Woman under a portrait of Mao in Yuncheng, China
Woman under a portrait of Mao in Yuncheng, China
Cyrille Pluyette

BEIJING — In Xi Jinping's China, it is again a risky proposition to openly criticize Mao Zedong. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) thought it had resolved the discussion in 1981 when it decreed that the reign of Mao, the founder of the People's Republic of China, had been 70% good and 30% bad. But since Xi Jinping's rise to power more than four years ago, he has been feeding the cult of The Great Helmsman and clamping down on any criticism of Mao's legacy.

More than 40 years after Mao's death, the "red emperor," whose face still appears on banknotes, remains a guardian figure for the CCP. What position people take on Mao usually indicates their political shade: the regime's left-wing, embarrassed by the boom of capitalism, worships him; the country's reformist fringe calls for more pluralism by pointing to Mao's errors and bloody legacy. As Xi Jinping expands his control of the Party and society, the clampdown against those with dissenting opinions has intensified.

The renowned economist Mao Yushi, a fierce critic of monopolistic state-owned companies, was one such dissenter who fell victim to this clampdown. On Jan. 20, authorities closed down the website of the think tank founded by the 88-year-old intellectual.

In early January, Deng Xiaochao, 62, a Chinese academic, was sacked from his job for "tarnishing" Mao's image on the commemoration of the leader's birthday. Deng suggested on the microblog platform Weibo that Mao was responsible for the deaths of millions. Deng also posted a message that said "the one good thing Mao did in his life was to die." In retaliation, he was banned from teaching and dismissed from his prestigious post in a provincial government. His action also provoked the furor of scores of neo-Maoists who began to demonstrate outside Shandong Jianzhu University, where Deng taught, attacking students who supported the professor.

The director of the the Shijiazhuang bureau of culture and media, in northeastern China, was also fired in January after he called Mao Zedong a "devil."

These attacks are a new side to Beijing, which tries its best to downplay the dark side of the communist party's history. Last year, Yang Jisheng, a famous chronicler of the Mao era, was reportedly pressured not to publish a book on the Cultural Revolution on the 50th anniversary of this bloody episode of Chinese history. Instead, his work was discreetly released in Hong Kong, where freedom is much greater despite Beijing's tightening grip.

China's growing censorship comes ahead of the CCP's 19th National Congress later this year, during which Xi Jinping is expected to be given a second five-year term. The president, who wants to be in a position of strength this autumn, intends to seize the occasion to reinforce "discipline."

By relentlessly praising Mao, Xi Jinping seeks to smooth the rough edges of the revolutionary period and the era of reforms that followed. "There's fear at the top that historical criticism of the Maoist legacy might lead to a questioning of the Party's legitimacy," says Éric Florence, director of the Hong Kong-based French Centre for Research on Contemporary China.

By assuming a neo-Maoist position, the Chinese president can "pull the rug out from under the party's left-wing, which he wants to keep under his thumb," says Jean-Pierre Cabestan of the Hong Kong Baptist University, adding that it's also a warning to pro-reform intellectuals.

Still, Beijing will no doubt be wary of pushing the cult of Mao too far. "There's a risk that social movements will seize Communist ideology and Mao's figure to express their resentment," says Florence. "That's something the regime wants to avoid at all cost."

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