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What’s Left, Who’s Right?

Why did the Chinese Communists purge Bo Xilai?

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By ROSS TERRILL
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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.

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