In the view of famed Chinese economist Mao Yushi, China is moving in a dangerous direction with a resurgence of hero-worship for Mao Tse-tung.
Mao Yushi, 83, says China must keep pressing ahead with market economy reforms and embrace democracy on a fundamental level.
Modern China's history is steeped in turmoil: The founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, after war with Japan and civil war with the Nationalists, was followed by mass starvation caused by the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the chaotic Cultural Revolution that tore apart the fabric of society. Afterward came the economic reforms that closed the door on the Mao era. Why is Mao Yushi, whose generation survived all this, determined to continue speaking up?
The gray-haired intellectual makes two points: a dangerous resurgence of hero-worship and powerful party members taking advantage of growing dissatisfaction in Chinese society between the haves and the have-nots.
Mao Yushi sat down with The Asahi Shimbun to offer his views:
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Question: Last year you wrote a paper advocating that Mao Tse-tung "be made an ordinary person again." Mao's supporters attacked you as a "traitor" or accused you of committing a "counterrevolutionary crime." Why lambaste him more than 35 years after he died?
Mao Yushi: Because there is a growing movement to worship Mao as a hero and deify him. In some places in the past few years, the atmosphere has started to change to where you can't even criticize him. I see dangerous signs of his supporters trying to broaden his appeal.
His utterly nonsensical economic policies killed tens of millions of people and the Cultural Revolution split the country between friend and foe. They beat me so hard I thought I would die, and they shaved my wife's head. They stole my family's belongings, too. Young people born since the 1980s don't know much about such things. Those in power have purposely covered up the history. No matter what country you're in or what political parties you have, it is important to not hide the past and to tell the next generation about it so that it doesn't repeat itself.
Q: Why is the "Mao fever" spreading?
A: Because many people now feel that society is unequal. More than 30 years have passed since Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms. China has become the world's second-largest economy, but there is a huge rich-poor divide, so I guess that's why they've become nostalgic about the Mao era, when everyone was poor together. However, the inequality now is not the result of free competition. It is a disparity that the privileged have created.
They use government coffers to ride luxury cars, take junkets overseas and dine on fine cuisine. An economic system in which the state monopolizes land, finances, resources and such, and which is tied up with political power, creates a distorted "capitalism for the powerful and privileged."
On top of that, social status tends to be static. Dissatisfaction grows easily when your children and grandchildren will surely remain mired in poverty. We've seen some officials using Mao as a tool to unify such people and build their own power base.
Q: Bo Xilai, the Chongqing Communist Party Committee secretary dismissed from his post, is a good example, isn't he? As was done during the Cultural Revolution, he seized assets from wealthy entrepreneurs, erected Mao statues and sang "red songs" (revolutionary songs). He seems to have struck a chord with the common people.
A: I don't know the inside story behind the Bo Xilai incident. Some say it was a power struggle, and some say that he did good things for the poor. But it looks to me like he just got the support of the poor to try and become an "emperor." There are quite a few Chinese like me who sensed that something fishy was going on in Chongqing.
Q: Some say that this Chongqing incident is the biggest political crisis since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
A: What they share in common is that the Chinese politicians are, as usual, not being open about it, and regular people don't know what's happening. Rumors are swirling on the Internet and people don't know whether the official information in the People's Daily is true or not.
Q: How are the two incidents different?
A: When the military pointed their guns at citizens in Tiananmen Square, it raised serious doubts about China's political system. The outside world looked the other way and the economy stalled. There was not a single Chinese person who felt unaffected by this incident, so we could not help but think about our political system.
People are talking about all kinds of scandals related to the Chongqing incident, like murder and corruption involving huge sums of money. When things go this far, people feel silly rather than angry. I think people are feeling more distrust towards politicians and that they are aloof. I worry that we may end up delaying reforms of China's politics.
Q: Have the authorities put any pressure on you for criticizing Mao?
