The Multiple Maos of Contemporary China

October 17 | Posted by editor | Uncategorized
Timothy Cheek is Professor and Louis Cha Chair in Chinese Research at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. He is also editor of the journal Pacific Affairs. His research,teaching and translating focus on the recent history of China, especially the role of Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century and the history of the Chinese Communist Party. His books include Living with Reform: China Since1989 (2006), Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions (2002) and Propaganda and Culture in Mao’s China (1997), as well as NewPerspectives on State Socialism in China (1997), with TonySaich, and The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao (1989) with Roderick MacFarquhar and Eugene Wu, and China’s Establishment Intellectuals (1986), with Carol Lee Hamrin. He is editor of The Cambridge Critical Introduction to Mao thatwill appear in early 2009.

His historical scholarship comes out of the “Chinacentred” turn in the 1980s with a strong focus on inductive research on Chinese contexts, rather than testing comparable theories of modernization or postmodernism. However, he has found Thomas Bender’s approach to “cultures ofintellectual life,” or communities of discourse, to be very helpful. In recentyears Cheek has been working with some Chinese intellectuals to explore avenues of communication across our social-cultural divides in order to address the problems of global change that confront us all.

Mao statue at Tongji University, Shanghai, China, 2006. Photo by Brittany Crow.

Among the contemporary mythologies of founding political leaders in Asia today, the role of Mao Zedong in China is one of the most contradictory and portentous. No longer the political god king of the 1960s Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong, the charismatic leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and father of the People’s Republicof China (PRC), remains a volatile force in China’s political landscape morethan three decades after his death in 1976. This is because Mao came to represent the hopes and dreams of hundreds of millions of Chinese despite the disappointments, outright abuse and untimely deaths of so many of his loyal followers.

Mao Zedong (1893-1976) is remembered as China’s paramount leader and Marxist-Leninist theorist in thetwentieth century. A junior party member in the 1920s and controversialregional leader in the countryside in the late 1920s and early 1930s, by themid-1940s Mao had become the Supreme Leader of China’s communist movement, andin 1949, the new PRC. The personality cult around Chairman Mao culminated inoutrageous popular veneration during the turbulent Cultural Revolution period(1966-1976) and his memory remains vibrant in China today.1 Hiswritings have continued to serve as the official doctrine of the still-rulingCCP into the twenty-first century and his memory elicits strong feelings (bothpositive and negative) among China’s diverse population, as well as amongstudents of Marxism and revolution worldwide.

Scholars of modern China have often noted that Mao’s role in the Chinese socialist revolution combinedthe individual roles of both Lenin and Stalin in the revolutionary era of theSoviet Union. Looking back from the perspective of the twenty-first century, atime in which considerably more of Mao’s misdeeds have now beenincontrovertibly documented, Mao’s legacy and memory seem even morecomplicated. Despite his many mistakes and towering cruelty, he is still widelyrespected in China. His ideas are still widely influential and his image isoften invoked by contending interests in China. His picture never fails toraise emotions. In many ways, it is more apt to describe Mao as the Marx,Lenin, Stalin, and Pol Pot of China’s tumultuous twentieth century. Hesystematized ideas and values that still animate public life in China, heprovided the orthodoxy for the CCP, he was the harsh but effective statebuilder, and he was the tyrannical political purist responsible for tens ofmillions of deaths. This brutally incongruent heritage represents the unsettledbusiness of China’s modern history and recent reforms. That is to say, Chinahas yet to face the truth and reconciliation process that South Africaconfronted in the early 1990s and probably will not be at social peace untilthe wrongs of the past—the biggest ones associated with Mao—are faced andredressed. Mao thus becomes a metaphor for China’s relationship to its ownrecent past and for the national identity China’s leaders and citizens seek forthemselves.

Making sense of Mao in China today is a problem not only for outsiders wishing to understand betterthe directions of change in the world’s largest nation, but is a bone ofcontention for China’s widely diverse population. If we ask how China views itspast and present leaders, this quickly breaks down into further questions. First of all, the question of “how” points to people’s opinions, the ideas andassessments they hold. In asking “how” we are also compelled to ask in what wayor with what assumptions or patterns of thought one addresses conscious ideasand values. So, we will first review how contemporary China views its foundingleader, Mao Zedong, under those two broad rubrics, both of which stronglyreflect the influence of Mao. Second, we shall have to break down “China” intomore meaningful subgroups—the Party, intellectuals, social groups, regionaldifferences, and generations. There is no more a single Chinese view on Maothan there is a single American view on George Washington or George W. Bush.

Multiple Maos

Mao Zedong remains anenduringly manifold figure in China today, both loved and hated; used forpolitical leverage, celebrity value, and even religious efficacy. Suchmultiplicity is the mark of the post-modern world, from the jumbled artifactsof globalized markets, to Internet Balkanization of intellectual communities,to the diversity of ethnic and cultural communities in our own neighborhoods.This diversification of public and private experience in China has a furtherdimension: the break up of the “directed public sphere” of the propagandastate.2 In China, this political and ideologicalrelaxation is called “pluralization” (duoyuanhua). Nolonger does the orthodoxy of the CCP dominate public discourse—writers andreaders have the opportunity to explore alternate readings of Mao Zedong Thought, Marxism, or even Liberalism and, more blessedly, all have the right atpresent in China to choose not to discuss political ideology at all.Pluralization can serve, then, to remind us both of the changes in thepolitical atmosphere in China today and of the multiple voices that have thuscome to the fore representing a diversity of experience across a country thatis nearly the size of the European Union and over three times as populous.

