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Prominent economist website shut as China silences Mao critics

China’s ruling Communist party has closed the website of a prestigious economist as it launches a campaign against “nihilist” interpretations of former leader Mao Zedong that is stirring up ghosts of the Cultural Revolution.

Chairman Mao’s legacy has became a battleground for “leftists” and “rightists” over the past year, fifty years after he launched the chaotic and violent Cultural Revolution. The rancorous debates come as current president Xi Jinping tightens control over the party and society.

On Friday, censors closed down the social media accounts and website of a think-tank founded by 88-year-old economist Mao Yushi, a frequent target of neo-Maoists (and no relation with the Communist leader), among others. A total 17 websites were taken down for posting “fake news”.

Mr Mao is one of the most outspoken opponents of China’s top-down economic planning and of its state-owned monopolies, which he has called “termites eating away the country’s wealth”.

Mr Mao, prosecuted as a rightist in the 1950s, earned the ire of neo-Maoists after a 2011 essay urging Beijing to “restore Mao Zedong as a man.” His removal from the Chinese Internet follows a month of leftist mobilisation against critics of the Communist leader and liberal outrage over an apparent reversal of legal reforms.

“They want to show strength against the voices that have risen in opposition,” Mr Mao said from his home this weekend. 

Chairman Mao is revered by the ruling Communist party for fighting Japanese invaders during the second world war and for winning the Chinese civil war. But his assumption of absolute power and effort to impose Communist agricultural communes resulted — based on Chinese census figures at the time — in an estimated 30m Chinese dying of starvation during the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s.

At the end of his life he launched the chaotic and destructive decade known as the Cultural Revolution, which the economist Mr Mao estimates killed 1m Chinese. 

The Communist party fears that reassessments of Mao’s legacy threaten its legitimacy while reformers use the failures of Mao’s rule to argue for more pluralist government. After his death the party decided that Mao was “70 per cent right, 30 per cent wrong” but has more recently grown increasingly intolerant of any criticism of the Great Helmsman. 

The crackdown against individuals willing to speak out against Mao’s legacy has been accompanied by official denouncements of “nihilistic” interpretations of Mao’s legacy. Top judge Zhou Qiang last weekend defended “heroic historic figures”, while denouncing the “false Western ideal” of an independent judiciary. 

This reference to historic figures implies that authorities “must have uncovered judges’ lack of reverence for Chairman Mao as well as their continuing desire for judicial independence from Party interference,” said Jerome Cohen, an American lawyer with extensive contacts in Chinese legal circles.

Earlier this month, a lecturer at an agricultural college in coastal Shandong Province and a local government official in Hebei Province near Beijing were sacked for publicly criticising Mao. Neo-Maoists travelled from around the country to protest at the Shandong university’s gate, ultimately brawling with supporters of the lecturer, Deng Xiangqiao.

Mr Mao, the economist, on Jan. 5 denied neo-Maoist accusations that he had taken money to topple the Chinese government or had sought refuge in the US embassy. A former visiting scholar at Harvard, his think-tank, the Unirule Institute of Economics, has received funding from the philanthropic Ford Foundation.

In the past year, China has severely tightened restrictions on foreign funding to its NGOs amid fear that civic organisations are a front for Western nations to bring down the Communist party. 

“The rising rumours are related to China’s situation,” Mr Mao wrote in a letter on Unirule’s website, taking police to task for not stopping the rumour-mongers. “Viewing the US as a ‘deathless enemy’ is common among the masses in China.”

Additional reporting by Archie Zhang in Beijing

Twitter: @HornbyLucy

Via FT