China puts a stop to Maoist revival

In the latest political tumult in China, it is the Maoists who find themselves in trouble.

Maoist websites have been shut down, ostensibly for "maintenance." A public park in Chongqing where retirees sang and twirled to patriotic anthems while waving red flags posted a notice saying the music was now banned because it disturbed the neighborhood. A former television host, known for his Maoist views, found his scheduled speeches abruptly canceled.

The crackdown started late last week during the conclusion of the National People's Congress. On Thursday, Premier Wen Jiabao called for political reforms to protect the nation's economy, warning that without change, China could be revisiting the cruelty of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Tse-tung's 1966-76 purge of intellectuals. The following day, Bo Xilai, the Communist Party chief in Chongqing and a popular figure for leftists, was sacked from his post.

"This can't be coincidence," said Sima Nan, a scholar and former TV host whose home in Beijing opens into a foyer decorated with a large bust of Mao next to a smaller one of Lenin. He had written several blog posts criticizing Wen's warnings about the Cultural Revolution.

Then, on Friday, Sima was notified that speeches he was scheduled to deliver at universities in Beijing and Hong Kong had been canceled. "I've been a Communist Party member for over 30 years, so I feel very sad that my point of view is banned from the public discourse," he said in response.

Censors appear to have struck in other locations Friday. Three well-known websites popular among the left, Utopia, Maoflag.net and Redchinacn.com, experienced technical problems, silencing critics of Wen's words and helping nip in the bud any public demonstrations in support of Bo.

A few demonstrators appeared Monday at Chaotianmen Square with a red banner that read, "Chairman Bo, the people of Chongqing miss you." They were spirited away by Chongqing police within minutes and a photograph of the demonstration was quickly deleted from websites in China.

The opaque nature of the Chinese Communist Party makes it difficult to determine whether the crackdown is an attempt to weaken Bo and his base, or whether it reflects a deeper ideological divide within the party's leadership.

Chongqing became the epicenter of a Maoist revival under Bo's leadership during the last five years. With great fanfare, the ambitious Communist Party chief spearheaded a campaign to crack down on gangs and corruption. Another program harked back to the early communist days: public singing and dancing to nostalgic revolutionary songs, often while wearing Red Army costumes.

Bo, 62, is the son of one of China's revolutionary pioneers, Bo Yibo. Until recently, he was a rising star and a contender for a coveted seat on the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, to be selected at the 18th party congress in October. He has since been caught up in a scandal that became public last month when his former sidekick, Wang Lijun, who had recently been fired as public security director in Chongqing, sought asylum in a U.S. Consulate, saying his life was in danger.

According to a U.S.-based Chinese website, Boxun.com, a preliminary investigation last week found that Bo had acted improperly in removing Wang from his post without notifying the Ministry of Public Security after Wang came to "report a matter related to Bo Xilai's family because police officers handling the case felt pressure and had handed in their resignation letters."

The report, purportedly by the party central governing office, also said, "This is a very serious incident which has brought negative attention domestically and internationally.... Wang Lijun is directly responsible. Bo Xilai as party secretary takes overall responsibility as a leader."

A 25-minute recording of the report being read aloud by an official with a Chongqing accent was also posted on YouTube. Its authenticity could not be confirmed.

Bo's downfall is a bitter disappointment to Maoist revivalists. "People saw a lot of hope in the Chongqing model. In economy, Chongqing was No. 1 in the country. The security improved. Social morality improved," said Sima.

Within Chinese politics, such people, who refer to themselves as leftists, are a small faction that has often sparred with dissidents such as artist Ai Weiwei, yet has focused on many of the same problems: the gap between rich and poor, corruption and rampant materialism. Among its ranks are some older party members and a few intellectuals, laid-off state employees and others rediscovering Mao and updating his ideas for the Internet.

The Utopia website also runs a small bookstore on the sixth floor of a Beijing skyscraper. Communist kitsch covers its walls: porcelain Mao figurines, red star caps and titles like "The Power of Red Songs."

Employees on Monday refused to speak to foreign reporters. A manager of the website said, however, that staffers were in the process of getting it back online but were deleting some content posted over the last few days.

"The government is really more worried about the leftists than the pro-Western activists because they are against the reform and opening up," said Wen Yunchao, an activist and blogger in Guangdong province. Wen believes that the crackdown does not point to a major ideological shift in the Chinese leadership but was necessitated by the upcoming party congress.

"The most important thing for the leadership is to make sure the power transition goes smoothly. After that, they can decide which direction the country is going," Wen said.

At least for now, the sign of changing times is unmistakable. On Friday, a large notice board was posted in Chongqing's People's Congress Square, one of the popular gathering places for the patriotic music, saying it had made "too much noise and had a negative impact on the lives, work and rest of the neighboring residents."

"This is very confusing for local residents. After being told to sing red songs, now people are told they shouldn't. It is maybe an overcorrection," said Alan Zhang, a blogger from Chongqing.

He said that over the weekend, people in his neighborhood who used to dance to patriotic songs were playing salsa music instead.

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Jonathan Kaiman of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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