Supporters of ousted political leader Bo Xilai are turning up the note of political discord in China with increasingly loud criticism that the policies of current Communist Party leaders are widening inequality and breeding social unrest.
The movement, known as the new left, remains relatively small and obscure, and is unlikely to have a major impact on the coming shuffle of party leadership positions. But criticism from Communist hard-liners in the era of online social media places China’s leaders in a tricky position as a debate over the direction of the party and China’s economic model is quickly spreading from universities and closed-door sessions into public view.
The new left – a loose collection of academics, lower-ranking government officials, writers and overseas activists – advocates a stronger hand for the state in economic planning as well as a return to the values put forth by the late Chair Mao Zedong. The new left argues that China’s economic reforms over more than 30 years have led to wide income disparity, and the movement has criticised the takedown of Bo, once its most visible leader.
Dealing with the new left requires some balancing for the party. Unlike the political activists who often oppose the party on democratic or human-rights grounds, the new leftists act as defenders of the vision Mao once laid out for China: Rejecting them outright would risk exposing party leaders to sensitive questions around the very foundation the party is built on.
Bo’s takedown indicates consensus among Chinese leaders to push ahead with economic liberalisation despite growing social problems, said Minqi Li, an economics professor at the University of Utah, who is aligned with new leftists in calling for more-egalitarian wealth distribution in China.
“The basic message for every layer of government official is that they try to please higher-ups and forget trying to create anything that is positive in the sense of contributing to the livelihood of local people,” said Li who helps run redchinacn.net, a popular Maoist website that has been outspoken about Bo’s case.
“In the next few years we could see an acceleration of the various contradictions and the problems and the economic-social crisis,” he said.
Political analysts say scenes of blue-collar workers and students embracing Maoist imagery and slogans during officially tolerated anti-Japanese protests in a number of Chinese cities last month underscored leaders’ fears that support for the new left could spread. Many protesters said in interviews the demonstrations were also a way to express dissatisfaction with what they see as weak party leadership and Beijing’s inability to protect China’s interests.
During the protests in Beijing, one of China’s leading new-left thinkers, Han Deqiang, scuffled with an elderly man who Han said derided Mao. Photos of the incident and a heated discussion spread rapidly online, laying bare deep-seated public divisions over both Mao’s legacy and the state’s role in the economy.
While Mao’s face is on China’s currency and his portrait hangs in the heart of Beijing, at the gate of Forbidden City on Tiananmen Square, China’s more recent leaders have been careful to draw a line between his experiments with communism, in which tens of millions of people died due to famine and political chaos, and the country’s recent years of economic growth.
In the past three decades, China’s economic reforms were little questioned amid double-digit growth and dramatically rising living standards. But during the global economic crisis the new leftists gained a growing voice, according to analysts who have studied the movement.
The new leftists have called attention to a widening wealth gap, government corruption and what they see as exploitation of cheap Chinese labour, raising questions about the effectiveness of current leaders and whether the party has drifted too far from its founding principles. Such questions come as the party prepares for a once-a-decade leadership transition beginning November 8.
As a charismatic politician and onetime candidate for top office, Bo served as the new left’s most powerful champion. From the southwestern city of Chongqing where he served as party chief from 2007 until March 2012, he launched popular social programmes to help the city’s poor, promoted an aggressive anticorruption campaign and restored Mao-era traditions like the singing of red songs.
Bo was removed in March from his Chongqing post and subsequently expelled from the Communist Party on September 28. He is likely to face trial on charges of corruption as well as abusing his power during a murder investigation against his wife, Gu Kailai. Gu in August was convicted of murdering British businessperson Neil Heywood at a hotel in Chongqing in November.
State media have worked to sully Bo’s image, painting him as a leader who lived decadently and flouted party guidelines governing officials’ behavior. But his advocates maintain sway online, where many use Sina Corp.’s popular Twitter-like Weibo microblogging service. New-left activist Sima Nan, who has more than a half million followers, uses the forum to regularly discuss Bo’s case.
It is unclear how extensively popular Maoist websites have been targeted by China’s censors as a result of the Bo case. The University of Utah’s Li said the site he works with, redchinacn.net, was first targeted by hackers beginning in mid-March. After Bo was dismissed from the Politburo in April, leftist websites including his were shut down completely, he said. Li’s site quickly relaunched overseas. government officials haven’t commented publicly about closing any websites.
On September 29, a day after Bo was expelled from the party, the party-run Guangming Daily newspaper published a commentary on its website saying Bo’s fall ensured the country would never experience another Cultural Revolution, a period of political and social chaos lasting from 1966 to 1976.
Han, the new-left advocate who slapped the elderly man in September, published an online essay in response a few days later. The essay – widely republished on leftist websites and apparently left alone by China’s online censors – argued that the Chongqing model under Bo simply set out to fight corruption and to better entwine the party with common people. Top leaders’ and state media’s praise for Chongqing in the years before Bo was fired was proof that Chongqing’s programmes hadn’t previously run afoul of the party, he wrote.
Han became the subject of national debate after his scuffle with the old man on September 18 outside Japan’s Embassy in Beijing where thousands had massed over the course of days to pelt the fortress-like building with eggs and plastic water bottles.
According to a statement by Han posted online, he was chatting with young protesters who carried a sheet with characters proclaiming they missed Chair Mao. He said an old man approached and began cursing the former chair. Han retorted the old man was a traitor, and slapped him across the face, the statement said.
Han declined to be interviewed, and the old man’s identity wasn’t known. Han’s actions toward the old man were widely criticised in China, though Han has responded defiantly. Hearing someone bad-mouth the country’s founder was more than he could bear, his statement said.