As China prepares to mark the 90th anniversary of its Communist Party on July 1, there are signs of a new ideological struggle over former leader Mao Zedong's legacy.
The conflict is being played out online amid a backdrop of heightened nostalgia for the revolutionary days, as a young leftist takes on an elderly economist who dared to publicly criticize the founder of the People's Republic of China.
It's been nearly 35 years since the death of Chairman Mao, and the official verdict is that Mao was 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong. That assessment is controversial, given the tens of millions of deaths Mao caused through economic mismanagement and political terror.
Now an 82-year-old reform-minded economist, Mao Yushi (no relation to the former leader), has reopened the debate over the chairman inside China. In a bold essay, he wrote that Chairman Mao should not be viewed as a god any longer.
"The three biggest murderers of the 20th century are Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong. That's commonly accepted among historians outside China, and Mao killed the most people. They're seen as representatives of evil," he told NPR. "But in China, Mao's portrait is still in Tiananmen Square. If China wants to develop further, it needs to distinguish between basic right and wrong."
Mao Yushi believes Mao's body should be removed from its mausoleum in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and that his image should be taken off China's currency.
"Now Mao's portrait appears on all our banknotes," he says. "This didn't used to be the case before. I think this shows a huge lack of respect to the Chinese people."
Mao Supporters React To Criticism
Such words are still viewed as heresy in Beijing, especially now as China gears up for nationwide celebrations for the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party. China has released a star-studded blockbuster, The Beginning of the Great Revival, depicting Mao's role in founding the Communist Party. The movie concludes with the first meeting of the party, with Mao leading the inaugural members in song, and shows how the party's historical legitimacy is intertwined with the chairman.
That's one factor behind the wave of vitriol unleashed by Mao Yushi's essay criticizing Mao. A leftist website, Utopia, even collected 50,000 signatures in a campaign calling for Mao Yushi to be prosecuted for libel. The petition has now been sent on to China's parliament, the National People's Congress.
The website's founder, Fan Jinggang, 34, also started a bookshop specializing in the works of Mao, as well as Cultural Revolution-era films and biographies of leaders like Hugo Chavez. Fan says Mao Yushi has gone too far.
"What he published smashed the baseline of free speech," Fan says. "In any country, you can't just insult the country's leader and people's beliefs, and oppose the regime."
He believes the economist is not acting alone, but is part of a wider movement aimed at overthrowing the government.
"[Mao Yushi] represents those Western imperialist powers and China's landlord class that were chased out at the founding of new China," Fan says. "Their common trait is they oppose the People's Republic of China, and China's socialist system."
Mao Yushi says he had written the essay a year ago but only just published it. He never imagined the controversy it would cause.
"Of course, I never thought it would cause such a strong backlash," he says. "I'm a scholar. I write what I think, without really thinking about the consequences."
But he has paid a price for his outspokenness. He's received threatening phone calls, making his wife worry about their safety. Fan, the Utopia founder, is not bothered by this, however. "If there were no such threats," he says, "that would mean China no longer has any patriots."
Despite all this, Mao Yushi says he'd welcome being put on trial.
"I'm not against going to court to debate who's right. If that happened, it wouldn't be me on trial, it would be Chairman Mao on trial. I don't think the courts would accept such a case," he says.
'Red Culture' Resurgence
This controversy comes as a Red Culture campaign convulses China, in a government-directed attempt to inculcate loyalty through singing "red" or patriotic songs. In the highest-level such display of party loyalty, 90 ministers recently formed a choir to sing "Without The Communist Party, There'd Be No New China."
The campaign began in the southeastern city of Chongqing, the brainchild of its flamboyant party boss Bo Xilai, who is angling for promotion to the party's highest body, the Politburo Standing Committee.
In that city, where the campaign is at its apogee, prisoners are having their terms reduced for "red behavior" and inpatients at mental hospitals are being treated with a combination of medication and "red culture."
Kerry Brown, with the British think tank Chatham House, says that emotionally, Mao appealed to Chinese people in a way that recent leaders haven't. He sees the campaign as partly aimed at easing social discontent through nostalgia for the revolutionary days.
"If there's a political justification, it's that the Maoist period was one where Chinese society wasn't unequal. That's been the big kind of problem of the last decade, that there's been so much inequality," Brown says.
Unimpressed By The Campaign
The Red Culture campaign has been roundly mocked online, where many Internet users see it as a waste of time. Others decry the revival of Cultural Revolution themes from the late 1960s and '70s, when China was engulfed in chaos.
Ye Kuangzheng, the chief columnist at Phoenix Weekly magazine, says he objects to the Red Culture campaign's "worship of violence," since it celebrates China's revolutionary beginnings, during which the Communist Party took power through force. He also believes the campaign reveals the spiritual bankruptcy of China's leadership.
"I think this government-directed effort presents a bold front to conceal weak defenses," he says. "The more people sing, the more it highlights the lack of mainstream values."
With these Red Culture choirs all clad in red, the retro music and the epic film lauding Mao, China's propaganda bosses are falling back on old-school methods in a new-media age. And that too carries risks for the propagandists — it could end up underlining just how far China has moved from the days of Mao.