The Maoist Revival That Wasn’t

The purge of a provincial Communist Party chief proves that China’s elite has no desire to relive the past.

Steady as she goes. That’s the mantra of China’s ruling party. Premier Wen Jiabao knows that his country has to change its leftist ways if it is to enter the brave new world of global preeminence but old school socialists are pulling him back in, refusing to admit that China is prospering in spite rather than because of its hybrid system of central planning and free enterprise.

The natural outcome is an endless quest for compromise and consensus which especially defines the Communist Party leadership at the top.

China’s leaders must be bland and cautious lest they upset vested interests — including highly influential real estate developers, provincial barons and the captains of China’s state-owned industries — or ideological zealots, many of whom barely, if at all, remember the atrocities of Mao’s “reforms” and revolutions.

One such an ideologue is Bo Xilai, the Communist Party chief in Chongqing who was sidelined this week as a result of his revivalist tendencies.

Bo was popular because he worked to curb corruption in his province but China is not a democracy in the traditional sense. The masses do not have a vote in the leadership transition that is happening this year and next. Bo did not fit the bill of colorless technocrat that is expected of one who aspires to a position in the Politburo.

His resignation appears to be part of a political crackdown. Maoist websites have been shut down. A left-wing television host was fired. A public park in Chongqing, where people used to gather to sing patriotic anthems and wave red flags (Bo encouraged them to) was closed.

The measures follow Premier Wen’s warning last week that without political change, China could revisit the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s 1966-1976 purge of intellectuals.

Bizarrely, Newsweek columnist Niall Ferguson explains Bo’s ouster as a revival of the Cultural Revolution for the single reason that a dissident was “purged.”

Ideologically, his removal from power signifies the very opposite. There is no appetite for a return to Maoism in today’s China, at least not among the country’s elite. If there is a nostalgia for Mao’s times, however benign and superficial it may be, Beijing may not tolerate it anymore. The next generation of leadership will be as bureaucratic as the present. China soldiers on.