There is, however, ashared theme in all the multiple Maos embraced (or excoriated) among China’s diverse population: nationalism. Mao will always be associatedwith the founding of the nation (PRC) and the throwing off of imperialism. Maodid not create the revolution that would throw off foreign domination, but hedid come to represent the successes of Chinese nationalism at mid-century. Hecaptured the mission of the CCP powerfully in his 1940 essay, “On NewDemocracy” and that project still resonates in China today:

Since the invasion of foreign capitalism and the gradual growth of capitalistelements in Chinese society, that is, during the hundred years from the OpiumWar until the Sino-Japanese War, the country has changed by degrees into acolonial, semi-colonial, and semi-feudal society. China today is colonial inthe enemy-occupied areas and basically semi-colonial in the non-occupied areas,and it is predominantly feudal in both. … It is precisely against thesepredominant political, economic, and cultural forms that our revolution isdirected.3

Mao captured the success of that revolution in 1949, standing on the balcony of Tiananmen and officially declaring the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1st. Justa few days prior to his appearance at Tiananmen, Mao coined a phrase that hasstuck ever since: “the Chinese people have stood up!” That claim has endured,as the PRC has endured and, since the 1990s, prospered under the rule of theCCP. There is no more public worshiping of Mao as was seen in the CulturalRevolution, but Mao still plays a framing role in Chinese society. Theinteresting story, however, is the different uses to which that frame is put.Mao is used differently by the CCP, scholars, workers and farmers (what wemight call interest groups), in commercial culture and, finally, in thepersonal memories of individuals.

Maoism as Political Platform

The official orthodoxy of the CCP is Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. Maoist orthodoxy is used bythe CCP to provide the legitimacy that would otherwise come from the ballotbox. The story of China’s modern history as told by the Party—which remains theone we saw Mao announce in 1940 in “On New Democracy” [above] — is central tothis legitimation. Whether or not various people in China believe every part ofthis official narrative, the basic assumptions or identity of China that theCCP presents is widely accepted. Thus, we need to distinguish between thespecific and general claims made in Maoist orthodoxy. Today, most people inChina do not claim to follow Mao’s explicit teachings, nor do they think thecurrent Party is a noble example of Mao’s or anyone’s ideals. Yet, most peoplein China appear to accept the assumptions in this story, about China’s nationalidentity, about the role of imperialism in China’s history and present, andabout the value of maintaining and improving this thing called China.Increasingly, moreover, China’s middle classes accept the additional story inMaoism: the story of rising China: China was great, China was put down, Chinashall rise again.

Politically, Maoism is the CCP’s orthodoxy. It has been “enriched” by doctrinal additions from DengXiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and now China’s current leader, Hu Jintao. This form ofMaoism currently plays a function closer to political platforms among Westerndemocratic political parties. It announces the policies, programmes and goalsof the Party and positions the Party to look good in the broader morality ofpublic culture by claiming to do “good things” for the country. Party orthodoxyparticularly serves to announce the basic planks of policy. In the past decade,the Maoist canon has been extended in Jiang Zemin’s theory of the “ThreeRepresents” (sangge daibiao). The 16th Party Congress held in Beijing in November 2002 enshrined Jiang’s theory, even as heturned over the post of General Secretary—China’s top political post—to hissuccessor, Hu Jintao. Jiang’s “Three Represents” says that the CCP “shouldalways represent the developmental requirements of China’s advanced productiveforces, represent the developing orientation of China’s advanced culture, andrepresent the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinesepeople.”4 While foreign observers and Chineseintellectuals alike scoff at these tortured formulations, they reflect theefforts of the still-ruling CCP to explain the massive changes of reform interms that do not patently contradict Maoist orthodoxy. If we utterly dismissthe slogans of the Party as political rubbish or mere window-dressing, we willmiss the actual policies of China’s leaders and, more so, fail to understandhow the CCP maintains its public legitimacy without democracy.

Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents,” indeed, point to very important changes in the CCP’s leadershipand policy goals. The 16th Party congress included official Party representatives—that is, Party members—who are capitalists, or in currentparlance, private entrepreneurs. The phrase “represents the advanced productiveforces” covers that change in Party membership. Similarly, “interests of theoverwhelming majority of the Chinese people” points to the official end ofclass struggle as a guiding policy of CCP rule. Finally, “advanced culture”indicates the re-welcoming of intellectuals and technical elite back into theCCP as it strives to garner public legitimacy as the Party that can deliversocial peace, economic growth, and cultural florescence. It also heralds afrank elitism that is not entirely alien to the Bolshevik party. As onecommentator aptly notes, Jiang’s formulation suggests “that the Party willbecome a more elitist-oriented organization, with a new trinity of political(officials), economic (entrepreneurs and managers), and intellectual elites atits top level.”5

China’s elite politics carries on the shape, if not all of the content, of Mao’s politics. In the absence of legitimization by elections, the “core leader” of the Party, theGeneral Secretary of the CCP, who is also made President of the PRC and chairof the Central Military Commission, continues to be certified by a combinationof factional politics and claims to “great thought.” Thus, China’s current“core leader,” Hu Jintao has to make or be seen to make his own theoreticalcontributions. Hu, and his Premier, Wen Jiabao, have indeed set out to do so inways that matter in concrete policy. If Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” theorypointed to the goals of growth and initiative by favouringthe new entrepreneurial class and the cities of newly industrializing China, HuJintao’s and Wen Jiabao’s theoretical formulations speak to the burning issues of equity, social justice and social order that have come to the fore asa result of a decade or more of single-minded, more or less neo-liberal developmentalism.

