This article is from the Spring 2014 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.

In November, when the British press first reported that three women had been held as “slaves” in south London for 30 years, China’s official propaganda outlets seized on the story as an opportunity to highlight the seamy underside of life in the UK. The Communist Party-linked tabloid Global Times described the scandal as “an irony for Western human rights”, and state-run China Radio International said it was a “merciless irony for Britain’s free society”. But as it emerged that the two suspects, Aravindan Balakrishnan and his wife Chanda, had been followers of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong – albeit idiosyncratic followers, who thought that the Chinese Communist Party could hear them through the light fittings – state media stopped trumpeting the story. The Maoist angle received no mention at all.

This second “merciless irony” did not escape the notice of Chinese online commenters: “I was waiting to see the follow-up reports, serious condemnation and deep reflections on capitalist society,” joked one microblogger on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. “Now you guys have killed all the fun.” In China, the slavery scandal hadn’t only provided an opening to mock the cynical opportunism of state media; it had also tapped into a live debate about Chairman Mao’s legacy before the 120th anniversary of his birth on 26 December 2013. To the chagrin of Comrades Bala and Chanda, no doubt, the Party’s emphasis seemed to be on downplaying the commemoration of its best-known founding father – and the social and political divisions the anniversary might expose. One official commemorative event in Beijing, titled “Reddest is the Sun and Dearest is Chairman Mao”, was downgraded to a “New Year’s Gala”. A 100-part series on Mao, scheduled for December on the state broadcaster China Central Television, was scrapped.

This didn’t mean that China saw open reflections on the famine and hardship that killed millions of people during the Great Leap Forward, or the misery and violence of the Cultural Revolution. A commentary in Global Times, for example, opined that the era of revolution could not be assessed from a “humanitarian” perspective, and such historical debate was simply cover for people “engaged in activities to dig away at China’s political foundations”. China’s President Xi Jinping, despite his recent consolidation of power through “mass-line” campaigns that echoed the Maoist Era, marked the anniversary by treading the line, too. China’s revolutionary leaders were not “gods”, he remarked in a speech, and their mistakes should not be denied. But neither, said Xi, should their “historical achievements” be erased in a “quagmire of nihilism”.

The few Chinese intellectuals that have openly disagreed with the official appraisal of Mao – “70 per cent positive and 30 per cent negative”, as Deng Xiaoping famously characterised it – such as the outspoken liberal economist Mao Yushi (no relation to the late chairman), who proposed a reassessment of the Maoist Era in Chinese history textbooks, have come under sustained attack. In 2013, protestors held placards with the slogan: “Be on guard against Mao Yushi who calls on others to overthrow the Communist Party and turn China into Syria.”

Permitted, if unofficial, celebrations ran the gamut of favourable Chinese attitudes towards Mao, from revivalism to folk religiosity and kitschy Mao-mania. Students and teachers in Taiyuan, northern China, carried portraits of the chairman and shouted: “Swear allegiance to Mao Zedong” and “The Cultural Revolution is back.” In Mao’s hometown, in central China, one pilgrim told a reporter that the chairman “is a Buddha, and I am wishing him happy birthday to show that I’ll never forget him.” In the southern boomtown of Shenzhen, a gold and jade statue of Mao worth 100 million yuan (around £10 million) was unveiled.

Even China’s most ardent neo-Maoists would probably find the approach of Comrade Bala’s groupuscule, the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought – to build the “first revolutionary stable base area in and around Brixton” for the “People’s Liberation Army of China as the main pillar under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and Chairman Mao … to build THE NEW WORLD of socialism and communism,” to quote one of their more sober documents from 1976 – rather weird. Yet Comrade Bala’s sect hadn’t really deviated so far from the Maoist path: the Brixton faction’s propaganda, at its height, is largely indistinguishable from the genuine Chinese article.

Battles over Mao’s memory reflect contemporary anxieties. In today’s China – affected as it is by social anomie, yawning inequality and the unchecked pursuit of profit – rosy nostalgia about “red songs” and communal solidarity is understandably appealing. For some it seems to have replaced public memories of the endless purges and thought reform, pointless mass mobilisations and repressive campaigns launched against almost arbitrarily chosen evils, including sparrows, the music of Beethoven, the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and the New-Age book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which was never even published in China.

In autumn 1968, when Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Mian Arshad Hussain presented the chairman with a case of mangoes, Mao decided to give the 40-odd exotic fruits to a group of workers occupying the campus of Tsinghua University in Beijing, who then, in turn, sent one mango to each of the capital’s leading factories. The mangoes became sacred relics: ceremonially welcomed at the factories, sealed in wax, encased in glass, venerated – and in one case, even boiled in a vat of water and doled out like homeopathic Mao-medicine. One poem in the official People’s Daily newspaper read: “Seeing that golden mango / Was as if seeing the great leader Chairman Mao ... Again and again touching that golden mango / the golden mango was so warm.” According to Li Zhisui, Mao’s personal physician, Mao laughed with delight on hearing about the veneration of his re-gifted fruit.

Perhaps the Brixton revolutionaries had, in fact, faithfully echoed the bizarre religious fervour of Mao-Era campaigns. Even the “invisible handcuffs” described by police investigating the south London scandal might have had a precedent. The anthropologist Mayfair Yang documented how, during the Cultural Revolution, students were encouraged to speak as if their bodies were possessed by the chairman. Yang recounted one middle-school pupil’s diary: “Each time I gaze upon the portrait of our Great Leader Chairman Mao it’s as if up and down my body I’ve gained an inexhaustible strength.” Her teacher commented in the margin: “Our bodies’ every vein is filled with the thoughts of our Great Chairman Mao, and every single one of our accomplishments is flashing with the magnificent brilliance of Chairman Mao.”

Despite his self-characterisation as a Marxist, Mao’s thought leaned towards a type of cosmic millenarianism. His remarks about the possibility of nuclear war, for example, were chillingly devoid of humanism: “Even if the US atom bombs were so powerful that, when dropped on China, they would make a hole right through the earth, or even blow it up,” said Mao in 1955, “that would hardly mean anything to the universe as a whole, though it might be a major event for the solar system.” This is why, despite the Chinese censors’ eagerness to put a lid on the debate, Comrades Bala and Chanda might have had something useful to contribute to a historical debate about the Mao Era that has overlooked the weird, cultish underpinnings of its repression. “The pair must have seriously studied and grasped the essence of Maoism,” tweeted another Chinese microblogger on hearing about the case. “Deceive people with faith and turn them into slaves.”