BEIJING (Reuters) - A fringe group of hard-line conservatives who long for the way things were under communist China’s founding leader, Mao Zedong, have welcomed President Xi Jinping’s “new era” of socialism and its renewed emphasis on equality.
Their enthusiasm only goes so far, though. They don’t want to put Xi on the same pedestal as Mao.
At the ruling Communist Party’s leadership conclave that wrapped up this week, Xi laid out a confident vision for a proud and prosperous China, with the party firmly in control, and cemented his authority as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao took power in 1949 and declared the founding of modern China.
Delegates praised Xi using Mao-era honorifics, and he became the first serving Chinese leader since Mao to have a named ideology written into the party charter, signaling that it will be in effect beyond his second five-year term, which began this week.
“Their similarity is that they both want to rejuvenate the Chinese nation, they both want an independent, powerful, new China,” Song Yangbiao, a Beijing-based neo-Maoist freelance journalist, told Reuters.
“Chairman Mao freed the Chinese people from the oppression of the West, while Xi Jinping has dedicated himself to giving new China a greater voice on the global stage,” he said.
But Song said that it was “not realistic” to revive Mao’s party chairman title and confer it on Xi. That elevation is a possibility that has been floated, according to some sources with ties to the leadership.
“Chairman Mao’s authority was built from a long and arduous struggle. Xi’s power came from the bureaucracy in a time of peace. The history is totally different,” he said.
Some mainstream party cadres at the congress did not have such reservations. Many called Xi a wise and great “lingxiu”, or leader, an honorific only used for Mao Zedong and his short-lived successor Hua Guofeng.
Bayanqolu, party chief of northeastern China’s Jilin province, went so far as to call Xi “party helmsman”, a term not in general use in senior Communist Party circles since Mao, who was called the “Great Helmsman”.
“Accepting Xi as a powerful leader, accepting him as the most powerful leader since Mao, is a necessary trait of Xi’s new era,” said Sima Nan, a television pundit, blogger and defender of Mao and the Communist Party. “Look at how much he has said, how much he has written, how many people he has met - when does he have time to sleep?” he said in reference to Xi.
China has an awkward relationship with Mao’s legacy.
Mao is still officially venerated by the Party as the founder, with a huge portrait overlooking Tiananmen Square and his face on every yuan banknote. But he is disliked by many intellectuals and others in China, who consider him personally responsible for the tumultuous decade-long Cultural Revolution and economic policies that caused famine and killed millions.
State media sometimes say that what Mao did was 30 percent negative and 70 percent positive.
Neo-Maoists dismiss criticisms of Mao as smears by Westerners and revisionists, and the group vociferously defends Mao and his policies in articles online, with occasional public shaming of those who slight his legacy.
In January, a professor in central China was sacked from a university after Maoists protested a social media post in which he said Mao was responsible for millions of deaths.
While Xi has not lavished praise on Mao or his policies, he has defended his “mistakes” and has drawn a line against attempts to revise the Party’s official history, pleasing the neo-Maoists.
He has also borrowed from Maoist imagery, rhetoric and campaigns to enforce discipline on cadres, garner public support and strengthen the party’s leading role in society.
“Party, government, military, civilian and academic, east, west, south, north and center, the Party leads everything,” Xi said during his speech to open Congress.
Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Tony Munroe and Martin Howell