A university professor’s online posts criticising communist revolutionary Mao Zedong have sparked a violent protest and online debate between pro-Mao leftists and rightists in China.

Deng angered supporters of Mao when he reposted a post on microblogging site Weibo that was critical of Mao around December 26 – which would have been his 123rd birthday. According to screenshots of posts from Deng circulating online, one post said that Mao was responsible for war and famine and that – if he had died earlier – fewer people would have starved or died from conflict.

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Deng Xiangchao and a screenshot of his Weibo posts. Photos: Weibo.

“The only thing he did right was die,” it said.

According to the screenshots, Deng apologised for this post afterwards, saying his account was hacked and that he is shutting down his Weibo account. His account is no longer available on the site.

YouTube video

Following the post, supporters of Mao attacked Deng and called for his employers to punish him. They also wrote about Deng’s previous criticism of Mao on his Weibo account.

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“Whoever opposes Chairman Mao is the enemy of the people.” Photo: Weibo.

Deng Xiangchao was removed from his post as a member of the standing committee of the provincial political advisory body on Friday, mainland outlets reported. He was also dismissed as a counselor of the provincial government and forced to retire to from his post as the deputy head of the School of Art at Shandong Jianzhu University on Thursday.

‘Traitor to the Chinese people’

A group of Maoists demonstrated outside the school on Wednesday, chanting: “Down with Deng Xiangchao, traitor to the Chinese people,” according to US-backed news outlet Radio Free Asia.

Witnesses told RFA that a group of around a dozen people also showed up to support Deng. The two groups clashed, and activists supporting Deng said they were pushed around by the Maoists.

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Banner says: “Deng Xiangchao cannot escape responsibility for his crime of insulting Chairman Mao.” Photo: Weibo.

Three or four people were beaten up, including a woman in her sixties, one witness said.

One man was beaten up using metre-long steel poles, said another witness. A petitioner called Yu Xinyong. Yu said that police were present, but did not interfere in the beating until the victim, another petitioner, started bleeding.

A poet named Lu Yang who attended the demonstration to support Deng said that he was surprised by the violence. “As an academic, what he thinks and says should fall within the parameters of freedom of speech,” Lu said. “That’s why I had to go and show my support.”

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Poet Lu Yang holding a sign that says: “Staunchly guarding professor Deng Xiangchao’s right to freedom of speech!” Photo: RFA.

Some commentators have posted on messaging platform WeChat and their Weibo accounts opposing the violence against protesters.

Peking University professor and activist He Weifang wrote on his Weibo account that the demonstrators’ actions were classic examples of the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and police should have handled the matter.

State tabloid the Global Times published an editorial on Monday justifying Deng’s removal from his public positions.

“Deng Xiangchao’s behaviour was reported by the public and led to demonstrations – no matter where his remarks are reviewed within an institutional system, they will likely not be tolerated. Thus, those who understand [how the mechanisms work] will know that the punishment from Shandong province and his school were bound to occur.”

catherine lai

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.