Fifty years after Mao Zedong unleashed the decade-long Cultural Revolution to reassert his authority and revive his radical communist agenda, the spirit of modern China’s founder still exerts a powerful pull.
Millions of people were persecuted, publicly humiliated, beaten or killed during the upheaval, as zealous factionalism metastasized countrywide, tearing apart Chinese society at a most basic level.
It was only in 1981, five years after Mao’s death that China’s government officially pronounced the Cultural Revolution “a catastrophe”.
But in the ancient city of Luoyang, the old, the poor and the marginalised gather daily in the main public square to profess nostalgia for the decade-long political movement, downplaying that period’s violent excesses.
“Either it’s because people have forgotten the Cultural Revolution or are increasingly dissatisfied with social conditions, but since the mid-1990s these kinds of ideas have been gaining currency,” said Xu Youyu, a former Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher.
Maoists have largely embraced President Xi Jinping as one of their own, though he has never endorsed their views outright, and the nuances of his personal ideology especially on economic matters remain a cipher. Many see encouraging echoes of Mao’s political style in Xi’s crusade against corrupt party bureaucrats, and in his staunchly populist rhetoric, nationalistic bent and repeated demands for ideological conformity.
Grassroots Maoism has been “blossoming in every corner” in the past few years as social media has taken off, said Han Deqiang, a prominent Maoist lecturer and professor at Beihang University in Beijing.
The Cultural Revolution is considered to have begun May 16, 1966. Mao’s “Little Red Book” of sayings was elevated to the level of holy scripture, and millions were imprisoned, sent to labor camps or exiled from the cities.
Still, in Luoyang, a 3,000-year-old city in the central province of Henan, nearly every day retired or unemployed workers sing odes to Mao under a billowing Communist Party flag at Zhouwangcheng Plaza.
Thousands of decommissioned army veterans have been petitioning for years for retirement benefits, which have led to confrontations with police, said veteran Qin Shuiyan.
Perhaps no one has drawn Luoyang authorities’ ire more than Wang Xianfeng, a 57-year-old retiree who in recent years has pulled together Maoist rallies with thousands of people, prompting multiple crackdowns.
She discusses Maoist thought semi-weekly in a rented home and organizes followers who distribute thousands of pamphlets. Wang was sentenced to two years in a labor camp in 2010.
In her eyes, Xi is leading a new Cultural Revolution. Maoism nationwide remains loosely organized, however. The community is bound mostly online by blogs and forums.