x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

New Mao enthusiasts bemoan inequality of progress in China

Opponents of Beijing's neoliberal economic policies long for days of hardline communism, when "everybody was equal".

Li Zhongtang, a migrant worker, sells Mao Zedong souvenirs in Bejing. He would like China to return to policies that distributed wealth equitably.
Li Zhongtang, a migrant worker, sells Mao Zedong souvenirs in Bejing. He would like China to return to policies that distributed wealth equitably.

BEIJING // On the pavement in front of him, Li Zhongtang has medals, pictures, posters and even ceramics bearing the image of Mao Zedong. The migrant worker's enthusiasm for Mao extends beyond using the late party chairman's likeness to make a few yuan in souvenir sales each day. He wishes the current regime was following more closely the policies of China's first leader after the communist takeover of 1949.

"In Mao's time everybody was equal. Soldiers, officials, ordinary people were at the same standard," said the former peasant farmer from Inner Mongolia. "Now, officials spend thousands of yuan on a meal and we cannot afford to buy socks. Mao was great. The officials now are just corrupt." Mr Li is not a lone voice in the wilderness. Mao supporters have an organisation called Land of Utopia they say is generating increasing interest from people upset about what they feel is an increase in inequality as a result of China's economic development over the past three decades.

Fan Jinggang, the organisation's manager, said Land of Utopia aimed to counter the "neoliberal hegemony" that supports a market economy. "After 30 years [of reforms] China's society has developed so there is so much privatisation of state-owned companies and the laying off of workers, and widespread corruption," said Mr Fan, while wearing a white T-shirt bearing Mao's likeness on the front and the words "Only Mao Zedong Thought Can Save China!" on the back.

"It causes huge social upheavals and unrest. We cannot regard the market economy and liberalisation as something infallible." The organisation does not call for the overthrow of the Communist Party or a change in leadership. Instead, it says those in power should reverse economic reforms and restrict trade flows, as it says China's economy is being "manipulated by" and has become "over dependent on" foreign capital.

"Any opposition voices within the academic sphere against this neoliberalism are silenced because people term it as something against progress," Mr Fan said. China's education system, he said, had become "an economic sector rather than a social function", and healthcare was similarly over-commercialised. "The rich are too rich, the poor are too poor," he said. "That's created a breeding ground for corruption. That's why we see so many corrupt officials in China."

Land of Utopia, founded in 2003 and based in a modest office block in north-west Beijing where it has a bookshop full of socialist volumes, organises lectures and discussions to promote its cause. The group declined to reveal how many people are registered as supporters, but Mr Fan insisted "hundreds of millions" in China shared its views. He said the group's "core values" of "patriotism and socialism" were a "direct inheritance from Chairman Mao's thought".

Mao ruled China with an iron fist from the Communist takeover in 1949 to his death in 1976. While officially Mao is still revered, with a portrait that overlooks Tiananmen Square, the "cultural revolution" he led is often considered a disastrous phase of modern Chinese history, and biographers have claimed he was responsible for the deaths of up to 70 million people, many through famine during the failed agricultural reforms of the "great leap forward". However, Mr Fan said that doubts about Mao partly stemmed from "a stereotype in the western media".

"There are hundreds of millions of people who gained land for the first time in history during Chairman Mao's time. That's undeniable," he said. "Some government people and the masses still find truth in Mao's writings and his beliefs. "Since neoliberalism took over and since the market economy, these groups of people, ordinary urban workers, they've been ignored. "You never hear from miners about what they expect from life. You always hear the urban businessman's voice. But the peasants and farmers are a large part of China's population."

The market economy, he said, had marginalised peasant farmers and forced them to migrate to the cities. While acknowledging the perception inequality had increased had created "a sense of discontent", Zhang Baohui, an associate professor in the department of political science at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, said it was difficult to judge how widespread discontent was, not least because surveys were not carried out.

"The Chinese government is aware of the problem," he said. "But I don't believe the Chinese people want to go back either. They understand Mao's system was very autocratic, very abusive." The Chinese public, he said, were freer than before and realised that, while Mao's era was "more egalitarian", it was also much poorer. "The past was not necessarily more attractive. [Now] they don't have democracy but they have more liberty," he added.

But Mr Fan believes his organisation is increasingly striking a chord. "The monopoly of this neoliberalism is not something unshakeable," he said. "Karl Marx said the universe was always changing. There's space for change and we're trying to make that change." @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae