The crisis over Bo Xilai in huge Chongqing, a city-state double the size of Switzerland with 28 million people, proves the left lives on in China, despite 35 years of Communist party flight from Maoism—and despite U.S. China specialists’ calling leftists “conservatives.” A pro-free-market right is also intellectually strong, and the Beijing government seems hesitant to attack it. Are a hundred flowers blooming? Is the party-state skillfully balancing left and right to keep politics stable and boring for the populace? Or are darker clouds on the horizon?

Bo Xilai, as Communist party chief in hillside, cacophonous Chongqing, embraced the poor with housing and social benefits, encouraged red story-telling, “singing red songs,” and mass texting of messages displaying Mao’s thoughts. Bo, who boasts a famous father but has some history of opportunism, hitched his rising career to this deployment of leftist mobilization to combat crime, increase public spirit, and isolate enemies. He was successful enough to discomfort Beijing. A flamboyant politician, he made President Hu Jintao and other bigwigs in Beijing look like stick figures.

Astonishingly, on February 6, Chongqing’s police czar, Wang Lijun, one of Bo Xilai’s henchmen, fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, another major southwestern city, out of fear or with a story to tell (or both). The United States apparently denied Wang asylum, and on leaving the consulate he was at the mercy of a large, waiting Beijing security force. Bareknuckled fighting had protruded through the lovely tapestry of socialism. Few concrete charges were laid at Bo’s door, only “corruption.” Bo does have a son at the Kennedy School at Harvard, which may bother some colleagues, but then Vice President Xi Jinping has a daughter at Harvard too.

In some ways the crisis was less opaque than past shake-ups. Bo traveled as a Politburo member to Beijing for a parliament meeting, giving a cheery press conference there, yet failed to return to Chongqing or otherwise appear. The Chinese people could observe Bo’s truncated public presence, and a huge electronic buzz ensued. It was like a game in which the villain, while not especially appealing, was fun to watch; had he fallen off his high wire?

The last major purge of the left in the Chinese Communist party (CCP) was the dramatic arrest of the so-called Gang of Four, heroes turned villains of the Cultural Revolution, in the immediate aftermath of Mao’s death in September 1976. This was a historic coup d’état, but sudden and secret; the Chinese public knew nothing of the seizure of Mao’s widow and the others until they were behind bars. Count it progress that Bo and Wang have not been declared counterrevolutionaries, as Mao styled Deng Xiaoping in April 1976 and Deng styled the Gang of Four. Nor was Bo said to have tried to split the party, as Deng said of party chief Zhao Ziyang after the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989.

In outcome, Bo’s purge will probably have more in common with Deng’s quiet demotion of Mao’s chosen successor Hua Guofeng in the early 1980s or Zhao’s house arrest for the duration after Tiananmen. Bo has been relieved of the top post in Chongqing, but Beijing has not yet said he is guilty of crimes.

More remarkable than Bo’s dismissal—surely triggered by his clash with Wang and the embarrassing incident inside an American consulate—was that his neo-Maoist policies flourished for five years in a Chinese bastion (close to Deng’s birthplace, as it happens). Nevertheless, for whatever reason, Premier Wen Jiabao chose to warn in alluding to the Chongqing shake-up that the Cultural Revolution must not recur.

Bo was replaced by Zhang Dejiang, a Politburo protégé of Hu Jintao with the sparkling background of an education in North Korea. Police czar Wang was replaced by a cop from Qinghai Province, long part of Tibet and desolate home to numerous labor camps. But are left and right really contending in China?

Last year I lectured at the School of Marxism in a major Chinese university. Many students were socialist believers anxious about the future of Marxism in today’s world, as well they might be. Coming out of the classroom, a professor from a different school, political science, who had escorted me, complained in English, “That class and its teacher are so conservative!”

“They’re leftists,” I rejoined.

“Of course they are, but don’t American China specialists call our leftists conservatives?” The Chinese professor had picked this up from the New York Times.

Here is a sample of the mind-boggling array of terms used within one essay by two respected China scholars to avoid saying the successful reform era brought in some right-wing economic policies and the anti-reform grumblers are left wing: “leftist,” Old Left, conservative, “conservative,” neoconservative, old guard, “right.” The verbal dancing seems an effort to uphold the premise “no enemy on the left.” Why call leftists conservative or put “left” in quotation marks? For the same reason Beijing does: A discredited leftist cannot be considered a true leftist.

Even the brilliant Willy Lam, doyen of English-language journalists on Chinese politics, falls into this orthodoxy from the packed trenches of liberal American Sinology; in his case not out of political confusion but out of respect for those packed trenches. He recently called the Leninist CCP “ultra-conservative.” Anything clearly behind the times can be dismissed as conservative. How convenient to the Western left-of-center mind.

L’affaire Bo Xilai should clarify matters for Sinology. No one can call Mao’s revolutionary songs and texts conservative with a straight face. Will the packed trenches call the fallen Bo Xilai “conservative,” neoconservative, old guard, right, “right,” or “Old Left”? What, after all, is conservatism? Key traits in any current definition must include free markets, the primacy of the individual, and limited government. By these yardsticks, Chinese Communists, like all Communists, are at the other end of the spectrum from conservatives. The only intrinsic reason to call Bo conservative was his wish to replicate a past leftist surge—a thin reed on which to hang a definition of conservatism.

An anti-West and anti-free-market element known all over China as left-wing supported Bo Xilai’s reprise of the Cultural Revolution. In the days around his fall many of its websites were blocked by Beijing. One, “Utopia” (, offered a note saying the site was down for maintenance.

