In the coming months, a significant but sensitive anniversary is coming up that the mainland authorities will probably try to play down, but talk of its relevance will resonate in many
Fifty years ago this summer, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution which was to last the 10 years until his death in 1976. During that period tens of millions of Chinese people were persecuted, many of them killed, bringing the economy to the brink of collapse. Now commonly known as the Ten-Year Catastrophe, it is the darkest period in the history of the People’s Republic.
As the decade-long upheaval exposed radical leftist ideology at its extreme – along with the irreparable damage it had done – it has served a reminder to subsequent Communist Party leaders of the importance of being wary of leftist influences within and outside the party.
China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who ended the upheaval and put the country track for growth, highlighted this in his famous southern tour in 1992 when he warned the party should primarily be alert to the dangers posed by leftist thought – even though it should also guard against the right.
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To be sure, since then, the mainland economy has risen to become the world’s second largest economy, causing leftist ideologues to retreat so much that many people believe the left-right divide is no longer relevant in China.
But leftist influences die hard. In fact, recent years have seen a resurgence of leftist thought as its followers have taken advantage of social ills including rampant corruption and rising income gaps to hobble the necessary reforms of state-owned enterprises, and hinder the promotion of the rule of law and institutional governance.
An even more worrying trend is that leftist ideologues and theorists have now elevated their game by publicly disguising themselves as ardent supporters of the party policies so that they can have a free pass to attack anyone or any development deviating from their rigid ideological stance. By doing so, they are hoping to put the party leadership in a quandary and to nudge them their way.
The latest example is the storm of attacks against Ren Zhiqiang, a retired property tycoon, who merely raised questions over President Xi Jinping’s comments on instructing state media to pledge loyalty to the party. Various commentaries have denounced Ren as anti-party and an agent of Western influences, along with other political labels commonly used during the Cultural Revolution.
Readily employing the political language of the bygone era has proved particularly jarring in this age of social and cultural diversity. It has caused further concerns and confusion among the country’s intellectuals and private businessmen as the authorities have stressed the absolute control of the party and tightened their grip on the media and cracked down on lawyers.
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Chinese leaders should see through the ploys of the leftists and review Deng’s wisdom on guarding against their influence. The annual sessions of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress, which opened last week, can be good opportunities to send some positive messages.
So it is interesting to note that on Friday Xi chose to meet a group of CPPCC delegates representing the private sector as his first meeting for the sessions. Every year, top mainland leaders selectively attend the group discussions of the CPPCC and NPC delegates to show their priorities and send politically nuanced messages. That Xi chose to meet first with the delegates representing the private sector was widely played up by official media. While Xi repeated the official line that public ownership would remain dominant in the economy, he spent much time assuring that the government would “unswervingly encourage, support and guide” the private sector. He also promised to lower taxes for small and medium-sized enterprises and wider market access.
Even more interestingly, he gave his blessing for officials to reconnect with private businessmen, urging them to forge new relationships to be free of corruption and under-the-table dealings.
This was significant because one plank of Xi’s anti-corruption drive has focused upon the collusion between corrupt officials and private businessmen.
This has led to investigations into hundreds, if not thousands, of officials and private businessmen, including a few of country’s leading tycoons. As expected, the leftists have conveniently used this to fan the flames against the private businessmen, highlighting their lavish lifestyles and exaggerating their mistakes.
As a result, the normal and necessary interactions between government departments and private businesses – such as visits and business meals – have become increasingly difficult. This has led to delays in contracts and transactions as approvals are difficult to obtain with officials reticent even to attend meetings.
Hopefully, Xi’s blessing will help improve the situation. After all, with the economy facing even more difficult challenges this year, the government needs a more dynamic private sector to create jobs.