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Progressing backward

Matthias von Hein / sbAugust 28, 2013

China's new party leadership has been feigning a Maoist approach to politics to win support among the country's 'New Left' while at the same time preparing economic reforms.

Chinese national flag is raised early in the morning on the Tiananmen Square near the Great Hall of the People where the opening session of the annual National People's Congress will be held in Beijing, China, Monday, March 5, 2012. (Photo:Andy Wong/AP/dapd)
Image: dapd

The trial against the disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai is over. China's Communist Party (CPC) tried to put an end to one of the country's largest political scandals ever. When Bo Xilai is locked up and behind bars, so too will be the icon of the so-called "New Left." But the legacy of his neo-Maoist politics will live on - carried out by his political adversary, party leader and incumbent President Xi Jinping.

China expert Sebastian Heilmann of Trier University sees something new in the way the CPC is implementing methods and political agendas envisioned by someone waiting to be sentenced for a number of offences. "Bo Xilai is being seen separately from his agenda."

Political experts have been witnessing a trend toward a Maoist rhetoric in Chinese politics. Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong is currently working on a book about Xi Jinping. Since Xi was named party chief last November, he has been taking a conservative political approach which could be considered Maoist. China's new leader has been using Mao's legacy like no other since the death of the "Great Chairman" in 1976. Xi has visited Mao memorials; spoken out against moves to reconcile with the crimes and disastrous political decisions made by Mao; and in June, Xi introduced a gigantic "correction campaign" reminiscent of Mao, aimed at "cleansing" the party of extravagance and corruption within a year.

In this image taken from video, Former Chinese politician Bo Xilai reads in a court room at Jinan Intermediate People's Court in Jinan, eastern China's Shandong province, Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/CCTV via AP Video)
During his trial, Bo Xilai gave the prosecution a harder time than observers had expectedImage: picture-alliance/AP

Seven taboos

According to Lam, the party's new leadership has also tightened its grip on ideology and the media. The Hong Kong journalist refers in this context to the so-called Document 9 - a paper which has been circulating throughout the party warning specifically of the seven threats to state ideology. They are topics which should not be discussed at schools or universities. Among them are universal rights, civil societies, independent justice systems, mistakes made by the party in the past.

Sebastian Heilmann thinks this shift toward Maoist ideology is being used for political purposes: "The party leadership wants to win support among the population's leftists."

Heilmann says these leftist tendencies could not be ignored in China; surveys have even found up to "38 percent of the booming province of Guangdong to be left-leaning." They also "tend to have nostalgia for Mao - when it comes to social equality," he added. "Those are strong forces that China's leadership cannot ignore."

Wave of arrests

However, it does not end with rhetoric. The Xi-led government has imprisoned numerous "dissidents," including the leaders of the so-called "constitutionalism" group who had simply called upon the government to adhere to the principles and laws stipulated in the Chinese constitution.

And the campaign did not stop there. Civil rights activists urging party officials to publicly disclose the value of their assets were also persecuted. Xi has made the fight against corruption one of his top priorities, but continues to rely on the party apparatus to accomplish this. According to Heilmann, this is precisely what prevents the party from finding a way out of the dilemma that "the CPC essentially has to control itself."

China's newly elected President and chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping (L) talks with China's Vice Premier Li Keqiang during the fourth plenary meeting of the first session of the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, March 14, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/China Daily)
Xi Jinping appears to have adopted his rival's New Left ideologyImage: Reuters

'Double game'

The new government's plans of economic reform will probably be announced during the third plenum of the CPC Central Committee, scheduled for September. Experts believe the program will focus on increasing domestic consumption, granting more entrepreneurial liberties and sustaining economic growth. But above all, Heilmann expects a boost for small and medium-sized private enterprises. He calls the current development a "double game." On the one hand, the party is clearly committed to economic reform, he says. On the other hand, however, it is resorting to leftist rhetoric to consolidate power.

Lam explains the CPC has been performing this balancing act for a long time: "Ever since Deng Xiaoping, economics has been separated from politics."

"The economy can be deregulated to some extent, allowing market forces to be introduced. But in the political and ideological arena, strict controls are still being implemented and different opinions not tolerated."