The new contender foradmission to the Maoist canon is Hu Jintao’s theory of “Harmonious Society” (hexieshehui).6 This spin on the Party platform focuses onthe third of the Three Represents—the interests of the overwhelming majority ofChinese. It shifts the burning issues confronting the interior provinces, thedowntrodden, and the losers of reform to front and centre. The new emphasis on“Harmonious society,” however, will remind those familiar with Latin Americanhistory of other forms of authoritarian populism. On the one hand it drawsattention to questions of social equity, but on the other hand, it also signalsintolerance of dissent or “disturbances” by protestors. That such ideologicalpolicy platforms have political power can be seen by the impact of Hu and Wen’sfocus on equity at the 10th Session of the National People’s Congressin Beijing in March 2006. The usually compliant legislature balked on approvingthe government’s draft law to protect property rights because that law was seenas serving the rich and disenfranchising the poor (particularly over thedisposal of collective and state assets).7

The only other major public use of Maoism endorsed by the CCP is nationalism. The 1990s saw a strong swing to official nationalism with the CCP claiming loudly to be the nationalsaviour of China in the past and the only sure protector of nationalsovereignty and dignity today. This use of Maoism as a form of nationalism, broadly accepted by the public in China, draws from a major part of Mao’swritings, as we have seen, but it is a two-edged sword. The CCP has spent asmuch time trying to quell popular nationalism and xenophobia in the past tenyears, particularly against the US and Japan, as it has simultaneously tried topromote Chinese patriotism.8 The problem withnationalism is its volatility. It is an effective tool for both the state andfor members of the public. It works as one way to legitimate the rule of theCCP, but it also serves as the most obvious, useful, and frequently used formof legitimate public protest in China today. The state cannot be seen to opposenational dignity. Thus, protests against the US are affronts to China’snational dignity (obligingly proffered by succeeding administrations inWashington) and protests against Japan’s astonishing unwillingness to takeseriously continuing Chinese resentments from the Sino-Japanese War become asafe way for Chinese who are not happy with their lives today to hit thestreets and protest. Nationalism in China is thus a two-edged sword: it canmake the CCP and the government look very good or it can sanction publicdemonstrations that are very hard to control since they appear to be patriotic.

Mao among the Scholars

Intellectuals in China still deal with Mao. The pluralization of experience and views that shapes therest of China equally affects academic and intellectual circles. No longer dowriters have to praise Mao and avoid criticism. But there are limits—still theones broadly defined in 1981 by the CCP itself in its landmark assessment,“Some Questions in the History of Our Party,” which summed up Mao’scontributions as 70 percent and failings as 30 percent (ironically, Mao’s ownassessment in the 1950s of Stalin). Intellectual debate is fierce in China,what Shanghai public intellectual Xu Jilin calls “spit fights.” But now Mao isused in most cases strategically (to hammer home a point or to shield oneselffrom political criticism), but more importantly, Mao is often not used at allin intellectual debate and discussion of public issues. It is the constituentparts of Mao’s thought—the nationalism, pragmatism, calls for socialequity—that animate debates and serve as legitimizing themes rather than theinvocation of Mao’s “wisdom” per se. Indeed, it is now possible to criticizeMao in limited focus (particular policies in the past) and even to poke fun athim in the arts. There are a few scholars who invoke Mao’s ideals in claiming that Maoism that should be restored, but these calls are a distinct minority among scholars.

Scholars, of course,overlap with different social interests—from Party intellectuals to academicsto advocates for labour rights or environmental protection. There is a hugepublishing industry on Mao—books, articles, TV shows, study-guides—that followthe paradigm set down by the CCP in the 1981 Historical Resolution: Mao was andremains the great leader, 70 percent good, 30 percent in error, and basicallyanything before 1958 is off limits for the error section (leaving the GreatLeap Forward famine and Cultural Revolution turmoil to take the brunt of negativematerial). The Mao craze of the mid-1990s started a new wave of biographies,reminiscences, and “when Mao and I were….” Stories. Thomas Scharping has welldescribed this sub-industry as a revival of traditional Chinese preference forpersonalized history focusing on the moral behaviour of great men and serving“the gutsy appetite of the public for a peep show into the private lives ofleaders, and the commercial instincts of a multitude of publishing houses…”9 In thedecade since, this rich flow of detail has continued–of family history,stories of Mao in different historical periods (such as Yan’an during World WarII), stories from his body guards, doctors, secretaries, interpreters, nurses,pilots, train attendants, and even dance partners. While the texts published inthe 1990s tended toward the hagiographic, some of the newer books in the pastfew years have given more complexity and even shown a bit of Mao’s darker side.

While popular books arepresented as scholarship, the formal worlds of Party ideological study and ofacademic research are largely separate from this popular scholarship. The CCPmaintains tight control over the sources of information on Mao, from PartyArchives to the oddly-named Translation Bureau (Bianyiju) thatmaintains privileged access to the original documents by and about Mao.Thousands of books, articles and study guides are produced by the Party Schoolsystem and departments of Party History at universities across China.Bibliographies of these studies run to thousands of pages for just the pastdecade alone.10 These studies are about as popular asstudies on theology of mainstream religions are in the West—important for thefaithful and the priesthood, ignored by the general public.

Academic intellectuals use Mao in two ways. First, when speaking beyond academia to issues of public concern, they invoke different Maos to support their contending approachestoward how to “worry about China” (that is, solve China’s public problems).11 Thesepublic intellectual debates have, since the 1990s, been notoriously contentiousand have broken down on several lines, particularly “New Left” versus“Liberal.”12 For New Left intellectuals who seek tocriticize contemporary Chinese society for its lack of equity and care for thepoor, Mao’s writings on the rights of working people and the need to controlcapitalists come into play. For example, in June 2007 Gan Yang made a review ofthe main sources of modern Chinese political culture by identifying threeimportant strands: Confucianism, May Fourth enlightenment, and Maoist praxis.13 Socalled “liberal” intellectuals, who stress the need for political freedoms topromote civil society also find recourse in the works of Mao, but in the moremoderate writings of the Yan’an period where he trimmed his sails to fit theUnited Front between the CCP and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in the fightagainst Japan. For these scholars citing Mao is more than a politicalprecaution taken to keep Party censors at bay. It is an effort to garner someof the remaining legitimacy Mao holds among their readers to support theircontending solutions for China’s problems.

