The founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, might never get a real burial. His body is likely to rest for quite some time to come in the Tienanmen Square mausoleum.
But the 18th Congress of the CPC, beginning this week, is all set to bury the last formal references to Maoist ideology. This Monday, official Chinese media reported that the Central Committee has approved an important amendment to the constitution of the CPC.
While no details were given, the amendment is expected to remove “Mao Zedong Thought” from the ideological banner of the party. The CPC has held up “Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought” as the guiding principles for many decades.
As it opened up to the world from the late 1970s under the reformist leadership of Deng Xiaoping, Marxism-Leninism was steadily de-emphasised. Deng’s guidance, instead, was on building “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. (Critics would say Deng was laying the foundation for “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”.)
But the problem of dealing with Mao’s disastrous political legacy remained. Denouncing him in the manner that the Russian Communists did with Joseph Stalin (after the dictator’s death) was not an option.
Deng, ever the pragmatist, chose to simply abandon Maoism while letting Mao’s popular deification continue. While it worked well for Deng’s successors, they might have good political reasons now to dump Mao Zedong thought.
Having endured Mao’s terrible experiments — the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” — Deng was convinced that “leftism” would remain the bigger threat to the modernisation of China than “rightism”.
After violently crushing the challenge from the liberal pro-democracy movement in the summer of 1989, Deng had no desire to let the leftists regain political control of China.
In early 1992, Deng went out on a tour of China’s southern provinces and called for renewed economic reforms while maintaining the political dominance of the CPC.
Deng’s logic of building “Red Capitalism” without formally discarding Maoism seemed sensible until one adventurer, Bo Xilai, a member of the Politburo of the CPC until recently, sought to exploit the contradiction for his own ends.
As the party boss in Chongqing, Bo Xilai revived the Maoist-era slogans and past techniques of political mobilisation to project himself as a potential top leader of the CPC.
Even as he became popular in Chongqing and generated some enthusiasm among the surviving leftists in the CPC, Bo fell foul of the party leadership.
When Bo was ousted from power last March, Premier Wen Jiabao talked about the dangers of China losing its many hard-won gains in recent decades amidst the possible return of left-wing populism.
Wen explicitly touched upon the taboo subject of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and warned against the return of that “historical tragedy”. “Leftism” was once again proclaimed a threat and it was a matter of time before Mao Zedong Thought was consigned to the dustbin.
In an important speech delivered a few weeks after Bo’s ouster, Xi Jinping, who will be anointed the supreme leader of the party at the 18th Congress, laid out the new ideological framework of the CPC that was shorn of “Mao Zedong Thought”.
“Let us uphold the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the Three Represents and fully implement the scientific concept of development,” Xi declared.
Xi elevated Dengism to top of the list and paid respects to the ideological contributions of his two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
“Deng Xiaoping Theory” underlines the importance of economic pragmatism and centrality of China’s rapid development. It was written into the CPC constitution in 1997 and stood next to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.
Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” refers to the importance of the CPC using advanced forces of production, embracing an advanced political culture and representing the interests of all sections of society, including China’s new capitalists. This was inscribed into the party constitution in 2002.
“Scientific Development”, the theoretical offering from Hu Jintao, now gets that distinction and preserves the political legacy of the outgoing leader.
It is about addressing the new challenges of development in a scientific manner, ensuring sustainability amidst environmental problems and building a harmonious society that can overcome emerging internal political and social tensions.
By the end of his 10-year tenure, if all goes well, Xi Jinping will have his own theory that would be inserted into the CPC constitution. But right now his focus is on removing the poison of “leftism” from China’s body-politic.
The writer is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’