Hu Revives Quasi-Maoist Tactics to Stem Social Instability

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 20

Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo

President Hu Jintao has revived a key Maoist concept—"correctly handling contradictions among the people"—so as to more effectively tackle China’s growing socio-political instability. In a speech to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo on the eve of the October 1 National Day, Hu urged party cadres to "boost [society’s] harmonious factors to the maximum degree" through implementing policies that "match the wishes of the people, that take care of the people’s worries, and that can win over the hearts of the people." The supremo also vowed that the CCP would render decision-making "scientific and democratic" and that policies would be anchored upon "the fundamental interests of the broad masses" (Xinhua News Agency, September 29; People’s Daily, September 30). While a number of CCP heavyweights, including Politburo member and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, have also re-hoisted the flag of Maoism, the president’s restitution of one of the Great Helmsman’s most famous slogans carries special significance.

To fully understand the import of Hu’s message, it is instructive to compare the background of the Great Helmsman’s 1957 landmark address—"On the correct handling of contradictions among the people"—and the situation unraveling today. The late chairman’s speech on fomenting unity among the nation’s disparate sectors was made in the wake of the Hungarian Incident of 1956, an early climax of Eastern Europe’s rebellion against the Communist yoke. In China too, intellectuals were beginning to have misgivings about the dictatorial rule of Mao and his comrades. By and large, Mao proposed reconciliatory measures to iron out differences among social groupings. He indicated that while there were signs of disaffection with the authorities, these were "contradictions among the people" because even oppositionists shared "the fundamental identity of [all] the people’s interests." He recommended that the CCP "use the democratic method of persuasion and education" to woo the disgruntled elements (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], September 30;, September 29).

Hu is invoking Mao’s authority at a special juncture in his career—and in the country’s development. The 18th CCP Congress—which will witness the wholesale changing of the guard—is just two years away, and Hu wants to ensure his legacy of having brought prosperity and stability to the country. Moreover, the President admitted that owing to "unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable development," contradictions among the people—in particular friction among different blocs of vested interests—will become exacerbated in the foreseeable future. Several slogans raised during the first term of Hu’s tenure (2002 to 2007)—especially "putting people first"—have clear Maoist roots. "Correctly handle the contradictions among the people" could become the leitmotif of the CCP leadership’s domestic policy at least until the 18th Party Congress.

In his Politburo address, Hu laid out multi-pronged tactics to attenuate society’s contradictions. Foremost are improving people’s livelihood, safeguarding people’s rights and privileges, and "upholding social equality and justice." Secondly, Hu instructed officials "to acquit themselves well with masses-oriented work." This is shorthand for being close to the masses particularly with a view to promoting reconciliation. Hu pledged that grassroots officials would spend more time talking to the masses and handling their petitions so that cadres can "hear the people’s voice in good time." Thirdly, Hu proposed "strengthening social management and rendering social management innovative." This included boosting "social coordination and participation by the public" under effective party-and-government supervision.

Compared to the mid-1950s, Beijing has substantially more funds and other resources to tackle social conflicts. In his Politburo talk, Hu indicated that fast economic growth in the past two decades had "laid down a solid materialistic foundation" for raising living standards and ensuring social equality. Last month, Politburo member and vice-head of the Central Commission on Political and Legal Affairs Wang Lequan cited a new emphasis in the leadership’s efforts to promote stability: puhui, or "spreading benefits among the people." Wang, who won notoriety for his harsh crackdown on dissidents and "splittists" in Xinjiang, indicated that "a terminal solution" to the issue of social stability would be "devoting more financial resources to solving practical problems in which the masses are interested, such as housing, employment, education, health care and social security" (Xinhua News Agency, September 12;, October 2).

In the first half of 2010, minimum wages in dozens of cities were raised by up to 28 percent. New social-security benefits including old-age pension for farmers were introduced for the first time. In select cities, education and social-welfare provisions for migrant workers and their children have been augmented (China Daily, March 20; People’s Daily, July 14). The government has also rolled out measures to cool down real-estate speculation. This is in view of the fact that runaway property prices have been cited as the number one problem facing members of the working as well as middle classes. Anti-speculation measures have ranged from tightening criteria for mortgages to preventing property developers from hoarding land. Last week, central authorities issued a circular warning regional officials that they will be penalized if housing prices in their areas of jurisdiction continue to rise (Xinhua News Agency, September 29; China Daily, September 30).