Interest Group Mao

China’s workers and farmers are increasingly outspoken as the social consequences of reform create winners and losers. In the fight over resources that deregulation,privatization, and uncoordinated development have created, farmers, workers,and urban residents have protested and struck back. In such resistance theyoften invoke Mao’s ideas and image to support their claims. Ching Kwan Leegives a notable example from the Northeastern province of Liaoning in China’sState Owned Industry rustbelt. In March 2002 some 30,000 workers from a scoreof factories marched in the streets carrying a huge poster of Mao Zedong. Oneof the participants told Lee:

There were people singing ‘The Internationale’: an elderly woman worker cried outloud lamenting that ‘Chairman Mao should not have died so soon!’ … There was ahuge Mao portrait that an elderly worker took from his home, a personal collector’sitem. We actually had a planning meeting before and decided that we should takea Mao portrait with us, because we wanted to show the contrast we felt between the past and the present.14

Hundreds of other examples of workers using Mao portraits, badges, quotations on banners and evendrawing pictures of Mao on the sidewalk outside the factory from which one hasbeen fired (as one worker in Henan did to good effect—he got his job back) can becited. Each instance shows a combination of using Mao to protect protestorsfrom official violence or retribution and to shame those officials intohonouring what the workers see as the social contract between the socialiststate and workers that has been violated under China’s new economic reforms.These are “weapons of the weak” adopted by farmers and rural workers, as well,as they seek to protect their homes, their farm land and their air and waterfrom expropriation by developers and pollution by new rural industries.15

In between labour agitation and pop culture lies the Internet. While Party propaganda organs andscholarly journals have web sites, and even blogs (bo-ke incurrent parlance), it is the unofficial websites that shed the most light on thecontemporary Chinese imaginings of Mao. These websites are run by individualsand groups not associated with the government. We should keep in mind, however,the constituency for this Virtual China—those well-off enough to have acomputer or pay for access at thousands of computer cafes across the country,as well as a small but vocal community of ex patriot Chinese across the globe who continue to participate in Sinophone conversation(that is, in Chinese language) on the web. As is the case in North America,Europe and elsewhere, the web both Balkanizes communities of discourse andprovides considerably more opportunity and freedom for the expression of arange of opinions. Chinese language Mao websites aimed at the PRC publicinclude both official websites (such as CCP propaganda portals to virtualmuseums of the Cultural Revolution) and a variety of non-official websites.Guobin Yang usefully maps out the diverse terrain of these non-officialwebsites which range from radical leftist defenses of Madame Mao and “theSpirit of Daqing” (a Cultural Revolution labour ideal) to digital archivesbeyond the grasp of the CCP, to blogs for zhiqing—thestudents sent down to the country side in the late 1960s for three to ten yearswho now form a social group with a shared grievance: they lost their chance ateducation by serving Mao then.16

There are also a number of web sites, both official and unsanctioned, dedicated to Mao. The officialones, such as “China Molded with Blood” (Xue zhu Zhongguo;, support the patriotism campaign that linksMao Zedong to China’s century of humiliation and the role of the CCP inredeeming China’s international prestige and power. Note the web addressincludes “1840-1949”, the years between the first Opium War that saw thebeginning of British and then other imperialist impositions on China and thefounding year of the PRC which saw the expulsion of foreign privilege (if onethinks of the Soviet Union in another category). This website is jointly managedby the China Youth League of the CCP and the Chinese Academy of SocialSciences—a reminder that that think tank is under the direction of thePropaganda and Education system (xuanjiao xitong) ofthe CCP. There are several unofficial Mao websites that use a worshipfuldepiction of Mao to achieve the opposite goal: they denounce the reforms ofDeng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. “World of Mao Zedong” publishes a monthlyon-line newsletter criticizing current policy. “Mao Zedong Forum” provides aBBS with discussion threads such as “Mao Zedong and the Chinese Spirit.” Theseare generally anonymous sites that do not give detailed information of thesupporting institution for obvious reasons. To denounce the current CCP in suchstrident terms is literally illegal in China today. According to Guobin Yang,at least two of these sites are clearly based in the USA.17 Thisreminds us that “Chinese” views of Mao are not limited to physical residents ofthe PRC and that the most radical views are often based outside the country.


Mao Souveniers, Shanghai, China, 2005.

Photo by Michelle Lee. 

Pop Mao

A figure as widespreadas Mao becomes a feature of popular culture, beyond the uses of state anddiscourse of elite society. The CCP pushed a Mao study campaign in the mid1990s to buttress its legitimacy and establish increased social order in thewake of Tiananmen and the beginnings of fast-paced economic reform from 1992.While hardly a success in creating a new generation of faithful Maoists (atleast ones eagerly obedient to Party direction), this combined Mao andpatriotism campaign introduced a young generation of emerging middle-classurban Chinese to the images and stories of Mao. As Geremie Barmé notes in hiscollection on this posthumous cult of Mao, for many ordinary Chinese “Mao wasrepresentative of an age of certainty and confidence, of cultural and politicalunity, and above all, of economic equality and probity.” 18 Not sofor the youth of the 1990s who had not experienced life in Mao’s China. Rather,as Barmé gleefully notes, youth found in this new Mao Cult “a politically safeidol that could be used to annoy the authorities, upset parents, and irritateteachers.”19 With this market in place, Mao’s image hasbecome a commodity item in street markets across China. T-shirts, cigarettelighters, art pieces, and bric-a-brac of all sorts sport the image of theChairman (both as young revolutionary and older national leader). While forsome these images are heart-felt, for others they are symbols of youthrebelliousness, and for many these commodified Maos signify celebrity interestrather than ideological commitment.

