Three times a week, Hu Meiying meets with other retirees in a park near the centre of this heaving Yangtze River metropolis to warble nostalgically through the songs of their youth, and fondly recall what Ms. Hu calls the “inspiring time” of the Cultural Revolution.
Ms. Hu has come to Sha-Ping Park to sing songs such as Three toasts to the Motherland and The glory of Chairman Mao for three years now. In that time, her little red choir has grown from a dozen hard-core members to being regularly triple that size.
And they have competition: In Sha-Ping Park, which is home to one of the few cemeteries in China that lionizes Mao’s murderous Red Guards, there were another 10 groups gathered on benches and under trees to sing the songs of the Cultural Revolution.
The revival got a boost last month by a decree from the Chongqing government that sounded straight out of the 1970s: Chongqing residents were urged to learn and sing 36 newly written “red songs” to prepare for the coming 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party.
A return to what supporters call the positive and less materialistic values of Mao Zedong’s era is just one facet of the “new left” politics on the rise here in Chongqing, a district that, including the surrounding countryside, is home to some 32-million people. The “red revival” also includes sending high-ranking officials to spend time in the countryside, another throwback to Mao’s policies, as well as a widespread ban on billboard and television commercial advertisements.
But while the political planks of what’s being dubbed the “Chongqing model” are drawing most of the attention, local Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai is also undertaking radical economic reforms, including a lowering of the corporate tax rate and moving to eliminate the vast economic and social gulf that exists between urban and rural Chinese. Mr. Bo has also overseen a harsh and popular crackdown on the organized crime gangs and corrupt officials for which Chongqing was long famous, earning him widespread popular praise.
Depending on whom you ask, the Chongqing model is either a much needed reinvention of Communist Party rule, or the beginning of a dangerous backslide toward an ideologically-driven era akin to the one the country all-too-gladly abandoned three decades ago. Supporters and opponents alike agree much of the Chongqing model could soon be adopted on the national stage by a Communist leadership unsettled by the popular uprisings in the Middle East and looking for a way to reconnect with its own people.
In the eyes of many, the Chongqing model is Mr. Bo’s campaign to be named to China’s most powerful political body, the nine-member standing committee of the Politburo, seven members of which are due to soon retire. After being passed over 10 years ago, it would be a shock if Mr. Bo was again not selected. There’s growing speculation he will be named vice-president or vice-premier as early as this fall, putting him on a course to eventually inherit one of the country’s top posts.
“Mr. Bo is just doing things that the Communist Party used to do in order to gain the trust of the masses. He’s using them again so that the government thinks what the ordinary people think and the government stands in the same place as the ordinary people. My hope is that the whole country can go this way,” said Chen Zhonglin, dean of the law faculty at the University of Chongqing and a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubberstamp parliament.
But applying the Chongqing model elsewhere would be difficult, Prof. Chen said, because applying Mr. Bo’s anti-crime campaign – known as “Strike The Black” – at the national level would threaten the fiefdoms that bureaucrats around China have built and guard jealously. (The campaign neatly suits Mr. Bo’s political interests, since it spotlights the corruption that was allowed to flourish under his predecessor Wang Yang, the current governor of Guangdong province and another contender for a top Politburo post.)
Strike The Black, which involved the arrest of 5,000 people over an eight-month period, including dozens of allegedly corrupt officials and organized crime figures – among them the city’s deputy police commissioner and his sister-in-law, known as the “godmother of Chongqing” – is the campaign that both made Mr. Bo a folk hero with many ordinary Chinese and earned him the ire of a handful of outspoken intellectuals.
Chief among the latter is He Weifang, a prominent law professor at Beijing University who did his legal studies in Chongqing. In an open “letter to Chongqing colleagues” that he published on the Internet last month, Prof. He warned that “the Cultural Revolution is being replayed, and the ideal of rule of law is right now being lost.”
Particularly disturbing, he said, was the tendency in Chongqing for police, prosecutors and judges to work together – with no separation of powers – to ensure convictions in the Strike the Black campaign.
Prof. He said the rollback of rights and the old-style propaganda campaigns were particularly galling given that Mr. Bo was among those persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, spending five years in a prison and another five in a labour camp after his father, Bo Yibo, was identified as a counterrevolutionary by Mao’s powerful wife, Jiang Qing. That appears forgotten now in the name of political ambition.
“Probably, [Mr. Bo]thinks he needs these campaigns to show he is the most charming provincial governor, the one with the strongest fist and biggest head,” Prof. He said in an interview in a Beijing café. “He doesn’t want to be just another provincial boss. He wants to be special.”
But others argue that the debate over Strike the Black and the red songs campaign has obscured the real substance of what Mr. Bo and his deputy Huang Qifan are accomplishing in Chongqing.
Cui Zhiyuan, a professor of public policy at Beijing’s Tsinghua University who volunteered for secondment to the Chongqing government, says what’s most important about the Chongqing model are the government’s twin experiments with reforming notoriously unwieldy state-owned enterprises and overhauling the country’s hated hukou land registration system.
The former has seen state-owned corporations abandon their focus on heavy industry and move into more profitable fields such as finance, increasing revenues and allowing the government to slash corporate taxes on private enterprises – hardly a sign of the red revival many fear. The latter program, which is unique in China, has moved to ease the disparity between the country’s urban and rural halves – which is institutionalized by a system of registration papers known as hukou, which aim to slow the country’s rural-to-urban shift by making it difficult for migrant workers to purchase land or access the education and health- care systems in their new homes.
Chongqing’s reforms offer rural hukou holders who have lived in the city for five years or more the opportunity to exchange their arable land for homes in the city that come with a treasured urban hukou – allowing the family to access the same hospitals and schools as those born within the city limits. The state gains too, Prof. Cui said, because China is approaching an arable land crisis which can be avoided by converting some of the hundreds of millions of small-scale farms around the country into larger, more productive plots.
Prof. Cui said working for the Chongqing government in 2011 is comparable to working in Shenzhen in the 1980s, when it was the only city allowed to experiment with free market policies because of its proximity to Hong Kong. Now, Chongqing is the place in China where new ideas are given a chance to be put into practice.
“There are a lot of Western media reports that Bo Xilai wants to be a member of the Standing Committee [of the Politburo]at the next congress,” Prof. Cui said. “But I think the key thing is that he’s started a political reform. He’s trying to shake up the system.”