Mao Yushi: An Intellectual Recounts China's Turbulent Past

By Li Xiang
Published: 2009-01-21

From Observer, page 33, issue 402, Jan 12, 2009
Translated by Zuo Maohong
Original article:

When word came that Chairman Mao Zedong had passed away, Mao Yushi was hand-copying a file in his office at the Ministry of Railways. He heard the sound of hurrying footsteps and people weeping outside his door.

Mao put down his pen and went home immediately. "This was the biggest news I'd heard. I knew China would have a big change," he recalled. At the same time, he said, he felt "a mixture of hollowness and sadness."

An era had ended. A country had a new opportunity to start over. It was a turning point for Mao Yushi, too. From the emotional darkness that had enveloped him for many years, he began to walk out to find a new fate.

An Inspired Leader
Mao was 20 years old and a junior student at Shanghai Jiaotong University when troops of the Chinese Communist Party arrived in the city on May 27, 1949.

People were shocked by the self-discipline of these troops. A photo later showed how these young soldiers spent their first three nights in the alleys of Shanghai – they crouched on the ground in lines in the drizzle, with their rifles leaning to the walls.

Locals cheered when they marched in the day. Girls hung flowers on their rifles. Young men shouted "long live the People's Liberation Army". Among them was Mao Yushi, a tall, thin young man from an intellectual family.

Like other college students in Shanghai, he was simple, kind, ignorant, and full of hopes for an ideal world. He made speeches to publicize the CPC's policies in the streets. He was one of the staunchest supporters of the new administration.

"The young people those days were very different from those today. They had less desire and were much simpler," Mao said.

As time passed, his passions began to wane. Doubts arose in 1952, when the new-born regime began fighting against "anti-revolutionists". Mao Yushi recalled thinking that no matter what, blood, cries and death were the opposite of an ideal world he sought to support.

In response to the government's calls for young men to contribute to the development of border regions, he chose to move to the northeast after graduating in 1950. He lived there for five years, during which he worked as a repair worker, a train driver, and later an engineer for in the railway bureau of Qiqihaer. It was also there that he contracted rheumatism.

The Anti-rightist Movement
After he married Zhao Yanling, Mao went back to Beijing in 1955. Two years later, he was labeled a rightist during a government-sponsered Anti-rightist Movement. Looking back, he said he was "correctly defined, because I indeed wanted to follow right-wing ideas, or, as they call it today, the primary stage of socialism," he said.

Though such ideas are highly praised today, they meant a salary cut by two levels, forcible education, road maintenance work in the suburbs, and more trouble in the future, including starvation.

Among the "wrong remarks" he made were "if we have nowhere to buy pork, then pork prices should rise", and "if Chairman Mao wants to meet a scientist, who should visit who?". Later, he called himself a "born liberalist".

For his rightist leanings during his youth, he was banished to Tengxian county, Shandong province after he was classified as a rightist. There he saw starved people, and he suffered from swollen feet due to hunger. "I was frustrated and depressed for most of my life," Mao wrote when he was 70.

When the cultural revolution began in late the 1960s, the government confiscated all property the Mao family owned. Mao's wife and their two children had to wrap themselves in all of their possessions in order to be warm enough to fall asleep.

Moving On
As the political situation turned after 1976, intellectuals regained their respect in society. Mao shifted his studies from engineering to economics. In 1984, he published The Principle of Optimization Allocation – Economics and its Mathematical Foundations, which became a bestseller.

The same year, with the help of Li Shenzhi, then deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Mao was transferred from the research center of the Ministry of Railways to the Institute of American Studies under CASS. As he told Li, his greatest interest then was "reform in the Chinese economy".

Later, Mao became one of the country's most well-known economists for his pursuit of economic reforms from a non-government angle and contributions to the popularization of western economics.

Unlike most Chinese intellectuals who were willing to make decisions for the country, Mao said he had never thought of being the government's brainpower, but rather sought to be an independent intellectual. He said he has always believed that thes two groups are driving China's reforms.

After leaving the Institute of American Studies, Mao established his own NGO in 1993 – Unirule Institute of Economics, and started charity work at the same time. He launched micro-loan tests in a village in Shanxi province with Tangmin from the Asian Development Bank. Though the project was only meant to encourage more micro-loans, it actually changed the lives of many poor people there.

Despite his professional contribution, Mao is more respected for his moral responsibility. Though an advocate of selfishness, which he believes is good for the market, he is not a selfish person himself.

Someone once wrote that when buying food in a supermarket, Mao would always choose those with the nearest expiry date, because if nobody buys it, it will be wasted. Besides the micro-loan tests, he also founded Fuping School to provide vocational training for the children of farmers.

Over time, his views became tempered. When asked his attitude about China in 2005, Mao told this reporter that he had remained optimistic, but that deep down he didn't like the times we were in at all.

He attempted to launch a charity foundation but met serious obstacles. Authorities would only approve a non-governmental foundation when it had funding of at least 20 million yuan. Though the founders also included other celebrities, they failed to change the government's benchmark.

Publishing houses declined to publish his works at that time. He received severe criticism in responses, saying that "law comes before morality, but even law cannot be guaranteed".

During the three years thereafter, he didn't make any public remark on his personal feelings. He said he had seen progress. The death sentence to Yang Jia, who murdered six Shanghai police officers for being interrogated in October 2007 for riding an unlicensed bicycle, has exposed various problems to cynical Chinese. To Mao, it means Chinese are showing more and more respect to human life. It's a breakthrough in Chinese history, in which he has witnessed numerous lives trampled like grass.

On January 14, Mao turned 80 years old. As he said, "in the long term, humans are progressing." The world is becoming better, and yet it still deserves a twenty-year-old's passion from 1949.