Another popular culturaluse of Mao is more complex: religion. Mao now joins the host of populartutelary gods in popular religious temples across China. This is an astonishingsyncretism of twentieth century ideological politics and long-standing Chinesereligious folkways. Mao’s image, as many business travelers and tourists toChina have seen, hangs from the rear-view mirrors of taxi drivers to ward offaccidents; Mao’s image has been put on ceremonial gold cash (used for thepurposes of popular religion) with the words “May This Attract Wealth” or withthe traditional eight hexagrams; and, Mao’s full image appears in thesetemples—both rural and in working-class urban neighborhoods—not as a politicalfigure but as a religious figure.20 He hasbecome a popular god, but importantly only one of many popular gods. As wenoted before, the pluralization of public life in China defines thecontemporary period. Mao allowed claims that he was the only “god” in theCultural Revolution to be made. Now, however, Mao is embraced in the pantheonof deified human greats from ancient generals to particularly efficacious (andespecially dangerous) emperors.

Not all popular cultureMaos are a-political. Among the huge underclass of migrant workers in China—nowgenerally estimated to be around 150 million people—Mao stands as a contrastingexample with the current leadership. In popular ditties and graffiti Mao islionized as the advocate for the landless poor or contrasted positively withthe corruption of the current Party leadership.

Personal Maos

The uses of Mao’s image and legacy reviewed above are public, sometimes collective, and usuallypolitical meanings of Mao found in China today. There exists a nearly endlessset of personal Maos for those still living who experienced life under his ruleor under his system in the 1970s and early 1980s. These memories are vivid,powerful and widely diverse. They range from respect and nostalgia to anger anddisgust. I have been subjected to the spirited lectures of a retired head ofone of Beijing’s tertiary institutions (and a long-time Party member whostudied in Europe in the 1920s and joined the Long March). This old gentlemanis learned, bilingual, and disgusted with Deng Xiaoping. Jiang Zemin is beneathhis contempt. All, according to this senior cadre, are revisionists who haveundone Mao’s revolution, abandoned China’s working people, and sold out to theforeigners. Similarly, the aged parents of a Fudan University professor stilllive in the Hebei countryside and adorn their comfortable abode with respectfulposters of Mao they still admire. “He saved us farming folk,” they tell theirson. These are the messages from generations that are now departing the scene,but not before setting the model of certainty, unity, and equality for youththat Barmé has noted in popular uses of Mao among younger generations.

Not all personal memories of Mao are positive by any means. Gradually the suffering of the “sentdown generation,” the zhiqing whom we saw using the Internetto make contact with each other, have come to the surface. While some stillhonour Mao and blame local despots and cheats for ruining Mao’s vision, thereare many who lay the blame squarely at Mao’s feet. These stories are explosive.They cannot cohabit a public space with the glorified Mao that gives legitimacyto the CCP. Thus, we rarely see the expression of these tales of sufferingblamed on Mao himself published in China. We do, however, see them publishedabroad, and they are increasing. Jung Chang’s controversial and implacablycritical biography of Mao, published in English in 2005 (which we will discussbelow), is, if nothing else, the tip of this iceberg of pain and suffering thatwill have to come out at some point.

In all, Mao’s memory inChina today is a two-edged sword of legitimacy for the CCP: an ambivalentsymbol of national pride for educated Chinese, a cool brand for middle classyouth, a talisman of self-worth for China’s disposed who have suffered underreform and globalization.

Legacies of Living Maoism

How China looks at Maospeaks to the role of legacies of Maoist ideology and social practices inshaping the various ways in which Chinese view life and politics morebroadly.This is orthopraxy, probably the most important continuing legacy ofMao in China today. Orthodoxy is what the state says; orthopraxy is what peopledo with what the state hands them. Clearly, there is often a huge gap betweenthe ideals and practices of a system—one need only think of the United Statesor the Catholic Church for this to become clear. Yet there is a meaningfulrelationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In the name of state goals thegovernment sets up or encourages social institutions and rewards some forms ofbehavior while punishing others. Whether or not a particular person actuallybelieves in the orthodoxy, if they wish to operate in the legal society theymust be seen to act in accordance with those stated goals. In China under Maothis required absolute loyalty to the Party Line, which generally extolled thevirtues of the proletariat, the wickedness of capitalists, and the salvationaryrole of the CCP and local Party leaders. Today, pluralization allows people toside-step or give only passing notice to the Party line, but it is stillillegal to oppose it. More significantly for life in China today, this Maoistorthodoxy also set up important social institutions thatshaped life-on-the ground. The three most important are the local Partycommittee (at each and every level of government and most large economic andresidential organizations), the danwei work unit organizationof employment, residence, and social insurance, and the hukou systemof internal residential passports. These artifacts of living Maoism continue toshape social life in China even as they have changed under the post-reformforces of market and international contact.


Communist flag and Mao image above current Party slogan: “Moderate Prosperity Village” (xiaokang cun), Guizhou Province, China, 2005.

Photo by Michelle Lee.