Since the 1980s there have been numerous bursts of “Mao fever,” as fascination with the dictator is called (in Chinese, Mao re), whether cultural, nostalgic, or superstitious (farmers clutching a picture of Mao to ward off Yangtze River flood waters). A Chinese edition of my own biography, Mao, has recently sold 600,000 copies and produced a Mao fever, with youth snapping up the book for reasons not fully clear to the publisher or to me. But Bo’s Chongqing Mao revival was the first political Mao fever since the titan’s death in 1976.

Neo-Maoism is not a full alternative set of policies, rather an impulse, a mentality, an anxiety, that says “No!” to aspects of the post-1978 reform era. The left saw Bo, not altogether in focus, as a potential brake on private enterprise, Western influence, China’s insertion into global finances, and Deng’s idea that it’s fine for some to get rich while others may follow later. This left does battle with a right that says, “Reform further or we’re doomed.” Mao’s grandson, privileged with an army sinecure, has written a feeble left-wing book that praises the Cultural Revolution, and some in his camp are mounting lawsuits against rightists for having abandoned socialism.

Business circles in China are by implication largely on the right. Explicitly right are the many classical liberal economists in universities and think tanks. Li Daokui, until recently an adviser to the People’s Bank of China, said boldly this month: “We need market-oriented interest rates.” He gets away with this as Bo got away (for a time) with red songs in Chongqing.

Among intellectuals, self-styled social democracy is a surprising enthusiasm for the right, especially since the publication of an essay, “The Social Democracy Model and China’s Future,” in 2007. Wrote its author, Xie Tao: “Why are we still worshipping Leninism—something the Russians have discarded—like a deity and a banner to be hoisted?” He pointed out candidly: “Without the material wealth created by capitalism, socialism in China would be forever a fantasy.”

Li Rui, a friend of Xie Tao (who died in 2010) and like him a veteran party member well known to Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, declared in his living room last November, “We need the people to advance and the state to retreat.” These folks are proud of having joined the CCP long before Hu and Wen, and they enjoy some respect within the party. “Hu Jintao once sat where you are sitting,” Li Rui said with a smile.

“Only in the abstract is communism a beautiful thing,” Xie Tao wrote. “In practice it is very bad and produces chaos. It is like our Chinese ideal of da tong,” a reference to the utopian “Great Unity” of the 19th-century philosopher Kang Youwei.

The social democrats, deeply hostile to the one-party state, say the CCP has replaced socialism with quasi-capitalism, so China should take the next step and adopt the political system, liberal democracy, that has accompanied capitalism throughout the West. They claim Sweden, which combines social democratic politics with capitalism, has less economic inequality than Communist-ruled China. What’s so great about one-party rule if it offers less “fairness” (a big cry in China at present) than social democracy in Europe does? No wonder one young social democrat, after listening in to a leftist salon criticizing Xie Tao, observed: “They think we’re traitors, following in the footsteps of Gorbachev.”

Xie Tao and Li Rui cannot be styled dissidents, but rather distinguished retired figures making constant intellectual mischief for the party. Neither signed Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto written by Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo; Li Rui told me it was too confrontational. Before his death, Xie Tao said he was told Hu read the 2007 article and promptly added Sweden to his itinerary for an upcoming European trip. Sometimes these veterans get a phone call from a party official suggesting “a cup of tea” at the precise time scheduled for one of their social democracy salons.

It is striking that the CCP has until now allowed debate, in society broadly and especially on the Internet, between quasi-Maoists and social democrats. The party makes it known that it does not agree with Mao’s grandson or with people like Xie Tao, but it does not silence them. To its credit, the party, while saying both left and right wings depart from the “scientific development concept,” allows the two to snipe at each other.

Quite another matter is a flamboyant senior figure like Bo armed with policies that may challenge the gray consensual caution of Beijing. Bo paid a price for popping his head up on a low assembly line. Still more threatening would be a senior figure on the right, a Chinese Boris Yeltsin, who resigned his party post and made the case for social democracy as the political path for China’s quasi-capitalist economy.

For the moment we are left with the unruffled calm that was displayed by Xi Jinping on his U.S. visit and is meant to convince the Chinese people and the world that the governance of China is scientifically managed and politics should not concern anyone but the all-wise party. Some will see this as a skillful balancing act, a CCP steering a safe middle ground, smoothly discouraging enemies to left and right.

Yet hardly a single bold decision has been made in Beijing since the death 15 years ago of Deng, who made many, and none in the years of Hu. This determinedly collective leadership in Beijing, somewhat resembling the semifinal years of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, could be suffering from a no-risks paralysis. Should an economic or social crisis occur—a sharp slowdown in economic growth, social trouble simultaneously in the Muslim west and the business-friendly southeast—basic principles would be at stake, arguments would soar, and the remarkable unity of the CCP since 1989 could crack.

The vast difference from the former Soviet Union is that post-Mao China has had over 30 years of remarkable economic progress, thanks to Deng’s turn against Maoism starting in 1978. Gorbachev had no post-Stalin decades of dismantling central planning to build on in Moscow; Brezhnev presided over economic stagnation as well as political stasis. Whoever leads China a decade from now, regardless of where current and future gyrations within the Communist party may lead, will benefit from the economic transformation of China that the CCP triggered, and the modest intellectual ferment it permitted, in its terrified flight from the Cultural Revolution.

Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, is the author of Mao, The New Chinese Empire, and Madame Mao.

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