They pounce on bloggers who dare mock their beloved Chairman Mao. They scour the nation’s classrooms and newspapers for strains of Western-inspired liberal heresies. And they have taken down professors, journalists and others deemed disloyal to Communist Party orthodoxy.
China’s Maoist ideologues are resurgent after languishing in the political desert, buoyed by President Xi Jinping’s traditionalist tilt and emboldened by internal party decrees that have declared open season on Chinese academics, artists and party cadres seen as insufficiently red.
Ideological vigilantes have played a pivotal role in the downfall of Wang Congsheng, a law professor in Beijing who was detained and then suspended from teaching after posting online criticisms of the party. Another target was Wang Yaofeng, a newspaper columnist who voiced support for the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and then found himself without a job.
Since Xi came to power, the pressure and control over freethinkers has become really tight,” said Qiao Mu, a Beijing journalism professor who was demoted this fall, in part for publicly espousing multiparty elections and free speech. “More and more of my friends and colleagues are experiencing fear and harassment.”
Two years into a sweeping offensive against dissent, Mr. Xi has been intensifying his focus on perceived ideological opponents, sending ripples through universities, publishing houses and the news media and emboldening hard-liners who have hailed him as a worthy successor to Mao Zedong.
In instructions published last week, Mr. Xi urged universities to “enhance guidance over thinking and keep a tight grip on leading ideological work in higher education,” Xinhua, the official news agency, reported.
In internal decrees, he has been blunter, attacking liberal thinking as a pernicious threat that has contaminated the Communist Party’s ranks, and calling on officials to purge the nation of ideas that run counter to modern China’s Marxist-Leninist foundations.
“Never allow singing to a tune contrary to the party centre,” he wrote in comments that began to appear on party and university websites in October. “Never allow eating the Communist Party’s food and then smashing the Communist Party’s cooking pots.”
The latter-day Maoists, whose influence had faltered before Mr. Xi came to power, have also been encouraged by another internal document, Document No. 30, which reinforces warnings that Western-inspired notions of media independence, “universal values” and criticism of Mao threaten the party’s survival.
“It’s a golden period to be a leftist in China,” Zhang Hongliang, a prominent neo-Maoist, said in an interview. “Xi Jinping has ushered in a fundamental change to the status quo, shattering the sky.”
China’s old guard leftists are a loose network of officials and former officials, sons and daughters of party veterans, and ardently anti-Western academics and journalists. They look back to the precepts of Marx, Lenin and especially Mao to try to reverse the effects of China’s free-market policies and the spread of values anathema to party tradition. And while their direct influence on the party leadership has been circumscribed, they have served as the party’s eager ideological inquisitors.
Their favourite enemies are almost always members of China’s beleaguered liberal circles: academics, journalists and rights activists who believe that liberal democracy, with its accompanying ideas of civil society and rule of law, offers the country the best way forward.
Mr. Xi’s recent orders and the accompanying surge of pressure on political foes further dispelled initial suspicions that his ideological hardening was a feint to establish his credibility with traditionalists as he settled into power. Instead, his continuing campaign against Western-inspired ideas has emboldened traditional party leftists.
“China watchers all need to stop saying this is all for show or that he’s turning left to turn right,” said Christopher K. Johnson, an expert on China at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who formerly worked as a senior China analyst at the C.I.A. “This is a core part of the guy’s personality. The leftists certainly feel he’s their guy.”
In November, after Mr. Wang, the newspaper columnist, was dismissed from his job, the nationalist tabloid Global Times celebrated his downfall in a commentary. “In the future, the system will take a harder line towards the ‘pot-smashing party’,” it said, referring obliquely to Mr. Xi’s remarks about those who live off the party and then criticise it. “They will have a choice: change their ways or get out of the system.”
The latest directive, Document No. 30, demands cleansing Western-inspired liberal ideas from universities and other cultural institutions, according to Song Fangmin, a retired major-general, who discussed it with dozens of veteran party officials and hard-left activists at a meeting in Beijing in November. The directive formed a sequel to Document No. 9, which Mr. Xi authorised in April 2013, launching an offensive against ideas such as “civil society,” General Song said.
