LUOYANG, China (AP) — Fifty years after Mao Zedong unleashed the decade-long Cultural Revolution to reassert his authority and revive his radical communist agenda, the spirit of modern China’s founder still exerts a powerful pull.
Millions of people were persecuted, publicly humiliated, beaten or killed during the upheaval, as zealous factionalism metastasized countrywide, tearing apart Chinese society at a most basic level.
Student groups tortured their own teachers, and children were made to watch mobs beat their own parents condemned as counter-revolutionaries. Gangs engaging in “armed struggle” killed at least a half million people while countless more committed suicide, unable to cope with relentless persecution.
It was only in 1981 – five years after Mao’s death – that China’s government officially pronounced the Cultural Revolution “a catastrophe.”
But in the ancient city of Luoyang, the old, the poor and the marginalized gather daily in the main public square to profess nostalgia for the political movement, downplaying that period’s violent excesses. In the marble halls of power in Beijing, Cultural Revolution-era song-and-dance performances are being revived. China’s liberals see ominous signs of a society tugged backward by ideological currents.
“Either it’s because people have forgotten the Cultural Revolution or are increasingly dissatisfied with social conditions, but since the mid-1990s these kinds of ideas have been gaining currency,” said Xu Youyu, a former Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher.
Maoists long for China to reverse its path toward market capitalism and return to Mao’s radical vision of a classless society steered by a powerful and ideologically pure leader. They have largely embraced President Xi Jinping as one of their own, though he has never endorsed their views outright, and the nuances of his personal ideology – especially on economic matters – remain a cipher. Many see encouraging echoes of Mao’s political style in Xi’s crusade against corrupt party bureaucrats, and in his staunchly populist rhetoric, nationalistic bent and repeated demands for ideological conformity.
But the surge in Maoist sentiment and distrust of the status quo points to the complex risks facing Chinese leaders. The legitimacy of the Communist Party is staked upon both Mao’s legacy and a tacit promise of bettering people’s lives. Those two pillars may prove difficult to maintain as China navigates a painful economic transition that threatens to shed countless miners and factory workers and widen social inequality.
While China went through similar reforms a decade ago, the economy was growing much faster at the time and citizens lacked organizational tools such as the Internet and social media platforms.
Grassroots Maoism has been “blossoming in every corner” in the past few years as social media has taken off, said Han Deqiang, a prominent Maoist lecturer and professor at Beihang University in Beijing. “Many consider General Secretary Xi Jinping a leftist, so we are certainly rising, even if we cannot vote or demonstrate under the Chinese system,” Han said.
The Cultural Revolution is considered to have begun May 16, 1966, when the Communist Party’s Politburo purged a number of leading officials. Over the following decade, Mao deposed two heirs apparent, his “Little Red Book” of sayings was elevated to the level of holy scripture, and millions were imprisoned, sent to labor camps or exiled from the cities. Xi himself spent years living in a cave dwelling and laboring in the fields of his father’s native province of Sha’anxi.
The government now calls the decade-long revolution “a catastrophe.” Yet in the central province of Henan, that determination rings hollow in Luoyang, a 3,000-year-old city long familiar with the ancient axioms of governance.
A capital for nine dynasties, Luoyang was built by the Duke of Zhou, a sage praised by Confucius for conceiving the quintessential Chinese idea that heaven granted emperors the right to rule only if they performed virtuously and ably. If not, they risked being deposed.
Today, Luoyang seethes.
Downtown, an enormous statue of Mao looms over the red-brick No. 1 Tractor Factory, one of many local icons of state-owned industry that was either privatized or shuttered by decree in the 1990s as China prepared to join the World Trade Organization. In the outskirts, struggling steel plants and glassmaking firms line roads winding along hardscrabble hills.
Nearly every day in Luoyang’s Zhouwangcheng Plaza, retired or unemployed workers sing odes to Mao under a billowing Communist Party flag. Zhao Shunli, a retired veteran who collects discarded food outside restaurants to survive, performs red song-and-dance routines in a uniform decked with Mao pins.
People swarm around a clothesline and squint at dozens of pinned essays condemning the past 30 years of liberalization or positively reappraising the Cultural Revolution.
When asked, many reject historical accounts of widespread political chaos during the period, or absolve Mao of responsibility, saying he did not explicitly order violent abuse.
Even Xi, whose administration is now trying to slim down state-owned sectors, does not escape criticism.
“Xi speaks of it so it must be Chinese theory,” read one essay critiquing current policy. “But no. Supply-side economics is not Chinese, it’s actually American poison.”
Wang Chunwen, a 38-year-old who has washed dishes for 10,000 yuan ($1,500) a year after losing his teaching job, stopped reading one of the printouts to recount how he plunged into the world of Maoist blogs after buying his first smartphone two years ago.
