swathes of the economy, as the biggest interest group. “The SOEs sector — railways, energy, communication — is very strong. The price they set, whether the interest rate, or power price, is by themselves. So they earn a big profit, not because of their efficiency but because they monopolise the sector.” Mao Yushi and many other Chinese economists see SOE reform as a key step towards addressing China’s economic imbalances, as the country attempts to move away from a State-investment driven model, promote innovation and address widening inequality.

Mr. Xi, in the November plenum, took a tentative step towards curbing SOE power, by declaring they will have to return a greater share of their profits and opening them up to private capital. But Professor Mao says the move will not have much impact, pointing out that 20 years ago, when profits had to be returned to the government, SOEs simply “used up all their profits.”

“If you look at Singapore or France, SOEs are efficient because they are totally separated from the government. In our case, they are just one body, so this is the problem. Board members of these SOEs come from the government. They exchange positions because board members earn 10 million Yuan (Rs.10 crore) a year, but as a minister earn may be a hundred thousand. The board members are told by the government, ‘You take this position, earn 10 million year, come back after three years and let someone else take the position!’”

Professor Mao thinks that “economically it is clear China is going in the direction of a more open and liberal way.” “Politically, generally there are some improvements towards greater rule of law, but Mr. Xi’s long-term vision in political terms is not clear.” He believes that the decade under Mr. Xi may not “bring big reforms,” but “the next generation 10 years on could bring a big change.” “If you look at Taiwan, when officials who studied overseas came back and took high positions, like [President] Ma Ying-jeou, the political environment changed,” he said. “In China’s case, one or two ministers are overseas returned, but that number is going up very fast.”

ananth.krishnan@thehindu.co.in

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