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On July 1st, China will mark the 90th anniversary of its Communist Party, but there are signs of a new ideological struggle over Chairman Mao's legacy. It's being played out online where a young leftist has taken on an elderly economist who dared to criticize the founder of the People's Republic of China.

As NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing, their debate comes amid a swell of nostalgia for those revolutionary days.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Mr. MAO ZEDONG (Former Chairman, Communist Party of China): (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

LOUISA LIM: It's now 35 years since the death of Chairman Mao. The official verdict is that Mao was 70 percent right, 30 percent wrong. That assessment is controversial, given the tens of millions of deaths Mao caused through economic mismanagement and political terror.

Now, an 82-year-old reform-minded economist, Mao Yushi - no relation to the former leader - has reopened the debate inside China. In a bold essay, he wrote that Chairman Mao should not be viewed as a god anymore. In an interview with NPR, he laid out why.

Mr. MAO YUSHI (Economist): (Through Translator) The three biggest murderers in the 20th century are Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong. That's commonly accepted among historians outside China, and Mao killed the most people. They're seen as representatives of evil. But in China, Mao's portrait is still in Tiananmen Square. If China wants to develop further, it needs to distinguish between basic right and wrong.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Beginning of the Great Revival")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actress): (as character) (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Such words is still viewed as heresy in Beijing, especially now as China releases a star-studded blockbuster depicting Mao's role in founding the Communist Party. The movie is called "The Beginning of the Great Revival." It concludes with the first meeting of China's Communist Party, with Mao leading the inaugural members in song. It's part of nationwide celebrations for the party's 90th anniversary. This shows how the party's historical legitimacy is intertwined with Chairman Mao.

That's why the elderly economist's recent essay unleashed a wave of vitriol, particularly on the leftist website Utopia. Its 34-year-old founder, Fan Jinggang, says he's gone too far.

Mr. FAN JINGGANG (Founder, Utopia): (Through Translator) What he published smashed the baseline of free speech. In any country, you can't just insult the country's leader and people's beliefs, and oppose the regime.

LIM: Fan Jinggang believes the essay is libelous. He says he's collected 50,000 signatures online calling for Mao Yushi's prosecution. Fan sent the petition to China's parliament, the National People's Congress. Mao Yushi says he never expected such a reaction, but he'd welcome being put on trial.

Mr. MAO: (Through Translator) I'm not against going to court to debate who's right. If that happened, it wouldn't be me on trial. It would be Chairman Mao on trial. I don't think the courts would accept such a case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIM: But he has paid a price for his outspokenness. He has received threatening phone calls, making his wife worry about their safety. Utopia founder Fan Jinggang, however, is not bothered by this. If there were no such threats, he tells me, that would mean China no longer has any patriots. He believes the elderly economist is not acting alone but part of a wider movement aimed at overthrowing the government.

Mr. FAN: (Through Translator) He represents those Western imperialist powers and China's landlord class that were chased out at the founding of the new China. Their common trait is they oppose the People's Republic of China and China's socialist system.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: This comes as a Red Culture campaign convulses parts of China. In Chongqing, where it started, employees take time off work to sing red or patriotic songs. This one's lyrics include we want to make our dear country more beautiful, rich and strong.

Kerry Brown, from the British think tank Chatham House, believes politicians are tapping into revolutionary nostalgia to ease social discontent.

Dr. KERRY BROWN (Senior Fellow, Chatham House): Emotionally, Mao appealed to Chinese people in a way that the recent leaders haven't. If there's a political justification, it's that the Maoist period was one where Chinese society wasn't unequal, you know, and that's been the big kind of problem of the last decade, that there's been so much inequality.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Some see this Red Culture campaign as a waste of time. Others decry the revival of Cultural Revolution themes from the late '60s and '70s, when China was engulfed in chaos.

One critic is Ye Kuangzheng from Phoenix Weekly magazine. He believes the campaign reveals the spiritual bankruptcy of China's leadership.

Mr. YE KUANGZHENG (Chief Columnist, Phoenix Weekly): (Through Translator) I think this government-directed effort presents a bold front to conceal weak defenses. The more people sing, the more it highlights the lack of mainstream values.

(Soundbite of song, "Long Live Our Motherland")

LIM: Like many of the red songs, this one, "Long Live Our Motherland," is newly written. With these choirs all clad in red, the retro music and the epic film lauding Chairman Mao, China's propaganda bosses are falling back on old-school methods in a new media age. And that, too, carries risks for the propagandists - it could end up underlining just how far China has moved from the days of Chairman Mao.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

(Soundbite of song, "Long Live Our Motherland")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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