Participation withoutdemocracy

The Party Committeesystem embodies the CCP’s claim that the legitimate forum for public policydebate and policy formation is the Party itself, not the press, pubic square,coffee house, classroom or proverbial kitchen debates. This has produced acautious reluctance to get involved in public affairs because to do so isdangerous. But the heritage of Maoism gives specific actors legitimategrounds—especially for those now in their fifties and sixties with actualsocial experience in the Cultural Revolution— for organizing against oppressionand seeking redress from the Party and state. From the start of Maoism, someParty members used orthodoxy to push the Party to do better. In 1942, a CCPtranslator and writer, Wang Shiwei, lampooned Mao in the newspapers of Yan’anand called on the CCP to live up to its ideals of egalitarianism and inner-Partydemocracy. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, brave individuals stood up to local Partyleaders to speak out against the abuses of power by using the norms and valuesembodied in Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.21 In the1980s, even after the outrages of the Cultural Revolution, Fang Lizhi, thePresident of the Science and Technology University and working astrophysicist,used Party norms to argue for greater democratization. This inclination to workwithin the Party-State system, and therefore to use—and creatively extend—theideals and norms of the state orthodoxy, continues today. Wenfang Tang finds inhis surveys of both establishment and non-establishment intellectuals today thebelief that “[w]orking with the party elite is probably the most practical way tobring about concrete political improvement.”22

People in China continueto look to the state for answers to their problems. This is an utterly sensibleattitude in the face of consistent state repression of all alternate politicaland social movements since the 1940s. It is a habit that shapes the assumptionsof even democratic activists and frustrates efforts of those who wish toorganize citizen movements. The problem for both the Chinese state and Chinesecitizenry today is that the state is simply not big enough nor does it have theinstitutional capacity to do all that must be done across that vast continentand among the huge population that comprise China. A simple story captures thispublic reticence. An American academic working in Beijing in the late 1980s wasstruck by the mess in the hallway of his apartment building that served a majorresearch institution. The residents were all high-level intellectuals andprofessionals. Why not organize a simple resident’s committee and hold a “cleanup day?” he suggested. His aghast Chinese colleagues replied that such matterswere the domain of the authorities and to do what he suggested would be mostimproper!

The divided heritage ofMaoism in the practice of political participation without democracy leavespeople in China with the contradictory experiences of “self reliance” (ziligengsheng) and even models of forthright criticism of the CCP along withexamples of the passivity and going-along that got most people through theCultural Revolution. These contrasting models of behavior are among the optionsof Chinese seeking to make their way in the more socially isolated environmentof market socialism.

Organized Dependency

Daily life in the workunits and communes of Mao’s China helped to create this political passivity anddependency on the state. The state work unit system, or danwei, underMao created a collective economy at the basic level in which everything butsmall personal effects was owned by the group. These danwei becamea veritable work-related clan defined by permanent employees and theirfamilies. They shouldered the responsibility to provide not only employment butalso housing, education, medical care, and other daily life necessities fortheir members. Elizabeth Perry summarizes the attributes of this ubiquitousorganization of work and life in urban China under Mao. The danwei hadpower over personnel matters (hiring, firing, maintaining dossiers), itprovided communal facilities for housing, dining, health, etc. (often in theform of a walled compound), it maintained independent accounts and budgets, itwas urban and not rural, and it was public, part of the State system.23 Thiswork unit system created a mutual dependency in which the individual gave up agreat deal of individual choice in exchange for very high expectations that thegroup would take care of each individual. Ironically, farmers in thecollectivized organization of the Communes were not cared for nearly asmuch—they had neither social insurance nor pensions, for example. But, theyshared the norms of collective ownership and group decision-making with theircompatriots in the urban danwei.

Habits of Thought

Those who lived throughthe Maoist system carry with them the habits of thought and expectations thatmade sense under Mao’s rule. This population, long corralled by the rules ofnon-democratic participation in danwei and commune life, doesnot have the habits of mind suitable for a liberal or tolerant society. Thesesame habits and expectations even shape those who reject official Maoism andembrace alternate political ideas and social practices. Inevitably, some partof these values and expectations has been passed along—by parents and teachers—toyounger generations. Naturally, they change with time and new experiences, butthese mental models still shape the experiences and reactions of people acrossChina. Central among these hegemonic values are respect for intellectuals,intolerant modes of argument and illiberal public demonstrations, and theexpectation that suggestions should be addressed to the state. It is thismental furniture that will shape the lives of people in China long after the hukoupassports and danwei work units are a thing of the past.

Intellectuals in Chinaare the envy of Western China scholars. In China, intellectuals are takenseriously both by the State and the public. That is one reason why the CCP hasalways sought to repress unorthodox intellectuals—because Mao believed whatintellectuals said was influential. While this is changing, and intellectualsin post-reform China constantly bemoan their recent marginalization, a residualrespect for certified intellectuals nonetheless remains in Chinese society thatdistinguishes it from all others. It was this residual respect forintellectuals and students that contributed mightily to popular support forstudent demonstrations in Tiananmen in 1989. This deference to intellectualscontinues today both in the expectation that highly educated professionals andcultural commentators in China ought to help figure out what to do and incynicism and criticism of them for failure to do so in most cases. Respect forintellectuals has been transformed under global capital in the reform period toa broad reliance on experts to advise the Party andbusiness. There is not, as of yet, a widespread acceptance that good governancecan come from the democracy of “one man, one vote” in China.

