Friday, June 17, 2011

Mao versus Mao China's online debate

CRACKDOWNS are not what they used to be in China. The arrests and disappearances of dozens of government critics in recent months have not deterred liberals from fighting back through the internet and some of the country’s more open-minded state-owned media. Opposing ideological camps are doing unusually open battle.

This week’s issue of The Economist describes one front of the liberal pushback: an online campaign by scholars, bloggers, journalists and other activists to get themselves elected in forthcoming ballots for local legislatures, or people’s congresses as they are known. Such a flurry of independent politicking, egged on by liberal media (for example, this particularly feisty commentary, in Chinese, in a Guangzhou newspaper, Xin Kuai Bao) has not been seen in urban China since 2003. The previous time before that was back in the 1980s, when Chinese politics were roiled by liberal-versus-conservative struggles.

Another front, which we reported on in the May 26th edition, has been a campaign by hardline Maoists to get a liberal economist, Mao Yushi, prosecuted for attacking Mao Zedong in an article he wrote in late April (China Media Project has a partial translation of it, along with the original text). The Chinese media have been more reticent about mentioning this particular confrontation because it touches on a very raw nerve for the party (talking about independent candidates in grassroots elections is far safer because existing regulations allow non-party-sponsored candidates to stand, at least in theory).

But there have been oblique hints of support for Mr Mao—the economist. One newspaper published an interview (here, in Chinese) with the 82-year-old think-tanker in which he strongly criticised the way that debate about the Three Gorges dam was stifled prior to the project’s being approved by the National People’s Congress, the top legislature, in 1992. Airing Mr Mao’s views on such a controversial theme, at a time when Maoists were spitting venom at him online, was clearly a show of solidarity.

The Maoists have interpreted a recent upsurge of Chinese media criticism of the dam as another sign of a liberal counterattack (see this article, in Chinese, on the Utopia website, a Maoist forum which has been leading the charge against Mr Mao).

A bold exception to the state media’s silence on Mr Mao’s recent travails appeared on NetEase, a Chinese news portal, on June 3rd. The website carried a lengthy and remarkable interview with Mr Mao about Utopia’s attack. He spoke of menacing telephone calls from Maoists and a need for tight security during his public appearances. In what counts as a bold foray into political analysis for a Chinese media organisation, the interviewer asked Mr Mao what would happen if Maoists (extreme hardliners) were to take over in China. Mr Mao said he feared there would be another Cultural Revolution. He said he decided to publish his essay attacking Mao Zedong at this time because “everyone is calling much louder for political reform”.

The interview was later deleted from the NetEase website. (You can see its remains here: the sentence in the middle of the mostly blank page says “Sorry! The page you are visiting does not exist or has been deleted. You will be returned to the home page in five seconds.”) But it can still be read (in Chinese), on China-Review, a website affiliated with Mr Mao’s think-tank.

On June 15th, the Maoists attempted to step up pressure on the authorities to silence Mr Mao by sending a petition to the National People’s Congress with, they said, the signatures of more than 50,000 people calling for Mr Mao’s indictment.

(Utopia published a provincial breakdown of this figure, in Chinese, which suggests that the central province of Henan, having provided nearly one third of the signatories, is particularly fertile ground for Maoism.) The number is interesting to compare with the 8,000-odd signatures garnered in support of Charter 08, a radical call for democratic reform, by the end of January 2009, nearly two months after it had been issued (the Washington Post has the story). The risks of calling for political change, however, are infinitely greater than those of condemning a liberal economist for criticising Mao, ie zero.

Mr Mao is not deterred. On the same day he published an essay on China-Review (in Chinese) rebutting the Maoists’ charges against him. He urged them not to be swayed by “lies and false propaganda” about the late chairman. And he went further. Developed countries, he said, all had market economies and democratic politics. “Although there are faults with this [democratic] system too, humankind has yet to find a better one”, he wrote. The Economist by Banyan

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