Even the official media, however, has criticized the authorities for failing to spread wealth more evenly. The major beneficiaries of two decades of uninterrupted prosperity have been the central government and 130 state-held conglomerates. For example, state coffers are expected to rake in some 8 trillion yuan in taxation and other incomes this year, or four times that of 2003 (See China Brief, "Beijing’s Record Revenue Haul Exacerbates Central-Local Tensions," July 9). Despite the global financial crisis, the 130 government-run corporations realized revenues of 815 billion yuan ($121.64 billion) last year, up 17.1 percent from 2008. The four state-controlled banks made profits of 1.4 billion yuan ($208.95 million) per day in the first half of this year. People’s Daily pointed out that "the people are paying more attention to how the profits [of giant state firms] are being distributed and used." "When can the entire people enjoy the profits reaped by these enterprises?" asked the CCP’s mouthpiece. Indeed, laborers’ salaries as a percentage of GDP have been declining for the past 20 years. At the same time, property prices in a number of coastal cities have continued to rise in spite of the government’s cooling-down measures (People’s Daily, August 30;, August 13; New York Times, August 29; Ming Pao, October 3).

What is lacking, then, are clear-cut mechanisms and institutions to foster what Hu called "social equality and justice." This is despite the fact that in his remarkable Politburo speech, Hu cited the word "innovation" four times when talking about building institutions and systems to "safeguard the rights and privileges of the masses." Given that the CCP leadership has ruled out political reform, at least in the near term, it is not surprising that there was no mention of radical steps such as elections. Yet no concrete ways and means have been introduced for attaining non-controversial goals such as a fairer distribution of the economic pie. Take labor rights for example. At the height of the rash of industrial unrest in the spring, scholars and government advisers advocated adopting Western-style collective bargaining. Yet Beijing still shies away from allowing workers to choose representatives to negotiate salaries and other benefits with employers. Also deficient are institutionalized methods to prevent real-estate speculation, which is partly due to collusion between developers and central- and local-level officials (Wall Street Journal, June 14; Financial Times, June 11; Los Angeles Times, June 9).

Despite Hu’s oft-repeated instructions about hearing the people’s voices, Beijing has also failed to come up with mechanisms to handle petitioners, the legions of lower-class Chinese who seek to redress injustices they have suffered at the hands of corrupt or callous officials. On the contrary, central authorities seem to have acquiesced in brutal tactics adopted by regional administrations to prevent petitioners from reaching Beijing. Even the official media have reported about so-called "security companies" employed by local governments to abduct petitioners, who are often illegally detained in "black jails" (China Daily, September 27; New York Times, September 27). It is partly due to such illegal activities that the number of petitioners dropped by 2.7 percent last year compared to that of 2008 (Ming Pao, September 27;, September 27).

Indeed, central and local officials seem most adept at using the government’s "solid materialistic foundation" to beef up the numbers and equipment of the police and state-security agents as well as the People’s Armed Police. The 2010 national budget for police and other security units is 514.01 billion yuan ($76.72 billion), 8.9 percent over that of last year. This law-enforcement outlay is a mere 18 billion yuan ($2.69 billion) below that for the People’s Liberation Army. Security-related expenditures in many localities have gone up dramatically. For example, the police budget in Xinjiang this year is set at 2.89 billion yuan ($431.34 million), or 87.9 percent over that of 2009 (China Daily, January 13; Ming Pao, March 5). The Party Secretary of Lianjiang City, Guangdong Province, caused a stir when he proclaimed in August that senior officials "should not spare any expenses to buy stability." In 2009, the city spent 31 million yuan ($4.63 million) on police forces—as well as special squads to handle petitioners—or more than similar outlays for the previous five years combined (Nanfang Daily, August 25;, August 26).

Here, disturbing parallels between Hu’s and Mao’s approaches to upholding social stability become apparent. In his 1957 address, the Great Helmsman made a distinction between contradictions among the people and "contradictions between enemies and ourselves." While Mao advocated "the democratic method of persuasion and education" with regard to critics who shared the CCP’s ideals, he indicated that so-called people’s foes—unreconstructed capitalists and "exploiters" as well as elements bent on sabotaging the socialist order—should be put behind bars or otherwise liquidated. It seems evident, however, that the late chairman often lumped together these two types of contradictions in accordance with political expediency. Just a few months after his "contradictions" speech, Mao launched the infamous "Anti-Rightist Movement," one of Communist China’s harshest campaigns against liberal intellectuals. Victims of the movement included early advocates of free-market reforms such as former premier Zhu Rongji (, October 1, 2009; Washington Post, July 18, 2007).

President Hu never mentioned "contradictions between enemies and ourselves" in his Politburo talk. Given the number of dissidents—in addition to other "destabilizing elements" such as human-rights lawyers and NGO activists—who have been harassed or detained in the past year, however, it seems clear that the Hu leadership is using quasi-Maoist tactics against its detractors. In the past few weeks, the CCP’s relentless attitude toward dissent was evidenced by its high-decibel reaction to the nomination of Liu Xiaobo, China’s best-known dissident, for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Given Mao’s residual appeal, Hu’s re-hoisting of Great Helmsman’s standards can be interpreted as a stratagem to win over still-powerful conservative party members. Yet unless viable measures are spelled out to better the lot, particularly of disadvantaged sectors, the resuscitation of the late chairman’s "theory of contradictions" can hardly solve the increasingly serious problem of social instability.