Moral extremismcharacterizes public debate on hot issues in China. China is not withoutintelligent and rational, indeed brilliant, scholars, theorists, and politicalreformers, but the nature of public debate has, in practice, all too quicklytended to revert to the moral extremism of Maoism when the going gets tough.Westerners who follow China’s relations with the US or Japan know how quicklydiplomatic issues—from the Belgrade bombing of the Chinese Embassy by NATOforces in 1999 to the revival of the history textbook issue with Japan in2005—go to rhetorical extremes. The world was confronted with this moralextremism in the spring of 2008 as fiery Chinese nationalists confronted FreeTibet demonstrators at the ill-fated Olympic torch relays from Paris toCanberra. This is not the result of propaganda manipulation by the CCP, itcomes from deep in the belly of ordinary Chinese. As Suisheng Zhao has shown,this popular nationalism bedevils efforts by the CCP to promote a morepredictable state nationalism or attempts by some intellectuals to advocate aliberal nationalism that speaks, as well, to domestic issues of social justice.24 Yearsof Maoist political campaigns that drew black and white divides and denouncedtargets of criticism with unrelenting moral outrage have poisoned public debatein contemporary China. In the most recent example, Mao’s image has returned,along with his anti-imperialism and moral extremism. A fiercely patriotic videoon the website narrates the “money war” (huobi zhanzhengi) Westernnations have waged against China (blaming recent stock market downturns inShanghai on a Western conspiracy), along with charges of Western mediadistorting the Tibetan issue to ruin the Olympics and “to keep China down.” Atthe climax of the video the image of Chairman Mao from the Cultural Revolution(wearing a Red Guard arm band) appears with the heading “All reactionaries,[are] paper tigers” (Yiqie fandongpai doushi zhi laohu!).25

A vivid example of theseresidual habits of intolerance came in 2005 from a former Red Guard and notableauthor in English, Jung Chang. Her recent biography of Mao is a stunning pieceof Maoist anti-Maoism, attacking Mao in very much the manner of extreme,one-sided, and hyperbolic campaigns she participated in herself in the CulturalRevolution.26 Jung Chang portrays Mao as an evil, power-and sex-hungry sadist who works for his personal advantage in the mostdespicable ways, relying on trickery, manipulation and terror. Mao never didanything for the good of anyone else; none of his policies everworked. He was bad, bad, bad. In fact, he was the ultimatecounterrevolutionary! This is the most ironic legacy of Maoism—even a formerRed Guard living in London who wants to purge herself of her former adulationof Mao and confront the disasters that Mao brought upon her zhiqinggeneration feels compelled to use the very methods of “mass criticism” whichMao perfected under his rule to attack Mao’s memory today. While the resultsare unconvincing for most readers in English, the moral extremism, the blackand white judgments, resonate with many readers in China. Thus, one does nothave to be a Maoist, or in this case, to like anything Mao did, in order tocarry on Maoist habits of thought and argument.

Jung Chang exhibits thefury of an apostate, but she is not alone in her moral extremism. Even China’smost elite academic intellectuals—working in the major universities of Beijingand Shanghai—cannot seem to resist such “spit fights.” In the late 1990s it wasan acrimonious debate between those who supported liberalism, more or lessalong the lines of neo-liberal policies associated with von Hayek, and thosewho borrowed Post-Modern critiques from the West to recast a left attack oncapital. The fight between Liberals and New Left amused but disheartenedobservers who nearly despaired of finding a way to get various intellectualfactions to work together instead of attacking each other. The role of theInternet has, alas, been pernicious, enabling libelous exchanges and outrageousclaims and counter-claims to find a ready audience. In 2000 money added fuel tothe fire. Li Kai-shing, the Hong Kong-based billionaire, gave $60 million HK tothe Chinese Ministry of Education to support research. Part of that money wentto the “Cheung Kong-Reading Award” for best articles inthe journal, Reading (Dushu). Ahuge Internet brawl broke out when it was discovered that one of the winnerswas Wang Hui, one of the editors of Reading. Thelevel of vitriol and polemical rhetoric is what stands out in this“intellectual exchange.”27

In the end, most Chinesestill choose to “talk to the Party.” As Wenfang Tang’s survey research hasconfirmed, is that when intellectuals or social activists are not fighting eachother, they are talking to the Party-State. They are not forming Western-stylecivil society organizations, which are strictly regulated, much less formingindependent political parties, which are illegal. This is born of both habitand of pragmatism. Working people assume it is up to the “leaders” or at leastto the certified intellectuals to fix things. Intellectuals cast theirsuggestions in terms of, or at least carefully not in contradiction to, Partyideological platforms, and most work for the State in one fashion or another—inuniversities, academies of science or social science, the carefully controlledpress and media, or major industries.28 Thisstate-orientation of civil society has been a real challenge to Western observers,who persist in seeing sprouts of individual democratic activity. It may come,but at present, lived experiences, intellectual orientations, and even businesspractices (in which business actors survive by colluding with local politicalleaders in the absence of legal protections) all point to collaboration withthe Party-State rather than confrontation.29 TheParty that Mao helped to create is still the only game in town.

To focus on working withthe Party does not imply absolute passivity, as we have seen on the Internetand in the labor protests in Liaoning. There were some 86,000 violent“incidents” (demonstrations, attacks on enterprise or local leaders, evenriots) in 2005 alone. Rural Chinese have suffered the most, and they have actedthe most. But the point to keep in mind is: they are not organizing. Nopeasant’s union, no local or national political party, no cross-districtassociations—despite the technical capabilities of cell phones and Internet.Each demonstration—even when violent—is specific in issue (back pay,compensation for land taken, redress for official abuse or the effects ofpollution) and focused on local leaders. We are only seeing the beginnings ofwhat the CCP feared in Tiananmen—intellectuals linking with working people. Whena Beijing-based lawyer traveled to a small town in Guangdong to represent localfarmers who had been beaten by police during a demonstration in 2004, he, inturn was detained, beaten, and driven away.30Independent advocacy, so far, has not produced much in China. Hence, we see thecontinuing of conversations between civil society and the Party-State.

