Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sipa/Shutterstock (222630z) Mao Zedong accompanied by Lin Piao acknowledges applause from the soldiers of the Revolutionary Army. MAO TSE TUNG RETROSPECTIVE
Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Since his death in 1976 his successors have used his legacy to bolster Communist party rule © Sipa/Shutterstock

When looking for unvarnished analysis of Chinese policy, it helps to ask: what do the Maoists think?

In June, days after millions shut down central Hong Kong to protest against an extradition bill that would allow residents to be tried in mainland China, Maoist website Utopia saw in the demonstrations a “political struggle” against forces backed by the US. “We must recognise the seriousness of the situation. Must see that we are on the verge of a ‘colour revolution’ erupting in Hong Kong,” one commenter wrote, referring to uprisings in the former Soviet Union in the early 2000s. By early August, the same language had been adopted by Chinese officials and state media, which claimed foreign “black hands” were guiding the protests.

For Jude Blanchette, the Freeman chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington, Maoists, a loose coalition of cantankerous bloggers and academics on China’s conservative left, are a true political movement, not dissimilar to the Tea Party in the US, whose rise shows the lasting sway of Mao Zedong’s legacy over modern Chinese politics.

Few now doubt the illiberal turn China has taken under President Xi Jinping. The severity of the authoritarian shift was, however, a surprise to many who assumed that a rapidly modernising China, embedded in the global economic system, would naturally become politically liberal, if not ever fully democratic.

Such hopes failed to grasp how China’s leaders, from Deng Xiaoping through to Mr Xi, have used socialist ideology and revolutionary history, including Mao’s legacy, to bolster Communist party rule, an approach the leadership still considers critical today, Blanchette argues. The party never abandoned Mao after he died in 1976. Unlike Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing Joseph Stalin, Deng ringfenced Mao from the harshest criticism by declaring that his “grave errors” were outweighed by “his contributions to the revolution”.

For China’s left, that statement sealed their distaste for Deng and his policies of reform and opening. In the decades since, various groups of conservatives — Leftists, statists, neo-authoritarians and Maoists — have pushed back against every suggestion of liberal economic, legal or political reforms in China. Many of these are tub-thumping nationalists, who pedal paranoia about “hostile forces” — often the US — seeking to overthrow the Communist party. But their strident speeches regularly strike a chord with disaffected sections of Chinese society who remember fondly the early days of the People’s Republic.

Today, “neo-Maoists”, the latest bannermen of conservative ideals, take an active interest in China’s major policy debates, from relations with North Korea and the US to reform of property laws and state-owned enterprises. These writers have found common cause with Mr Xi.

Mr Xi has rolled back a number of Deng’s signature policy initiatives and has joined the Maoists in efforts to enforce “correct” interpretations of revolutionary history. The authorities have stifled think-tanks that promote liberal economic policy, historians who attempt to revise party accounts and young Marxist activists who promote workers rights.

Blanchette’s work lacks a precise estimate of the Maoists’ scale and political backing, raising the question of just how much influence the group actually has. It leaves open the question of whether neo-Maoism is more a reaction to developments in China than a cause. The relationship between the Maoists and China’s political elite has at times been antagonistic. Many Maoist websites are selectively blocked by China’s censors and the movement’s one-time hero, former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, is serving a life sentence for corruption.

To make his case, Blanchette offers a string of lively anecdotes that piece together the party’s unwillingness to abandon Mao’s talismanic influence in the 1980s with today’s surprising overlap between Mr Xi’s policies and the bugbears of the Maoists. For many Maoists, these signs of apparent support from the top leadership have instilled a sense of victory.

“We won,” one neo-Maoist writer told Blanchette. “Maybe I didn’t win personally, but our ideas won.”

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