At a country inn in southern China, several dozen Maoists met for a Communist study session one evening in early September. But their gathering ended abruptly as one participant rushed in, saying, “There are dogs outside!”
The police had arrived on the scene to monitor the 82 followers of Mao Zedong, the man who led China’s Communist revolution in 1949.
Most of the Maoists were men in their 60s filled with nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution – a turbulent period they lived through along with the next generation of Chinese leaders who will be named next month.
But 36 years after Mao’s death, his loyal followers often feel more like dissidents.
“Today’s leaders are capitalist-roaders and revisionists,” says one retired worker surnamed Zhou, resurrecting terms used during the Cultural Revolution, which wreaked havoc on China from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976.
Mr Zhou and the group were visiting Shaoshan, Mao’s birthplace in Hunan province, to commemorate the anniversary of the death of the former leader.
“They call it socialism, but Deng Xiaoping, [the architect of China’s market reforms], has created a system that combines the worst of all worlds: hyper-capitalism, corruption and fascism,” says Mr Zhou.
While the Communist party has refrained from carrying out a complete reappraisal of Mao’s rule, which claimed millions of victims in a series of murderous campaigns, he is no longer held up as its principal idol and criticism of him is widespread.
For more than a decade, China’s leaders have faced censure from the left as market reforms have seen the country’s income gap widen, corruption soar and peasants fall far behind urban residents in access to social security.
When they came to power 10 years ago, Hu Jintao, president, and Wen Jiabao, premier, appeared to respond to concerns by introducing healthcare reform plans and tax cuts. But leftwing critics say those efforts have stalled.
“In their first [five-year] term, Hu and Wen still achieved some things. But in their second term, many reforms couldn’t be continued so they stopped again,” says Wang Hui, a professor at Tsinghua University whom many see as the academic leader of China’s “new left”. “As a result, both the left and the right are dissatisfied. In such a situation . . . a radicalisation of the left is unavoidable.”
In 2008, a group of Maoists founded the Chinese Communist party Maoism, which branded the ruling Communist party “revisionist traitors”. A year later their leaders were arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Many on the left saw a leader in Bo Xilai, the charismatic politician who took over as Communist party secretary of Chongqing in 2005. After Mr Bo launched policies that resonated with leftist ideals, including a low-income housing programme and a campaign that sought to revive Maoist traditions such as singing “red” songs and sending cadres to learn from peasants, they rallied around him – only to see him purged in March this year.
The removal of Mr Bo has left the Maoist camp disenfranchised and angry, and fed rumours over the past week that allies of Mr Bo might have attacked Xi Jinping, China’s president in waiting who has disappeared from public view.
“Bo Xilai led a political struggle in the party, but the centre has hit back with a political counter-struggle against him,” says Fan Jinggang, manager of Utopia, a leftwing bookstore in Beijing, which organised the Shaoshan trip. After the purge of Mr Bo, the government closed its website, which was one of the main platforms for China’s left.
On last week’s trip, Mao’s followers took refuge in nostalgia. “Back then, when we were red guards, we would spend our days like this, roaming the country and singing,” enthuses Qiu Shike, one of the Maoist camp’s main theoreticians, still breathless from trumpeting a red song on the tour bus. On the drive from the provincial capital Changsha to Shaoshan, he and his friends repeatedly broke into song with renditions of “The red army longs for Mao Zedong”.
While very few Chinese share these fervent beliefs, many share the Maoists’ grievances about their country’s social imbalances and corruption.
As the group joined the long queue of visitors outside Mao’s ancestral home, clad in white T-shirts bearing the likeness of Mao on the front and the words “the people yearn for Mao Zedong” on the back, they stood out among the crowd of mostly young tourists.
The other visitors were taken aback when the Maoists shouted “Down with the fake Communist party!” But when they switched to “Down with the corrupt officials!” there was applause and cheers and some of the tourists even joined in.
“I may not be so crazy about Mao Zedong as some of these old guys, but I know that many things were better under him,” says Wang Shuai, 31, a teacher who joined the Utopia trip.
Many Maoists say that China needs more than popular discontent to engineer change, but regret that there is nobody to lead their cause nationally.
“We need another revolution. You can’t bring about change without some violence,” says Mao Jianhui, a Maoist who lost his Communist party membership after siding with Tiananmen student protesters in 1989. “Clearly the popular sentiment is there and the people are ready. But someone needs to organise and lead them and there is nobody right now.”