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Among China’s students, some hope for a return to Mao-era policies

On the campus of Beijing Normal University, professors say they’ve noticed a trend that worries them: students embracing radical leftism. They advocate a return to the socialist state that Communist Party founder Mao Zedong favored and that Chinese leaders for the last generation have tried to put behind them.

The students wear pins with pictures of Mao and carry bags with the former Communist leader’s famous quotations, such as “serve the people.”

Some deny the atrocities of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which killed 30 million people, and Cultural Revolution, when millions of China’s elites and intellectuals were persecuted and urban youth were forced to live with peasants in the countryside. Others acknowledge the atrocities of the Mao era, but they’re anti-capitalism and critical of the West, and they think that Maoist values need to be strengthened in modern China.

“Their basic logic is that since the post-Mao era is not good, then the Mao era should be better,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian.

How big a movement the new left represents is unknown, but in a country where political thought is strictly controlled, social inequality and government corruption are epidemic and the job market for recent college graduates is considered poor, academics who are closest to the phenomenon admit to fears that it represents a dangerous split in society.

“They are either extreme leftists or extreme rightists,” one professor at the university said of her students, requesting anonymity out of concern that speaking about politics might result in retribution from the government. “When they have differences, there is no dialogue between them. This is a worrisome phenomenon and also some reflection of the split in society.”

“In general, there are more rightists than leftists,” she said, “but the leftists are very left.”

“There is widespread discontent among students with inequality and corruption, plus frustrations in their own lives,” said Yang Dali, the faculty director at the University of Chicago’s Beijing center. “It is highly understandable that there would be a leftist sentiment.”

The rise of a new left comes against a backdrop of decades of China’s ruling class allowing more economic freedom. But advocates of the new left say that 30 years of an export-oriented economy that’s brought hundreds of millions of people from rural areas to cities to fill low-wage jobs in assembly plants has led to extreme inequality and corruption.

“We emphasize that reform and opening to the outside world does not benefit the common people,” said Cui Zhiyuan, a professor at Tsinghua University’s school of public policy and management who’s known as one of the founders of China’s new left movement.

The movement has had a tenuous relationship with the government. The ouster last year of Bo Xilai, the party boss in Chongqing, whose government had instituted policies to support the city’s poor, an audacious anti-corruption campaign and the resurrection of the singing of Mao-era “red songs” in public squares, was seen as a blow to leftists, who considered Bo a champion for their cause. Today, leftist websites – such as Utopia, which strongly supports Bo – remain shuttered.

After Bo’s removal from his post and subsequent expulsion from the party, Chinese media launched a full-scale campaign demonizing his Chongqing model, with some newspapers saying his removal guaranteed that China would never have another Cultural Revolution. His trial, likely this month, on charges of bribery, corruption and abuse of power almost certainly will end in his conviction. His wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted last year of murdering a British businessman.

But that government denunciation has taken a different cast since China’s new president, Xi Jinping, took office in March. Recognizing, perhaps, what the University of Chicago’s Yang calls Bo’s “wellspring of public support,” the government has taken steps that the left embraces.

Universities have received government orders to ban classroom discussion of seven topics, including human rights and past mistakes of the Communist Party, while increasing ideological education and political training for professors. Top officials, including President Xi, have said Western values must be eradicated and that Mao’s legacy should be strengthened.

Yang said the government was hoping that by adopting Bo’s rhetoric it would “inherit some of that support” he enjoyed. “It is ironic, but of course this is a great strategy,” Yang said.

On social media, there’s an increase of pro-Maoist commentary as well as vitriolic criticism of liberal scholars who advocate further market-oriented reforms, democracy, free speech and human rights. Last autumn, during anti-Japanese protests that erupted over a territorial dispute between the countries, many young people carried portraits of Mao.

“The new leftists and the neo-liberals, they hate each other,” said Lu Xinyu, a left-leaning professor in Fudan University’s journalism school. “There are a lot of lies told by neo-liberals. A very significant characteristic of them is to always see America as a kind of utopia and that China should meet that standard, but America is facing a serious crisis.”

Mao Yushi, a prominent liberal economist who’s publicly criticized Mao Zedong, said he received threatening calls from leftists. In May, before one of his speeches in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, dozens of protesters, including many young people, showed up with banners calling the economist a traitor. Some of the signs said, “Bring back Bo Xilai,” Mao Yushi said.

“When Bo governed, there were a lot of student supporters,” said Luo Kai, a student at Chongqing University. “People now still talk about Bo and yearn for the days when he was in power.”

But many are unwilling to have their identities known. A member of a Maoist student group called Centimeter Sunshine, at the Harbin Institute of Technology in northern China, recalls that the group had only about a dozen members when it was established in 2009. Now there are hundreds, he said, asking, however, that he not be identified because he feared retribution.

The group reads books on Marxism and travels to rural areas to study social injustice. Sometimes they sing red songs. Many support Bo’s Chongqing model.

“We get together and discuss issues in China, like government ethics, and lack of fairness and justice,” the student said. “I don’t think America’s culture or thoughts have any advanced parts. We still need to rely on the Communist Party of China and the system to come back to the core of serving the people.”

The group has faced opposition. In June, other students drafted a petition asking the university to ban the group. Centimeter Sunshine tells members that “China has been hijacked by pro-capitalist rightists,” the letter said. “They have openly showed support for Bo Xilai, and they hugely poison the minds of modern college students.”

“They think Mao Zedong is God,” said an opponent of the organization, who also requested anonymity. “I studied the backgrounds of these students and found that most of them are from impoverished families in rural areas. In reality, a lot of people can’t find hope so they resort to Mao Zedong thoughts.”

“What worries me,” he added, “is that I have heard many similar groups are at other universities.”

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