“These two documents are extremely important, and both summarise speeches by the general secretary,” he said, referring to Mr. Xi by his party title. “They identify targets so we can train our eyes on the targets of struggle.”
Unlike Document No. 9, which was widely circulated online, to the consternation of party leaders, No. 30 has not been openly published. But some of Mr. Xi’s comments have appeared in party publications, and references to it have surfaced on the websites of universities, party organisations and leftist groups, illuminating how the directive has coursed through the government to amplify pressure on dissent.
One political scientist from a prestigious Beijing university said that senior leaders had tried to keep the document confidential by transmitting it orally through the ranks. “This time it’s being kept top secret,” he said, “because last time things were far too public.”
But its effects have been apparent. Newspapers have accused universities of serving as incubators for antiparty thought, and campus party committees have been ordered to sharpen ideological controls. In June, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences revealed that a party investigator had accused the academy of harbouring ideological deviants. The investigator, Zhang Yingwei, said in a speech that the academy had been infiltrated by foreign subversion, and researchers were “wearing their scholarship as a disguise to create a smokescreen.”
The campaign has alarmed liberal academics, who fear that Mr. Xi is reviving the kind of incendiary denunciations of internal foes that have been rare since Chairman Mao convulsed the nation with his jeremiads against bourgeois thinking. Some, like Wu Si, a well-regarded liberal historian, take a longer view, and argue that realpolitik will eventually force Mr. Xi to adopt a more moderate position.
“It’s a self-defensive strategy against those who might try to call him a neoliberal,” Mr. Wu said in an interview.
Before Mr. Xi came to power in late 2012, few foresaw such a sharp and extended ideological turn. China’s leaders were then consumed with purging Bo Xilai, the ambitious politician who had courted party traditionalists by evoking Mao and the rhetoric of the revolutionary past. When Mr. Bo fell, his leftist followers came under official suspicion and some of their websites and publications were shut down.
Now, however, leftist voices are back in vogue. Analysts say it is unlikely Mr. Xi wants to take China back to Mao’s puritanical era, but doctrinaire Communists see him as a useful ally, and his directives as a license to attack liberal critics of the party.
“The leftists were under pressure for a while but now they are very active again,” said Chongyi Feng, an associate professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, who follows China’s intellectual and political developments. “Xi Jinping has used these people to attack.”
At a meeting in October, party secretaries of universities and colleges were summoned to discuss Mr. Xi’s instructions and urged to “enhance their sense of dangers and resolutely safeguard political security and ideological security.”
In November, The Liaoning Daily, a party newspaper in northeast China, drew nationwide attention with a report that said universities were troubled by ideological laxity. Chinese academics, it complained, were comparing Mao Zedong to an emperor, praising Western notions such as a separation of powers, and “believing that China should take the path of the West,” it said.
“It has become fashionable in university lecture halls to talk down China and malign this society,” said the report.
The ideological policing has sent a chill through China’s liberal intelligentsia. Several academics declined to be interviewed, saying they were lying low for the time being. Others said they had already experienced what they liken to an ideological purge.
Since October, Qiao Mu, the journalism professor and director of the Centre for International Communications Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, has been relegated to clerical drudgery, summarising English-language books in the school library, as retribution, he says, for his advocacy of Western-style journalism and a long affiliation with liberal civil society groups in China. In addition to barring him from the classroom, administrators slashed his salary by a third, he said, removed his name from the department’s website and forced his students to find other thesis advisers. “It’s meant to be a kind of humiliation,” he said, adding that he was told his demotion could last for years.
Officially, he is being punished for defying superiors who had withheld permission for him to travel abroad for conferences and other academic pursuits. But privately, school officials acknowledge growing pressure from above.
As he whiles away his days in the library, Mr. Qiao, 44, has become despondent. Some friends have suggested that he leave China, or at least compromise his values and do as he is told.
“I want to stay in my motherland,” he said, adding, “As I like to say, I have everything I need here in China, except freedom.”
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