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Critics of Mao find themselves without jobs as space for free speech narrows

Hong Kong CNN  — 

In a speech in Davos Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping treated his audience of world business leaders to a full-throated defense of globalization and free trade.

It was a surprising move by the head of a party co-founded by Mao Zedong and which claims the “realization of communism is (its) highest ideal and ultimate goal.”

But as Xi positions the Chinese Communist Party as the flag bearer of liberal economics, back home critics of Mao are discovering the old ways are far from past.

This month, state media has reported three high-profile incidents of people losing their jobs for criticizing Mao, as universities restrict discussion of the Party and school history textbooks are revised to emphasize the Communists’ role in fighting Japan during World War II.

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Fired over ‘devil’ comment

On Monday, Zuo Chunhe, a senior city official in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province near Beijing, was removed from his post and ordered to “deeply reflect on his mistakes” over comments he made on social media, according to Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.

Zuo called Mao a “devil” and described annual commemorations of the late leader’s birthday on December 26 as “the world’s largest cult activity.” He also mocked ongoing government efforts to boycott Western ideas and culture.

Zuo’s dismissal comes after university professor Deng Xiangchao was forced to retire over similar criticisms of Mao.

“The only thing he did right was die,” Deng wrote on Weibo, pointing to the Great Leap Forward and other disastrous Mao policies that led to mass starvation and caused the deaths of millions of people. His account has since been deleted.

Videos posted online showed a crowd of pro-Mao protesters who gathered outside the gates of Shandong Jianzhu University calling for Deng’s dismissal and holding banners such as “whoever opposes Chairman Mao is an enemy of the people.”

In a statement, the university said Deng’s “wrong” comments were a “severe problem and led to a bad public effect,” according to the Global Times.

TV producer Liu Yong, who worked for a regional station in the central province of Henan, was fired for posting messages backing Deng and criticizing Mao.

Mao still divides opinion in China. His giant portrait hangs on Beijing’s Tiananmen Gate, and thousands flock to see his embalmed body at his mausoleum in Tiananmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital. But many families suffered during political movements like the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward.

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The dismissals are indicative of a wider government move to tighten control over freedom of expression, said Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang.

“It’s an extension of a longstanding pathology of the Chinese government to control the narratives of the country both in the past and the future,” she said.

The recent cases come as the Party cracks down on what it terms “historical nihilism,” any attempt to question the official version of history, said Amnesty International researcher William Nee.

He pointed to a recent statement by China’s top court that it was considering how to tackle the issue of people “infringing on the reputation of heroes and historical figures.”

The Ministry of Education announced this month that history textbooks will now emphasize the “14-year Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression,” a move that critics say is designed to inflate the Communist Party’s role in World War II.

Most sources date the start of the conflict in China to Japan’s full invasion of the country in July 1937.

Earlier this month, Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University, one of the country’s leading educational institutions, circulated a list of topics banned from class discussion, according to the South China Morning Post.

These included “criticizing the constitution,” “criticizing Chinese Communist Party leaders” and “spreading religion and superstition.” The university did not respond to a request for comment.

Previous tolerance of “pockets of discussion and greater liberty” within universities and other institutions is narrowing, Wang said.

“At a time when the country is rapidly changing and facing a lot of challenges, the national discussion is being greatly limited.”