A: None at all. Mao is a tough subject for the Communist Party to handle. He's their predecessor, so it's hard to criticize him directly. Having said that, if they did denounce me, then Mao's admirers would get a boost. So either way they turn there's political danger for the people in power.
Yet when I signed Charter '08, security officials visited my home.
Q: You're referring to the charter advocating democratization written by Liu Xiaobo and others. He received the Nobel Peace Prize, but he's serving time in prison for the crime of inciting moves to overthrow the government.
A: That was the reasoning and political context behind why the security services interrogated the signatories. I told them, 'Everything written in the charter--freedom, equality, civil rights, democracy--it's all in the Chinese Constitution, so what's wrong with that?'
The government thought I might appear at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Liu's place because he was imprisoned, so they kept me from leaving the country. One time I went to Beijing Airport to attend a meeting in Singapore, but they took my ticket away. But after the prize ceremony I could leave the country, even to go to the United States.
Q: Some of the signatories who were turned in to the police and had terrible experiences.
A: I want to tell the Communist Party to be more relaxed. Even when I talked with Liu through an associate of ours about drafting the charter, my advice was to properly commend the party's achievements, not just criticize and confront it.
I don't think there are many Chinese, myself included, who think that there is a party that can govern China now in the Communist Party's place. Foreigners condemn the party a lot, but the fact is that its economic reforms have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty through economic growth. What I'm saying is that political reforms that promote democratization are essential to making China an even better country.
Q: As an economist, why do you continue to press for democratization?
A: Creating a market economy and democratization are two sides of the same coin. Maoist ideology is not what we need right now. An economy grows through the exchange of money, goods and information. So what do you need for smooth exchanges? An arrangement, based on fair rules, by which anyone can freely participate, with equal status. When you have a society governed by law and mutual trust, then things become more predictable and you don't incur extra costs. A society underpinned by freedom, equality, democracy and civil rights can grow its economy more easily.
Q: Some people think that "state capitalism" controlled by the government, as in China, is more advantageous to survival in market competition.
A: That's only temporary. I don't think the power of the market can solve everything, but China does need more of it. Finance in particular is a problem.
Q: It has been nearly 20 years since you and others made an investment to set up a microfinance business lending small sums to farmers who want to start their own businesses.
A: There weren't any banks in China that would lend money to farmers without collateral. Some acquaintances and I created a fund to make loans with the collateral being the support of borrowers' friends and family--their personal connections, so to speak. For the past 10 years we've also been taking deposits from farmers, although only financial institutions approved by the Chinese government are allowed to take deposits. But we haven’t been arrested apparently because we got a letter from the president of the World Bank at the time praising us for helping to eliminate poverty.
Q: Recently, a businesswoman was sentenced to death for accepting people's money without permission, among other crimes. This triggered an outcry from the public and she got a retrial, but still the authorities didn't budge.
A: When private-sector companies gather money or other companies borrow money from such companies, the government accuses them of breaking the law and squashes them. Yet, there have been many cases of exposes by local governments wanting to snatch the money those companies have collected. They are abusing their regulatory power over finances as a perk.
The state's grip over finance has a hugely adverse effect. If the private sector got involved, then the money controlled by state-owned banks would flow in different directions and go more easily where it needs to. But financial reform is no simple matter, because money is a source of power.
Q: The Communist Party will choose a new leadership in the autumn to run the country for the next decade. Do you think the new leadership will be able to make reforms?
A: I don't think they can make any big reforms, finance included. China's top leaders are not chosen in elections. And those who would wreck the government's base of power cannot reach the top ranks. I think they will feel compelled to institute piecemeal reforms in order to protect the Communist Party's dictatorship.
Things might be different during the 10 years after the comping 10 years because people who have had genuine interaction with other countries and studied abroad will comprise the top leadership. I would like to hope that it could be a chance for China to change.
Mao Yushi, born in 1929, researched rail cars before making economics his specialty in the 1970s. After resigning from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-affiliated think tank, he established a private-sector organization, the Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing.
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