To stress these livinglegacies of Mao that shape both ideas and politics in China is not to suggestthat there hasn’t been any change since the Maoist period. Rather, theseinherited patterns of thought and practice are the channels that shape theimmense forces that flow through post-Mao China. Making sense of Mao in Chinatoday requires this twin focus—what people say about Mao and how the differentways of seeing the world and addressing problems that the Chairman taught themshape their responses. The results can be ironic—as in the democracy advocateswho learned to criticize the government from Mao in the Cultural Revolution tocommercial interests using Mao to sell soap—but Mao remains in the lives ofChinese today.


1 There are dozens ofbiographies of Mao in English—and hundreds in Chinese. Of recent biographies,Jonathan Spence’s, Mao (in the Penguin Lives series, 1999)provides a literate and thoughtful introduction in the short compass. PhilipShort’s Mao (NY: Henry Holt, 1999) gives a readable 600 pages full ofcolour and detail based on sound scholarship.

2 SeeDaniel Lynch, After the Propaganda State: Thought Work in contemporary China(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

3 MaoZedong, “On New Democracy” can be found in his standard Selected Works ofMao Tse-tung published in Beijing and available on-line at:;also Timothy Cheek, Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions: A Brief History withDocuments (Boston: Bedford Books, 2002), p. 80.

4Original Party texts are translated and carefully analysed by Gang Lin,“Ideology and Political Institutions for a New Era,” in Gang Lin and Xiaobo Hu,eds., China After Jiang (Stanford: Stanford University Press,2003), pp. 39-68, quote from p. 39.

5 GangLin, “Ideology and Political Institutions,” p. 44.

6 LinYunshan, “Strengthening, Expanding, and Innovating in Propaganda andideological Work in Accordance with the Requirements of Constructing aHarmonious Socialist Society,” Qiushi, No. 19 (2005), translated inFBIS-CHI [Foreign Broadcast Information Service, US Government], 1 October2005.

7 JosephKahn, “Sharp Debate Erupts in China over Socialism and Capitalism,” The NewYork Times, Sunday, 12 March 2006, p. 1. A modified version of theproperty law was passed in 2007.

8Suisheng Zhao, A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern ChineseNationalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004); Peter Hays Gries, China’sNew Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

9Thomas Scharping, “The Man, the Myth, the Message—New Trends in Mao-LiteratureFrom China,” The China Quarterly, No. 137 (March, 1994), pp.168-79.

10 Oneof the scholars best acquainted with this CCP stream of Mao studies is NickKnight. See in particular his collection of translations, The PhilosophicalThought of Mao Zedong: Studies from China, 1981-1989(Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1992) and “Contemporary Chinese Marxism and theMarxist Tradition,” Asian Studies Review, 30:1 (March 2006),19-29.

11 SeeGloria Davies, Worrying About China: Contemporary Chinese Critical Discourse(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

12 Foran excellent introduction and set of translations of these debates, seeChaohuaWang, One China, Many Paths (NY: Verso, 2005).

13 GanYang, Dushu [Reading] 2007:06, pp. 1-6.

14Ching Kwan Lee, “What Was Socialism to Workers? Collective Memories and LaborPolitics in an Age of Reform,” in C.K. Lee and Guobin Yang, eds., Re-envisioningthe Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories inReform China (Stanford University Press & Woodrow Wilson Center Press,2007), pp. 158-59.

15 SeeKevin J. O’Brien and Li Lianjiang, Rightful Resistance in Rural China (NY:Cambridge University Press, 2006).

16Guobin Yang, “‘A Portrait of Martyr Jiang Qing’: The Chinese CulturalRevolution on the Internet,” in Lee and Yang, Re-envisioning the ChineseRevolution, pp. 287-316.

17Yang, “A Portrait of Martyr Jiang Qing,” p. 304.

18 SeeGeremie R. Barmé, Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader(Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), p. 19. This volume provides the best summaryof Party efforts and popular subversions, based on an extensive set oftranslations.

19Barmé, Shades of Mao, p. 48.

20 WangYi (under the pen-name Xin Yuan), “A Place in the Pantheon: Mao and FolkReligion” published in Hong Kong in 1992 and translated in Barmé, Shades ofMao, p. 195.

21Merle Goldman has chronicled this history in her books since 1967. Her viewsare summarized nicely in the chapters on ideology and intellectuals for the CambridgeHistory of China that are reproduced in Merle Goldman and Leo Ou-Fan Lee, eds., AnIntellectual History of Modern China (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2002).

22Wenfang Tang, Public Opinion and Political Change in China(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 187.

23Elizabeth Perry, “Introduction: The Changing Chinese Workplace in Historicaland Comparative Perspective,” in Xiaobo Lü and Elizabeth Perry, eds., Danwei:The Changing Chinese Workplace in Historical Perspective(Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), pp. 5-6.

24Suisheng Zhao, A Nation-State by Construction.

25Viewed at on 20 April2008. The Mao image and quote appear at 4:30 in the 6 minute video.

26 JungChang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story(London: Jonathan Cape, 2005). This biography has been warmly embraced byjournalists and roundly criticized by scholars. A useful array of specialistcriticism appears in The China Journal (Canberra), No. 55, January2006, pp. 95-139, as well as Jonathan Spence’s rueful review in The New YorkReview of Books, 4 November 2005.

27 XuJilin, “The Fate of an Enlightenment: Twenty Years in the Chinese IntellectualSphere (1978-1998), pp. 183-203 and Gerime R. Barmé and Gloria Davies, “Have WeBeen Noticed Yet? Intellectual Contestation and the Chinese Web,” pp. 75-108,both in Edward Gu & Merle Goldman, eds, Chinese Intellectuals BetweenState and Market (London: Routledge, 2004).

28 SeeZhao Yuezhi’s excellent new study on the PRC media.

29Wenfang Tang, Public Opinion; Bruce Dickson, China’s RedCapitalists (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

30 Forvivid examples, see Ian Johnson’s Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change inModern China (NY: Vintage, 2005).

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