China: Impressions of China

What is Mao’s significance for today’s workers and youth in China

On Sunday, 9 September, crowds gathered in more than a dozen Chinese cities to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

This follows nearly 30 years’ of so-called "opening up" and liberalising "reform", and various attempts to erase the image of Mao’s politics from 1980s. But now something is turning back. From the 1990s onwards, Mao has become a new popular image for ordinary Chinese people, the old and the young. People have sung songs praising Mao (again); have worn old Mao-style suits again; T-shirts and badges with his image. Even many drivers put his picture in the car much like a Buddhist charm.

While people are facing unexpected problems and unbearable change such as low wages, high unemployment, over-exploitation, casual and short-term contracts, high-pressure life and an unsure, dim future within today’s so-called "full market" liberal real world, people, especially the elderly and urban workers, are looking back favourably on the "reframed" old Mao period with its state-owned and planned economy, though forgetting its brutal bureaucratic system and undeniable dictatorship.

Events in ten cities

This tendency is becoming more obvious and wider, though in general the scale is still not big compared to the Chinese population. As far as we know, there were approximately ten Mao commemorative events organised by voluntarily retired people, workers and students in different cities from north to south, and east to west on or around Sunday’s anniversary. People gathered in Zhengzhou, Taiyuan, Chongqing, Chengdu, Liuzhou, Yuanyang, Nanyang, Xinxiang and Kunming, and perhaps several other cities. People gathered in the city centre and sang songs from the Mao era, offered wreaths to Mao’s statue, wrote articles in his praise and commented on the current political situation.

Especially in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, the whole anniversary event with approximately 200 people lasted for over four hours in front of the city centre’s Mao statue. During the peak time before noon, around 500 people joined the activities.

People placed wreaths and flowers on Mao’s monument and song old songs to praise Mao, including the Internationale, ’Dong Fang Hong’ (’The East is Red’) etc, and held speeches and group discussions on the current situation and politics. Police in plain clothes from the provincial HQ watched the whole activity but took no forceful measures to break-up the activity, as was feared in advance. Participants in Zhengzhou reported around 15 police officers who filmed all those in the square. They questioned organized participants, recorded the contents of speeches and video-filmed the whole event.

There were similar events in other cities. According to web reports, the activity in Taiyuan – the capital of Shanxi province – lasted from afternoon into the night with a total of over 1,000 people. From unconfirmed sources we learn there were special meetings at some colleges and factory halls, in Beijing, Kunming – capital of Yunnan province and Liuzhou, a city in Guangxi province. Hundreds of people took part in these meetings, according to these reports, to praise Maoism and criticise current government policies. Most of the participants seem to have been older workers and retired "cadres" i.e. Communist Party (CCP) officials. On 7 September in Chongqing, several hundred retired workers from Chongqing No. 1 Textile Factory gathered to commemorate Mao and used this occasion to criticise the government’s policy of privatising the state-owned factory.

Understanding Mao’s role

People therefore used the Mao anniversary to show their anger and opposition to current policies: corruption and "marketisation" of the economy. Many argued for a return to the old times under Mao’s centrally planned economy and plain lifestyle.

However, does Mao really matter in today’s China? For genuine Marxists the answer is yes, it is important to study the past in order to prepare for the struggles ahead and avoid old mistakes. But actually Maoism and Mao’s ideological legacy are not an effective prescription for today’s problems; on the contrary, what has happened today – the shift back to capitalism – is rooted in Maoism and the inability of the Maoist bureaucracy to develop the planned, state-owned economy. Unlike the Russian Revolution of 1917, which was led by the industrial workers organised in a marxist party, Mao’s revolution in 1949 was based on the rural masses, the peasants, mainly through the army, with a ready-made bureaucratic command structure. Mao’s Stalinism, nationalism, and one-party dictatorial system have – in the absence of a working class revolutionary movement in the wider world – actually favoured and prepared the way for the current regressive neo-liberal system. Without real freedom, workers’ democracy, internationalism and a sufficient supply of life’s necessities there will be no real socialism. This is also why today the CCP regime still uses the banner of Maoism, while stripping it of its more radical appeals for "egalitarianism and mass struggle", to advocate their own neo-liberal policies.

CWI supporters admire the pro-Mao people’s courage in showing their anger at today’s policies, but we also point out there is no way out for people by going back to Maoism. The state-owned planned economy of the Mao era was an enormous historical gain – now dismantled – but its stark bureaucracy and one-party dictatorship also repressed and retarded the development of the economy and opposed the democratic intervention and control of the working class. The legacy of Maoist suppression means there are still no independent workers’ organisations or parties outside of the bureaucratic ruling party and government, which can resist and fight back against capitalism and liberalization. Without full democratic rights and free expression of workers, a state-owned planned economy will inevitably be bureaucratic and unable to fully develop.

Historical lesson have already proved the defects of Maoism. A new socialist movement can be built in the struggle against capitalism and dictatorship in China and internationally, but not under the banner of Maoism. What is needed is a genuine socialist movement, based on the democratic self-organisation of the working class and poor peasantry.

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September 2007