It’s All About Mao

The trial of Bo Xilai, the fallen Chinese Communist Party official and former member of the ruling Politburo, is attracting the world’s attention with its tales of corruption, sex, murder and political intrigue. But while such details are riveting, they divert attention from the real meaning of the case.

Mr. Bo’s trial has been dressed up by the Chinese Communist Party as part of its anticorruption campaign. (As with Chen Liangyu and Chen Xitong, two other high-ranking party officials who were tried for corruption, Mr. Bo has met his fate most likely as a result of power struggles within the party.) But the true significance of the trial is that it highlights the urgent debate over what path China will take in the future — specifically, whether its leaders will revive the disastrous tactics and policies of Chairman Mao.

Even though Mr. Bo and his family were themselves victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s, Mr. Bo’s policies from 2007 to 2012 as the party secretary in the megacity of Chongqing replicated many of the methods Mao used to mobilize and govern the Chinese people. These methods made Mr. Bo very popular and powerful but also created a dangerous path along which the Communist Party could return to the old ways of Mao.

Like Mao, Mr. Bo used mass campaigns and grass-roots mobilization to deal with the party’s governance problems. His most important campaign in Chongqing was “changhong dahei” (singing red, striking black), a grass-roots effort that encouraged people to sing patriotic and revolutionary songs from the Mao era and to support the imprisonment and property seizure of the city’s “black society” or “black mafia groups” — organized gangs, in theory, though in practice many were simply rivals or obstacles to Mr. Bo’s hold on power.

Mao used similar strategies of targeting distinct groups of people for attack and mobilizing the people against them, as with his campaigns against capitalists and landlords. Though Mr. Bo did not use Mao’s terminology of class struggle, many people who were labeled members of the “black society” were owners of private businesses and members of Chongqing’s new rich.

While he was mobilizing his campaign against “black society,” Mr. Bo also initiated his own Mao-like “great leap forward” for economic development in Chongqing to win over the poor. After taking office he promptly conducted a huge increase in infrastructure and attracted a large amount of foreign investment, bringing about a marked increase in gross domestic product. But many of these projects were not economically sustainable: they depended heavily on borrowing money and providing unsupportable incentives for foreign companies to invest. Like Mao, Mr. Bo was good at giving the poor a rose-tinted, falsely optimistic picture of their future.

Mr. Bo also learned from Mao to establish a cult of personality. He regularly made emotional and inflammatory speeches at mass gatherings and used the news media to present himself as a person of extraordinary ability, vision and wisdom. During his tenure, his handwritten calligraphy of political mottos and slogans could be seen everywhere in Chongqing and on the news, and even today he remains popular within certain parts of Chinese society.

Though Mao’s ideology and policies are anathema to most people in the West, many Chinese still miss Mao and his era. They believe that Mao, who died in 1976, was the one person who put an end to China’s century of humiliation, and they still have not realized that his policies for a new China in which everyone would be equal amounted to a utopian pipe dream. His inhumane and criminal behavior and his ruthless methods of keeping the Communist Party in power have never been fully discussed, debated and understood in China. To this day Mao’s image for many Chinese is still largely that of a great leader who made a few mistakes.

As a result, Mr. Bo was able to use Mao-like policies and tactics to gain popular support. Pictures of Mr. Bo’s supporters protesting outside of the courtroom show some of them holding pictures of Mao and signs proclaiming reverence for old Maoist policies.

Without a full national reflection on Mao’s crimes, the current Communist Party leadership may be able to remove Mr. Bo as a political challenger while still embracing Mr. Bo’s political tactics to solidify its own power. Modern Chinese history offers several examples of this “remove and subsume” strategy. After the Empress Dowager Cixi cracked down on the reform movement in 1898, she promoted aggressive policies that did not differ from that of the reformists. After China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping removed Zhao Ziyang, an advocate for market reforms, as party secretary in 1989, Beijing conducted economic reforms that were bolder than Mr. Zhao’s. Now that party leaders have removed Mr. Bo as a political rival, will they adopt Mr. Bo’s revival of Maoist tactics?

Today China faces many internal crises. The rapid socioeconomic transformation has created social tensions; the current economic slowdown could lead to social unrest. In such an environment, Mao’s approach to divide and mobilize the Chinese people in order to maintain the political power of the Communist Party could once again be attractive to party leaders, especially when Beijing does not have a clear idea of its future path.

So as you watch Mr. Bo’s trial, remember that the scandalous charges, Mr. Bo’s defiant defense and the final verdict are less important than whether the party can put an end to Mr. Bo’s tactics and policies — and expel the ghost of Mao.

Zheng Wang, an associate professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the author of Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations.

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