THERE was a time, just a few months ago, when some analysts were speculating that new leaders preparing to take over in China wanted to abandon Mao. If it ever seemed likely then, it is looking far less so now. The new helmsman, Xi Jinping, has been showing no sign of squeamishness about the horrors of that era. Preparations are under way for big celebrations of Mao’s 120th birthday on December 26th. Mr Xi will likely use the occasion to pay fulsome homage.
On June 5th the party chief of Hunan, Xu Shousheng, paid a visit to one of his province’s most-visited attractions: Mao’s rural birthplace in Shaoshan village (the Hunan Daily’s report is here, in Chinese). There he laid a wreath before a bronze statue of the late chairman. Mr Xu has good economic reasons for showing obeisance. Last year the province earned nearly $4.6 billion from “red tourism”, as pilgrimages to historic Communist sites are known (a local newspaper, in Chinese, describes hopes to boost this by more than 20% in 2013). But Mr Xu made clear he was not there just to drum up business for Hunan. The central leadership, he said, was attaching “great importance” to the birthday celebrations. The entire nation, he said, was paying “great attention”.
Hunan officials are pulling out all the stops. In September it was reported that Xiangtan prefecture, which governs the village, was planning to spend 15.5 billion yuan ($2.5 billion) on 16 projects described as “presents” for Mao (see here, in Chinese). These include the refurbishing of a Mao museum in Shaoshan, a new road around the tourist area, a new drainage system for nearby Shaoshan city and the building of a new community called Hope Town for local farmers (described here). Shaoshan village is organising cultural performances, an academic conference and a “big gathering” to mark the anniversary, as well as the usual handout of free “happiness and longevity noodles” to visitors on the big day (see here, in Chinese, for a list of this year’s events in Shaoshan and here, in English, for some of the traditional ones).
It is all but certain that Mr Xi will feature prominently in the celebrations. His two immediate predecessors both gave speeches in praise of Mao on similar occasions: Hu Jintao in 2003, on the 110th anniversary (here, in Chinese), and Jiang Zemin in 1993, on the 100th (here, in Chinese). The signs are that Mr Xi will strike a similar tone. In January he told colleagues in the ruling Politburo that the achievements of the post-Mao era should not be used to negate those of the earlier years of Communist rule, and vice versa. In May a Beijing newspaper revealed that Mr Xi had also quoted Deng Xiaoping as saying that repudiation of Mao could lead to chaos (see here, in Chinese).
But in the coming months Mr Xi might be wary of overdoing the adulation. In the autumn he will preside over a crucial meeting of the party’s central committee that he apparently hopes will approve plans for wide-ranging economic reforms. Encouraging Maoists could play into the hands of what liberals in China call “interest groups”, such as large state-owned enterprises, that stand in the way of reform.
Fuelling Maoist fervour could also make it more difficult to handle the case of Bo Xilai, a Politburo member who was expelled from the party in November for alleged abuses of power, including complicity in the murder of a British businessman. Mr Bo is a darling of die-hard Maoists who believe that, for all the party’s lip-service to Mao, the country has fallen prey to the worst excesses of capitalism. He is widely expected to be put on trial in the coming months. Mr Xi does not want to encourage supporters of Mr Bo.
Maoist hardliners have been trying to goad Mr Xi into making an even bigger deal of the anniversary than his predecessors did. In January they circulated a petition (in Chinese, here) which called on him to declare December 26th “Mao Zedong Day”, thus ensuring that leaders could never ignore it. They also called for an official ceremony in honour of Mao to be conducted every year at his mausoleum on Tiananmen Square (as we reported in December, liberals in China want the mausoleum to be demolished, or at least for Mao’s body to be removed). Signatories included three retired generals, several former senior officials as well as relatives of Mao and his close henchmen.
In his final months as China’s leader before Mr Xi took over, Hu Jintao tried to silence these die-hards, whose online criticisms of the leadership—and support for Mr Bo—had become an embarrassment. Censors blocked several of their websites (as Analects reported in April last year). But the Maoists have proved resilient. Utopia, one of their favourite websites, remains closed. But it offers links to new sites where somewhat toned-down material can be read.
Maoists have kept up their vendetta against an 84-year-old liberal scholar, Mao Yushi (no relation), who enraged them in 2011 with an article attacking Mao (see our report here). In recent months public appearances by Mr Mao have been disrupted by Maoist hecklers. The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper (here, paywalled), says he has received death threats from anonymous callers.
To many liberals (at least those not under such direct attack as Mr Mao), the Maoists’ fulminations might seem little more than the rantings of marginal eccentrics. Among the wealthy and the politically powerful it is rare to find much sympathy expressed for the Maoists’ views. Last month, however, Southern Weekend (here, in Chinese) reported on recent research by a prominent academic, Zhang Mingshu. It was said to show that leftists (as Maoists are often called) enjoyed the support of more than 38% of the population while rightists, as pro-democracy liberals are often described, represented only about 8%. The rest were described as centrists, or supporters of the status quo. Mr Zhang was quoted as saying he was surprised himself by this finding. “Opinions which are regarded by intellectuals as leftist and divorced from reality are actually quite influential in society”, Mr Zhang told the newspaper.
Microblogs have been helping the Maoists to spread their views. Sima Nan, a scholar whose Sina Weibo account has more than 640,000 followers, is one of the most vocal of the leftist camp. On June 7th he posted a message expressing support for the Hunan party chief’s comments on the importance of Mao’s birthday. “We must not be afraid of the irresponsible remarks of Mao-haters”, he said. “We must not be afraid of the stirrings of those suspicious forces abroad. Their crazy howling and clamouring actually shows that solemn commemoration of Mao Zedong is absolutely right and proper.”