Communiques from the CCP Politburo tend to be of interest to only the most committed China scholar or the most wretched insomniac. With the 18th Party Congress just two weeks away, however, several recent policy statements including an article in the Chinese Communist Party’s main ideological journal Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth) on October 16 have managed to attract attention for what they fail to mention: reference to Mao Zedong Thought.
The theories of Deng Xiaoping and the concept of “Scientific Development” associated with Hu Jintao remain, but the absence of Mao has led to a round of speculation as to what the omission might mean for the upcoming 18th Party Congress.
Some see this as a sign that the Party intends to commit itself to deeper reform than was previously thought. On Monday, the Party announced plans to amend its constitution and several statements issued in the last two weeks have emphasized the need for greater reform and touting the Party’s commitment to “democracy” during the upcoming congress. This has led to even wilder speculation that the party may be planning to drop Mao from the constitution altogether.
There are also suggestions that the omissions are the result of doctrinal feuds between competing Party factions, noting that Chongqing’s deposed Party Secretary Bo Xilai once wrapped his brand of leftist populism in the garb of Maoist nostalgia, the most famous example of which was urging citizens to sing “red songs” usually associated with the 1960s and the Cultural revolution.
But the decision to cut Mao from a few articles or party documents is not news. In the early 1980s, the Party rendered its historical verdict on the Mao years, proclaiming the Great Helmsman to have been 70% correct and 30% incorrect, even as Deng Xiaoping and his protégés were working to dismantle major parts of Mao’s legacy. Since that time references to Mao Zedong Thought have been in steady decline, reduced mostly to boilerplate attached to speeches and Party documents.
The actual moment of their disappearance from key Party-published materials, while eye-catching, does not mark any major political shift away from current policies. Rather it is a matter of rhetoric catching up with reality. It was long time ago that the Party jettisoned the concept of class-based revolution in favor of gradualist reform.
Dropping Mao from a few documents is not a harbinger of great change, nor does it mean that the specter of Mao does not still loom large over Chinese politics.
Just last month, anti-Japan demonstrators held up portraits of Mao as they marched. The unspoken but unsubtle message to China’s leaders: The Chairman would never have let Japan get away with claiming our islands. Perhaps coincidentally the government called for an end to the protests a few days later. Mao’s image is often used by farmers protesting the seizure of their land by corrupt officials. He appears hanging from the rear-view mirrors of taxi cabs. Mao’s birthplace in Hunan sees millions of visitors each year. Every morning in Tiananmen Square, hundreds of people wait in line for a chance to enter his mausoleum and pay their respects. Many elderly Chinese, even those who suffered during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, see Mao as representing a simpler time, free from the corruption, avarice and inequality of today’s China.
While the Party may sometimes try to mask the traces of “Mao Zedong Thought” left in its DNA, it can never completely abandon the man himself. At the height of his paranoia, Mao feared that his fellow leaders would do to him what Khrushchev had done to Stalin. When Chinese president Liu Shaoqi was removed from power during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, he was denounced for being—among other things—“China’s Khrushchev”. Yet the Party’s present dilemma suggests that Mao might have been worrying needlessly. Nikita Khrushchev could denounce Stalin because Khrushchev was always able to appeal to the ghost of Vladimir Lenin. Mao’s successors have no such luxury.
For good or ill, Mao is credited with founding the country and being the Party’s original leader. To denounce him is to undermine its historical legitimacy. Little wonder that the National Museum of China, which occupies most of the eastern flank of Tiananmen Square, contains room after room devoted to the horrors of imperialism, and to the glories of Deng’s Reform and Opening era, but relegates both the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap to a single black-and-white photograph each.
Mao continues to mean something in today’s China, but his absence from Party pronouncements is not as significant as some would suggest. It reflects the CCP’s ongoing effort to emphasize the progress and reforms made beginning with Deng Xiaoping. The 18th Party Congress is historic for marking the first generation of leadership chosen without the involvement of the revolutionary generation. Whether their ghosts linger to haunt the new leadership is another matter altogether.