Mao Zedong’s figure still stands large in China today, a symbol of China’s determined will and a recognized instrument of power conferred within the CCP. Its legacy is highlighted for purely political aims. In the fall of 2012, a new ruling elite will be chosen at the XVIII CCP Congress. As expected, there will be no struggle for place among different positions, since well-practiced procedures favour a preliminary agreement.
The Congress will showcase unity and harmony, offering a display of cohesion and stability to the country’s people. The two most important leadership positions are virtually assigned—Xi Jinping as the Party’s General Secretary and Li Keqiang as Prime Minister. But the run-up is now underway for other prominent seats on the paramount Standing Committee of the 24-member Politburo. For several years, Mao has inspired a revival of fond memories and admiration. Somewhat ironically in an era when his impractical ideology has been roundly replaced by a new Chinese model, his ghost invites the image of benevolent ancestor. No longer associated with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, but revered as the seminal founder of the People’s Republic, Mao today is a reference to the longer trail of wisdom while he offers an anchor in turbulent times. China is searching for a coherent identity within its society as well as in the world. The cultural debate today is focused on China’s nature, inarguably rich but without the purposeful clarity of once-more-meaningful philosophical boundaries.
The best-known representative of this ‘Mao nostalgia’ is Bo Xilai, the CCP’s Secretary for Chongqing. China’s most recently anointed municipality (March 1997), the city is a megalopolis of 32 million, within the agricultural heartland of China. Bo has refocused energies on its unprecedented economic growth, which proceeds at a rate more rapid than the rest of China. New industries and research centers have transformed the region’s rural lands. Investment from multinationals has grown, encouraged in part by labor costs well below those now encountered in the developed coastal areas.
A juggernaut of organized crime has been defeated, with national and international attention. The city is now said to be largely free of the gangs and corruption that had weighed on the local consciousness and impeded progress in the marketplace. Bo Xilai’s popularity reflects these successes. He has placed them in something of a Maoist frame, with skillful employment of tools Mao once cleverly used to wage ideological battle. Posters, TV soap operas, slogans—all evoke a China where thoughts and feelings about the country’s identity marshalled enthusiasm and support. The propaganda sends a message which recalls a time of revolutionary purity, and enlists an antidote to counter troubling inequality and uncertainties of today. With the National Congress just ahead, Bo Xilai will have accumulated ample credit to share.
Bo’s outlook is exemplary of China’s unfolding aspirations and firm-footed course. The son of Bo Ibo, the modern country’s most highly regarded economist who was purged by Mao and then rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping, Bo today represents some of the less conservative bastions of Chinese politics. His policies were seen to be open to modernity as he supervised rapid development as Mayor of Dalian, one of the country’s most dynamic coastal cities. His tenure at the Ministry of Commerce brought many successful initiatives aiding trade, enterprise finance, professional training and modern infrastructure. He is thus identified with a country far from poverty and underdevelopment, and one on the move in every way—an icon of the collective aspiration as well as stability. He has offered the view that China is now strong enough to reevaluate its recent past, without the need to shirk it and stare only ahead at its bright future. He understands that the flow of widespread popular sentiment is with him, as well as a strong contingent of the ruling class.
There is thus a shared belief that today’s China is not a repudiation of the past, but a natural eventuation and continuous flow out of history and its 20th century passages. It is a country whose legacy is more rooted in continuous progress and a sense of shared destiny, than in social ruptures or interruptions of its four decades of success.