“China has transformed beyond recognition,” he said. “When Mao started the Cultural Revolution, he was ordering surgery on a sick person. Now, China is in the terminal stage of cancer.”
It was here in the plaza that Xu Xiaobin met a group of Maoist retirees who changed his thinking five years ago. That was before he was laid off from his 3,000 yuan ($460) -a-month machining job and condemned to a life of off-and-on construction work that has slowed to a trickle as the economy sputters.
“Even the word ‘layoff’ didn’t exist” in Mao’s time, Xu said, standing outside the state-owned gear factory that used to support his family of four. “You look on the Internet and there are people showing off their wealth. Then there are people like me, working under the sun in 40-degree (Celsius, 104-degree Fahrenheit) heat.”
Born in 1974, Xu scarcely experienced China under Mao, whose death in 1976 started China’s journey toward liberalization. But during childhood, Xu saw pictures of his laborer father, and was told he was respected, not denigrated.
PROTESTS AND CRACKDOWNS
Many formerly in the state sector have taken their grievances to Luoyang’s streets. Thousands of decommissioned army veterans have been petitioning for years for retirement benefits, which have led to confrontations with police, who break up even private meetings in restaurants, said veteran Qin Shuiyan.
Perhaps no one has drawn Luoyang authorities’ ire more than Wang Xianfeng, a 57-year-old retiree who in recent years has pulled together Maoist rallies with thousands of people, prompting multiple crackdowns.
She discusses Maoist thought semi-weekly in a rented home next to the plaza and organizes followers who distribute thousands of pamphlets. Police once tore down the house door and seized her group’s public address system, Wang says.
Luoyang police declined a request for a telephone interview and did not respond to questions submitted by fax.
Wang was sentenced to two years in a labor camp in 2010, but her ardor for the ruling party and its leader has hardly dimmed. In her eyes, a new Cultural Revolution has already arrived under Xi.
“He wants to inspect these people who’ve enjoyed their lifestyle for so long,” she said. “It’s a class struggle, so of course they’re going to resist him, just like during the Cultural Revolution, when landlords didn’t want to give up their position.
“If he needs us, we’re ready to fight for him.”
Maoism nationwide remains loosely organized, however. The community is bound mostly online by blogs and forums. Public demonstrations of even modest size are quickly shut down and unauthorized monuments to Mao, like giant statues, are razed in the heartland regions where Maoism burns hottest.
In 2012, the government launched a crackdown on public displays of “red culture” like singing and posters. It also briefly shut down Utopia, a popular Maoist news site and messaging board. Analysts say it was part of an internal party struggle that brought down Bo Xilai, party secretary of the southwestern Chongqing metropolis, who allied Maoism ideology and culture with economic policies that boosted state enterprise.
Xi, however, has sent signals that he in fact supports many elements of Bo’s Chongqing model. He made a prominent visit to Chongqing to observe Bo’s handiwork a year before his downfall, and many elements of China’s economic plan laid out in 2013 bears that model’s hallmarks, analysts say.
The breadth of neo-Maoists – and their support for Xi – was recently on display in the port city of Tianjin, at a funeral for Ai Yuejin, a Maoist professor at Nankai University and popular online lecturer.
Ai’s fiery talks praising Mao’s legacy drew followers from as far as Shanxi and Fujian provinces. Hundreds of fans, nearly all wearing Mao pins and some crying Ai’s name in grief, circled a casket draped in a Communist Party flag, where the professor lay in repose with a People’s Liberation Army peaked hat on his head.
In the courtyard, followers read poems or gathered around Liu Yiran, a celebrated playwright and director of Maoist-themed television shows. Hou Zhongyi scanned the crowd to explain that not only laborers but white-collar Chinese were pinning their hopes on a leader they wished would outright assume Mao’s mantle.
“We haven’t had anybody decent until Xi,” said Hou, who worked in publishing in Beijing.
Whether Xi gives a nod to the Maoists as the Cultural Revolution’s anniversary approaches this month could reflect his political standing, analysts say.
If he felt politically confident, Xi could seek to allow commemorations of the movement “in a more positive light” compared to the Communist Party mainstream, which has historically preferred to suppress discussion of the period altogether, said Bo Zhiyue, a watcher of elite Chinese politics at Victoria University in New Zealand.
Divisions are already beginning to show. In March, a commentary in the state-run Global Times tabloid warned against overly discussing the Cultural Revolution. Yet a group staged a concert at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing featuring lavish productions praising Mao and Xi this month, reportedly angering some party elders who wondered how the performance gained approval.
Song Yongyi, a Cultural Revolution historian at California State University in Los Angeles, said the Communist Party – and Chinese society itself – will be divided as long as the party does not allow a full and open reckoning of modern China’s darkest period.
“As long as Mao’s picture is hanging on Tiananmen, you cannot say the Cultural Revolution has completely ended,” Song said.