Chinese authorities have reportedly imposed punishments on two journalists in recent days who questioned Mao Zedong’s officially sanctioned reputation on social media, while detaining an outspoken leftist intellectual who thought Mao’s vision for a communist utopia should never have been abandoned.
Xiao Peng, a former journalist for the Beijing News, had his professional license taken away after he posted to his WeChat friends circle questioning the late supreme leader’s “greatness,” according to a leftist academic.
“How can we call him great? He was personally responsible for wreaking havoc and causing countless deaths,” Xiao wrote. “When he died, everyone in China was finally able to get enough to eat.”
“This is your great man? A violent, evil dictator. It’s kind of scary how many Mao fans I am seeing in my friends group,” he wrote.
Xiao’s comments were quickly picked up by Wu Danhong, a leftist scholar who uses the pen-name Wu Fatian, who announced on the Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo that Xiao’s license to practice journalism had been taken away, and that he is now “being dealt with by his work unit, which is investigating.”
Xiao’s website “Beijing Time,” a joint venture with the Beijing municipal state broadcast, the Beijing New Media Corp and Qihoo 360, made no mention of the sanction against him, however.
Calls to Beijing Time’s parent company rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
The sanctions against Xiao come as China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), is considering criminalizing anyone deemed to have smeared the “reputation and honor” of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s canon of heroes and martyrs.
The Communist Party already retaliates harshly against anyone abusing late supreme leader Mao Zedong or his image, as this is held to represent an attack on the founding supreme leader of the People's Republic.
It also recently passed laws banning the “desecration or insults” to the national flag and other symbols of the Chinese state.
Three protesters—Yu Dongyue, Yu Zhijian, and Lu Decheng—who helped splatter Mao's portrait with red paint during the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement all served lengthy prison sentences during which they were subjected to torture and ill treatment.
In August 2015, Bi Fujian, a popular TV host for China's state-run broadcaster CCTV lost his job after a private joke at the expense of late supreme leader Mao Zedong that was leaked online.
The ousted former editor of Baixing magazine, Huang Liangtian, said the reports that Xiao has had his license revoked are in keeping with the treatment meted out to Bi.
“If this is confirmed, that he gets fired or something similar … then the party leaders in his company will likely also get punished,” Huang said. “But if he is a genuine freelance, then they’ll just get rid of him; it won’t be a question of formally firing him.”
Meanwhile, authorities in the central province of Henan are probing an officially backed microblog account run by the provincial party committee’s civilization office after it posted an “on this day in history” tweet marking the beginning of the end of the former Soviet Union in 1991.
“This may seem trivial to some, but the collapse of a large, utopian empire is worthy of remembrance,” the tweet said.
An official microblog account for the European edition of Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily hit out at the tweet, saying: “Where’d that come from?”
The Henan account deleted the tweet and issued an apology on the same day, saying that the incident had been “harshly dealt with by the provincial party propaganda department,” and that the duty editor for the microblog account had been fired.
Beijing-based constitutional scholar Chen Yongmiao said plenty of people still criticize Mao Zedong online, but high-profile, officially sanctioned opinion-makers aren’t supposed to join in.
“Officials are basically not allowed to comment on Mao or the collapse of the former Soviet Union,” Chen said.
“A lot of people insult Mao, a huge number, while those who praise him are in a very small minority,” he said. “But they are more marginalized.”
“There is no way that the authorities are going to tolerate criticism coming from within the system, from civil servants,” he said.
Symbol of resistance
However, the government is also wary of anyone using Mao as a potential symbol of resistance against the current administration.
Authorities in the southern province of Guangdong last month detained an outspoken intellectual, Zhang Yunfan, on charges of "organizing mass gatherings that disturbed social order,” prompting a petition from fellow academics for his release.
Zhang was detained after running a group discussion at a local university on the authorities' response to leftist speech.
U.S.-based China scholar Xie Xuanjun said the administration of President Xi Jinping is just as intolerant of dissent from the left as from other quarters.
“This is because there are signs of social instability in the lowest echelons of society, for example, unrest among China’s low-income population,” Xie said, in a reference to low-income migrant workers who have recently been evicted en masse from rented accommodation in Beijing.
“The Chinese government is trying to deal with this ‘low-end population,’ so now anyone on the left is potentially dangerous, because the low-income population has the potential to be a rallying point [for political opposition],” he said.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.