Truth or Treason?
The verbal abuse, protests and death threats leveled at elderly economist Mao Yushi demonstrate the huge ideological gulf that is hindering political debate in China
When 84-year-old economist Mao Yushi gave a speech on private economy on April 25 in Shenyang, he was heckled by Wang Xinnian, a local Party history researcher. The heckling began when Mao claimed that hiring workers was not exploitation. The historian protested that an economic forum was neither the time nor the place to discuss politics.
It was not the first time that Mao had been heckled or disrupted while making a speech. In 2008, a protester threw a shoe at him during a speech in Shanghai. Two years ago in Beijing, four protesters rushed onto the stage and attempted to drag him off.
Having won the 2012 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty awarded by the Cato Institute, Mao is known for his pro-market views and his criticism of the Chinese government. While his economic theories are enough to provoke criticism from those who see him as an ideological enemy, what really riles the country’s conservative leftists is his denouncement of Mao Zedong.
“He is not a god, and he will be removed from the altar, divested of all the myth shrouding him, and receive a just evaluation as an ordinary man,” Mao wrote in a 2009 essay titled “Restoring Mao to the Status of an Ordinary Person.”
Since then, Mao Yushi has been under constant attack. In 2011, members of Utopia, one of the Chinese mainland’s leading leftist websites, petitioned authorities in Shanghai to outlaw criticism of Mao Zedong. In 2012, the website claimed to have collected thousands of signatures calling for Mao Yushi’s prosecution.
Following the incident in Shenyang, word got out that Mao Yushi would be making another speech in Changsha, capital of Mao Zedong’s home province of Hunan, on May 6. In the run-up to the event, the octogenarian was bombarded with insults and death threats.
But Mao was determined to deliver his speech as planned. On the day of the speech, a group of protesters showed up at the venue, chanting slogans like “Long live Chairman Mao” and “Down with the traitor,” forcing organizers to cancel the event.
Song Yangbiao, a media professional in his 30s and leader of the protest, said that he opposed Mao Yushi not only because of the latter’s denouncement of Mao Zedong, but also because the economist “defends capitalism and the rich, and tramples on the poor.”
Song cited a wide range of controversial comments made by Mao Yushi. For example, in a 2009 speech, he said that “commerce can create wealth, but hard work may not,” drawing immediate attacks from leftists for his “disrespect for the working class.”
Mao later explained that he was quoted out of context. He was actually referring to Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, when the entire population was mobilized to produce iron and steel in backyard furnaces as well as meet unrealistically high grain yield targets, resulting in unequivocal and devastating economic disaster. This explanation, coupled with renewed criticism of Mao Zedong, further enraged his attackers.
More recently, Mao Yushi’s comments on China’s territorial dispute with Japan over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands also infuriated Chinese nationalists. Calling the Diaoyu “barren islands” that produce “no GDP, no tax revenue” and have “no real value,” Mao suggested that China give up the islands in case the dispute were to result in military clashes with Japan, since it was ordinary people who ultimately pay the price of war.
“These are the statements of a traitor, who should be denounced by all Chinese, whether on the right or the left,” said Song, the protester.
What Makes a Rightist?
Many leftists argue that Mao Yushi’s attacks on Mao Zedong are driven by his desire to avenge his personal sufferings during Mao Zedong’s rule.
Born in 1929, Mao Yushi had finished the better part of his higher education as a mechanic engineering major by 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded. In 1950, upon graduating, the young academic was sent to work at the railways bureau of Heilongjiang Province.
In 1958, when the “Anti-rightist Movement” swept across China, Mao was labeled a rightist for his refusal to participate in brainwashing exercises known as “political study” sessions, and other behaviour seen as deviant at the time. Having survived the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao was rehabilitated and returned to the Beijing Railway Research Institute. By then, he had become so interested in economics that he began devouring books of economic theory, and gradually established himself as an economist. In 1981, he was transferred to the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, where he continued his pursuit of economic research. In 1993, Mao founded the Unirule Economic Research Institute, a non-governmental think tank, together with several other economists.
Mao Yushi told NewsChina that he cherished the years he spent in the countryside as a rightist pariah, where he obtained first-hand experience of how Chinese peasants went about eking out a living. This may explain Mao’s avowed sympathy for peasants that can often make him appear somewhat socialist in the eyes of the country’s pro-Western liberals and democrats.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Mao bewildered many of his supporters by claiming that an authoritarian regime, if made up of “good guys,” is better than a bad democracy. When asked what makes a good authoritarian government, Mao said “one that works for the people,” making him sound more leftist than rightist.
