thinker takes on China's
neo-Maoists By Yvonne Su
BEIJING - With frustration growing in
Chinese society over ever an expanding wealth gap
created by economic reform and opening up, the
firm belief in liberalism and the free market
still being express by some quarters provokes
anger among neo-Maoists or new leftists. This has
particularly been the case with the work of
engineer-turned-economist Mao Yushi.
summer, the 83-year-old posted a blog titled
"Judging Mao [Zedong] as a Man", a critical
re-evaluation of Chairman Mao's legacy. In
response, some of the late communist leader's
supporters called for Mao Yushi's arrest - others
threatened to beat him up. The economist managed
to survive the harassment, but only after he
followed advice from the authorities to keep a
low-profile and stop writing anything more about
the late leader.
A year on, and Mao
Yushi's persistence in advocating the
importance of liberty
has won him the Milton Friedman Prize for
Advancing Liberty from the Washington-based Cato
Institute. He plans to travel to the United States
in May to accept the prize.
economist and a mentor of several leading Chinese
liberal economists, Mao strongly believes in the
powers of free market, equal rights and democracy.
Unlike the majority of Chinese, he didn't spend
most of his time before the 1990s toeing the party
line. Working as a railway engineer in
Heilongjiang province since 1950, he was involved
in developing solutions to improve the efficiency
of trains while increasing his professional
knowledge and learning languages.
thinks on his own. He is an independent thinker.
... Being smart is a common quality. But many
people are not willing to think as an individual
thinker," said Vaclav Smil, a Canada-based
Czech energy and environmental expert.
Yushi's experiences under China's social-political
movements 20th century make his independent
thinking even more unusual. In 1958, amid the
nationwide "anti-Rightist movement", he was
labeled as a Rightist, a term used to refer to
liberal intellectuals who appeared to favor
capitalism and against collectivization.
Afterwards, he remained a target of political
campaigns launched by Mao Zedong.
"Great Famine" between 1958 and 1961, he was sent
to receive "re-education through labor" in a
village in Shandong province and ended up
suffering from 10 months starvation. During the
Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Mao Yushi's home
was searched by the Red Guards, he and his wife
were both shaved bald and criticized and denounced
before mass gatherings. He and his father were
once whipped until they bled.
cautious just like a dog tucking his tail down his
legs after I was labeled as a Rightist ... Those
experiences enable me to hold on when attacked by
others," Mao Yushi recalled later in his books.
His starving experience made him so
curious about the total deaths during China's
Great Famine that he even came up with a
mathematics formula to gather statistics on the
famine. Based on his tabulation, 36.34 million
Chinese died of starvation between 1959 and 1960.
When asked to compare the difference
between physical and psychological tortures, Yushi
said in an interview, "No one wanted to die amid
the famine era. Everybody was fighting for
survival. But so many people committed or wanted
to commit suicide during the Cultural Revolution."
Mao Yushi's fate started to change when
the Cultural Revolution came to an end with Mao
Zedong's death in 1976. He was assigned to do
research on transport economics at the China
Academy of Railway Sciences. During this period,
his research interests evolved into microeconomics
and eventually led him to formulate his famous
economic theory, "Principles of Optimal
Attribution." His academic research career leaped
forward after he joined the Chinese Academy of
Social Sciences' (CASS) Institute of American
Studies in 1984, as he started traveling around
the world for academic exchanges.
Georges-Marie Schmutz, a Lausanne-based
history teacher and Mao's neighbor at Harvard,
said he found him very different from his Chinese
peers in a time when China just about to kick off
its economic reform.
"It was often boring
to speak with Chinese scholars about China,
because we could never know if the conversation
was sincere …On the contrary, I always found Mao
very critical about some aspects of China's
developments but also very realistic about China's
achievements," said Schmutz.
friend of Mao, Clement Tisdell, an economics
professor at the University of Queensland, echoed
Schmutz's view saying that he was surprised to
read about Mao's research paper on free market in
1987 and he invited Mao to teach in Queensland in
1990. "He is not afraid of speaking out his
views," he said.
As an academic researcher
who is always interested in embracing new ideas,
in 1993 after he retired from CASS, Mao and four
other economists founded the Unirule Institute of
Economics, one of China's very first independent
think tanks, to promote privatization, market
rules establishing, land property system reform
etc. Due to a shortage of continuous funding, the
Unirule Institute's operation wasn't smooth in the
beginning and Mao was forced to invest his
family's own savings to keep it going. In
the past few years, Unirule has received financial
support from the New York-based Ford Foundation,
which new leftists say is a front for "funding
from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)."
Unirule denies the accusation.
active economist, Mao also pioneered in private
charity in 1993 by launching a micro-loan program
in a small village of Shanxi province where
running water wasn't available, to finance
villagers' agricultural production, education and
medical care. The project has expanded to Sichuan
and Beijing and has granted more than 10,000 loans
He also jointly founded the
Fuping (Poverty Alleviation) Development Institute
in 2002 with Tang Min, a former Asian Development
Bank economist, to train peasants to provide
domestic services in Beijing. By the end of 2011,
the Institute has trained more than 20,000 workers
from underdeveloped provinces, such as Anhui and
Du Xinmei, a 25-year old college
student who joined the Fuping program after she
left Gansu in 2005, said that the program really
changed her life. "Without the program, I would
have probably become an ordinary mother back home
Despite being 83, Mao Yushi still
travels frequently to different provinces to give
speeches and inspect his projects. When he is not
travelling, he spends most of his time tweeting,
writing, reading and thinking. After the incident
triggered by his criticism on Mao Zedog, he still
actively criticizes the government's economic
policies and popular social trends by publishing
articles and posting blogs.
government shut down the famous new leftist
website, Utopia - which led the harassment against
Mao Yushi last summer - Mao Yushi criticized the
government for suppressing freedom of speech, even
though he didn't agree with the portal's
Aside from advocating
more free market solutions for China, Mao has also
started promoting morality in China, worrying that
the greedy pursuit of commercial interests will
eventually jeopardize China's developments. As
part of the effort to correct China's corruption
practice, Mao said "The first move is to abandon
privileges given to officials."
is scheduled to leave for Washington to receive
the award on May 2, but he remains unsure if the
government will allow him to leave the country. He
said he has finished the writing of his speech
script, in which he will talk about liberty in
China - what there is and what there is still
"The fact that I can win the
prize reflects the progress of China," he said,
"There were some mistakes, but the accomplishment
of the reforms is magnificent."
Yvonne Su is a freelance
journalist based in Beijing.
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online
(Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and