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China's leaders turn to Mao

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam, CNN Senior China Analyst

Mao's 110th birthday is set to spark a revival of the former leader's philosophy.
Mao's 110th birthday is set to spark a revival of the former leader's philosophy.

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(CNN) -- There can be nothing more incongruous in fast-modernizing China than a gargantuan effort to celebrate Chairman Mao Zedong, famous for his self-sufficient, ultra-conservative theories.

Right after it has put a man in orbit and signaled large-scale privatization of state enterprises, however, the administration of President Hu Jintao is readying marathon festivities to mark the Great Helmsman's 110th birthday next month.

Aside from galas, lectures and conferences, there are plans to launch commemorative stamps, TV and film shows as well as revolutionary opera performances.

The apparent contradictions behind this Mao revival say much about Chinese politics -- and the mindset of the 60-year-old president.

One year after becoming General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Hu has made considerable strides in economic reform and foreign policy.

In terms of domestic politics, however, he has adhered to the time-honored principle of "striking a balance between left and right" so as to maintain stability, that most valued virtue in the Chinese polity.

Political balance

In the first few months since coming to power, Hu and colleagues such as Premier Wen Jiabao have aroused great expectations from intellectuals thanks to the leadership's early attempts to promote Chinese-style glasnost, rule by law, and some form of structural reform of the party and government.

While some headway has been made in areas including civil-service reform and abrogation of obsolete statutes, it has now become clear that a moratorium has been put on liberalization.

Instead, Hu and his advisers think that some degree of pandering to "leftism" -- or Mao-style conservatism -- may do a lot of good to maintaining socio-political balance and stability.

While Mao is now almost universally maligned for excesses such the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Maoism has a large following, particularly among Chinese who have not done well in the course of reforms.

At least theoretically, Mao preached egalitarianism and cradle-to-grave social benefits. Many believe there was much less corruption -- and much more devotion to public service among cadres -- at least up to the mid-1960s.

The Great Helmsman also stood for nationalism -- as well as the imperative of starting China's own high-technology and space programs despite abject poverty.

Hard struggle

Mao remains a prominent feature of daily life in China.
Mao remains a prominent feature of daily life in China.

While Hu and Wen are not about to revive Maoist economic and social precepts, the Fourth Generation leaders have staked their reputation -- and the CCP's legitimacy -- on a close-to-the-masses credo.

Indeed, one of the first acts of General Secretary Hu was to pay a visit last December to the "revolutionary mecca" of Xibaipo, Hebei Province, where Mao lectured cadres on the importance of "serving the masses" shortly before Communist forces swept into Beijing in 1949.

Hu also rehabilitated the so-called "two must-dos credo" that Mao espoused at Xibaipo:

• comrades must remain humble, cautious and conscientious;

• they must persevere with "plain living and hard struggle."

And while touring Mao's old haunts in Jiangxi Province in the summer, Hu admonished officials to learn from his teachings about "showing concern for the masses' livelihood" and "be closely reliant upon the people."

Moreover, Hu, who is continuing with predecessor Jiang Zemin's largely pro-West -- and in some areas, even pro-American -- policies, thinks he can protect his flank by breathing new life into Mao-style nationalism.

This includes generating patriotic pride through feats such as landing a man on the moon, which is the next target for China's space engineers.

In the past month or so, several influential leftists, or quasi-Maoists, have written the CCP leadership asking for a resuscitation of Maoist ideals including raising the nation's guard against the "sugar-coated bullets" of the West.

Signatories to the petitions, including former CCP propaganda chief Deng Liqun and former top judge Zheng Tianxiang, also wanted Beijing to stop the rise of the "exploitative new class" of private entrepreneurs.

Slow reform

Mao declared the founding of communist China at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1949.
Mao declared the founding of communist China at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1949.

While neither Hu nor Wen will roll back China's open-door policy or quasi-capitalistic practices, their apparent championship of Mao's serve-the-masses philosophy will serve to pacify sectors such as the unemployed which have suffered setbacks due to the country's embrace of the marketplace.

For Hu, a cunning refurling of Maoist standards has the extra effect of putting ex-president Jiang in his place.

In a variant of the time-tested ploy called "hoisting the red flag to counter another red flag," Hu has used the Helmsman's "be close to the masses" dictums to marginalize Jiang's much-ballyhooed Theory of the Three Represents (that the party represents the most advanced productivity and culture as well as the masses' interests.)

Hu aides have also hinted that many of the corruption cases under investigation, such as that involving Shanghai billionaire Zhou Zhengyi, had arisen during Jiang's watch because the latter had failed to heed the chairman's edicts about "plain living and hard struggle."

Much as Hu's Machiavellian treatment of Maoism might serve a number of political purposes, it could be a millstone round the neck of reform.

A key reason why it was easier for Soviet reformers such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to implement glasnost and perestroika was that the Soviet Communist Party had undergone a thorough de-Stalinization.

"There can be no real progress in political reform unless the mistakes of leaders such as Mao and Deng Xiaoping can be openly discussed by the media and the people," said a retired party cadre.

"Hu's politically expedient handling of Maoism will considerably push back the day when the people can see the truth -- and learn to make rational choices -- by themselves," he said.

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