Dubbed a “permanent critic” of the Chinese government, Mao’s refusal to label the Chinese government an evil regime also disappoints the country’s ardent democrats. For example, in an interview with Foreign Policy in 2012, Mao defended China’s human rights record, saying that the Chinese government had not executed a political prisoner in 30 years.
More recently, he endorsed President Xi Jinping’s idea of “the Chinese dream,” and said the hope of China’s future still lies in the Chinese Communist Party, leading many liberals to abandon him, labeling him a flip-flopper.
Handling the Truth
But Mao claims that he is simply telling the truth as he sees it. Rather than seeking to achieve ideological integrity in his arguments, Mao prefers to be remain obtuse and contrary. In a famous 2007 essay, for example, Mao proclaimed that he would “speak for the rich,” but “work for the poor.”
“Most people are afraid to speak for the rich, as speaking for the rich is politically incorrect given China’s political culture,” Mao explained. “But in reality, most people don’t want to work for the poor, as the rich can pay them more.”
Compared to Mao’s widely cited and highly provocative “pro-rich” statements, his work for the poor is much less publicised. In 1993, the same year he set up the Tianze Research Institute, Mao, along with his wife, also launched a microloan project in a remote village in Shanxi Province to offer financial aid to local peasants in need of money to send their children to school and pay for healthcare. The project has been growing steadily ever since.
In 2002, based on the experience gained through the project, Mao and several other intellectuals set up the Fuping Development Institute. Providing services including microloans, ecological agriculture, professional training for rural women and early-life education for children of migrant workers, the institute has grown into one of the most prestigious NGOs in China.
According to Mao, instead of pursuing ideological purity, one should “immerse oneself in reality and offer concrete solutions to specific problems.” Unfortunately, with a huge ideological gulf between different factions of the public, avoiding ideology is virtually impossible when discussing current affairs.
For example, in a 2009 speech, Mao criticized the government’s subsidized housing project. He argued that considering the current level of corruption, the project should be dropped as it benefited the rich and middle-income earners far more than the poor. He argued that higher earners were using their money and influence to buy up cheap housing originally meant for the impoverished. According to Mao, it is more realistic for the poor to rent a room than to own property.
He came under immediate attack for his alleged “discrimination against the poor.” When Mao responded that discrimination based on economic terms is a necessity in a free market economy, the attacks only intensified.
“All my suggestions and criticisms of the government are intended to make the country better, which should be the common goal of both the left and right,” Mao said. “We may disagree with each other about how the goal should be achieved, but the bottom line is that we should remain reasonable.”
“I do not wish to ‘annihilate’ those who disagree with me, and I hope they would not want to annihilate me, either,” Mao added.
In his latest book, Where Does the Chinese People’s Anxiety Come From?, Mao warns that widespread bitterness and resentment have made the public increasingly irrational, a trend that will lead to great social tension.
Tracing the reason for the radicalization of political opinion, Mao points the finger at government officials again. “The fundamental problem is that many government officials do not respect social justice, and their brains are reason-free zones when dealing with ordinary people,” Mao said. “The result is that this freedom from reason eventually translates into boiling resentment of the public.”
“I’ll speak for the rich, and work for the poor.”
“Commerce can create wealth, but hard work may not.”
“I do not wish to ‘annihilate’ those who disagree with me, and I hope they would not want to annihilate me, either.”
Awarded the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty for his work in classical liberalism and free-market economics in 2012, Mao Yushi is one of China’s most prominent and controversial economists. Born in 1920 in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, Mao began a career as a railway engineer in 1950 after graduating from Shanghai Jiaotong University.
In 1958, Mao was labeled a rightist, and was punished with forced labor, exile and “re-education” over the following two decades. In 1976, he was rehabilitated, and returned to the Beijing Railway Research Institute, where he gradually established himself as an economist. In 1981, he was transferred to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In 1993, Mao founded the Unirule Institute of Economics, a non-governmental think tank, together with several other economists.
The author of several books and many scholarly and popular articles, Mao established some of the very first non-governmental organizations in China. His recent denouncement of Chairman Mao and his call to officially re-evaluate Mao’s role in China’s history have caused him to be both attacked as a traitor and applauded as the voice of justice.
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Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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