Deep in the heart of today’s Chinese, Mao maintains a silent presence. He died 30 years ago, but as a political symbol his legacy has never been interrupted.
Generally, Chinese have many different and opposing opinions of Mao. Those on the right view him as an arbitrary monarch in Chinese history, and say that his dislike of intellectuals and obsession for power led to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. And thus, they regard Mao as the eternal sinner.
However, the left advocates that Mao is a great national hero who promoted the modernisation of China and was responsible for national unity. The left also reveres him for being one of only a few government leaders to abhor the abuse of bureaucratic privileges by Communist Party members. His concerns for the common people and emphasis on personal equality are also highly regarded.
In my opinion, behind this occasionally fierce debate, there is a common subconscious. That is, Mao and his thoughts still have a strong influence over China.
Desire for freedom
Partly, this is because China has maintained its one-party authoritarian regime. So opinions that strongly criticise Mao's individual dictatorship reflect a wider desire to change this authoritarian regime, as well as reflect a desire for political freedom.
"Opinions expressed in favour of Mao sometimes reflect the fact that China's society suffers a large wealth gap"
Also, opinions expressed in favour of Mao sometimes reflect the fact that China's society suffers a large wealth gap, as well as a strong antagonism between bureaucrats and ordinary citizens. Opinions that favour Mao are therefore attacks on the country's bureaucratic elite, and at the same time, represent support for basic equality and human rights.
At first, these contradictory evaluations on Mao appear incompatible and inconsistent. However, the two opinions reflect the level of confusion, even crisis, within Chinese politics and society. I think both opinions have some validity.
To a large extent, Mao in people's minds is not an individual but rather a frame of reference to evaluate and judge current Chinese society.
Opinions on Mao provide an outlet
for views on the government
The judgment people place on Mao has become a political weathervane for Chinese society. People can clearly observe what China lacks and what it needs. We can even foresee China's development trend by observing the government's attitude towards Mao on the 30th anniversary of his death.
One Taiwan historian once told me: "It's the same with Napoleon, every 10 years, people show up with a new opinion on Mao."
I agreed with this judgment. From my point of view, contemporary Chinese, rather than concerning themselves with any evaluation of Mao as an individual, use his image to assimilate, evaluate, and criticise current problems in China.
If you criticise the Chinese Communist Party and its government directly within the existing Chinese political framework, you take considerable political risks. Moreover, due to the strict media controls, the effectiveness of any dissent is always going to be limited.
"If you criticise the Chinese Communist Party and its government directly within the existing Chinese political framework, you take considerable political risks"
However, because Mao is the founder of the Chinese Communist Party and of modern China, by referring to his viewpoints and forecasts, such as the high possibility of corruption inside an organisational bureaucracy, contemporary Chinese can express their true feelings free from political risk. And with the country's economic, society and political landscape constantly diversifying, different opinions about Mao will always appear.
So, one method researchers and observers of China can use to judge future development trends of the country is to keep an eye on the attitudes of officials and of ordinary people to memorial ceremonies.
Opposition to modernity
Here, I want to remind readers that during the mid-1990s a stream of intellectual thought, called the New Left, appeared in Chinese academia. Their attitude towards Mao and his ideology was extremely regressive and also extremely influential.
Their core viewpoint is that the essence of Mao's idealism is opposition to what we would consider modernity and the trends originating from the Enlightenment.
Quite a lot of these academicians are overseas returnees, who have Western educational backgrounds. In Chinese intelligentsia at the moment, there exists this phenomenon where overseas Chinese tend to hold negative attitudes towards Mao, while overseas returnees advocate deriving positive impacts from Mao's thoughts, or at least, derive something more moderate than downright condemnation of him.
The New Left movement has been hugely influential in China, in academia and in wider society.
It is a great pity that the official attitude towards such an important date as the anniversary of Mao's death is only vagueness and low-pitched silence. The reason for this official response is because to be seen celebrating Mao is the same as being seen to be celebrating the Cultural Revolution.
On one hand, the Chinese Communist Party must support its founder, but on the other hand, it also has to play down the Cultural Revolution. The result of this political conundrum is that Chinese officials avoid explicit statements regarding the political importance of Mao on anniversaries.
An academic workshop is being held at the moment in Mao's home town involving 150 experts, with the theme "Mao Zedong and Chinese Social Revolution in the 20th Century".
It is one of only a handful of commemorative events and maybe we could draw the conclusion that the Chinese government expects Mao to become simply an academic rather than political issue. But this expectation will be hard to realise and Mao Zedong will remain a Chinese political symbol for many years to come.