Mao Yushi 茅于轼, a declared liberal economist, is one of China’s best known advocates of government policy reform and an outspoken critic of the neo-Maoist left. Hailed as a ‘national treasure’ 国宝 by his fans, Mao has also attracted a significant number of detractors, some of whom accuse him of being a ‘traitor to the Chinese [Han] people’ 汉奸.
Mao was born in Nanjing in 1929. The son of a railway engineer and the nephew of a bridge engineer, Mao Yushi studied mechanical engineering at Jiaotong University (then Chiao Tung University) in Shanghai. After graduating, he worked at the Qiqihar Rail Bureau in Heilongjiang province and, in 1955, joined the Academy of Railway Sciences in Beijing. He was branded a Rightist in 1958, sent to the Shandong countryside for labor reform in 1960, and was subjected to abuse during the Cultural Revolution.
He turned to economics in the reform years of the late 1970s, employing the mathematics, macro-economics and English he had studied during the previous decade to work out what he termed the ‘principle of optimal allocation’ 择优分配原理. He refined this over the next several years, during which time he attended the Nobel Laureate Lawrence Klein’s 1981 Beijing econometrics workshop. Mao’s first set of economic ideas was published in his 1985 monograph, The Mathematical Foundation of Economics: The Principle of Optimal Allocation 择优分配原理——经济学和它的数理基础. As he lacked formal education in economics, Mao was not eligible for membership in the Institute of Quantitative and Technical Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Instead, he joined CASS’s Institute of American Studies in 1985 where he specialized in American and Chinese economics until his retirement in 1993.
That same year he and other liberal economists, including Sheng Hong 盛洪 and Zhang Shuguang 张曙光, founded the Unirule Institute of Economics 天则经济研究所, a think-tank promoting market-oriented policy reform. He now serves as Unirule’s honorary chairman. 1993 also marked his first involvement in the area of micro-finance. Mao set up a fund in Longtoucun, Shanxi province, that offered interest-free loans for medical and educational needs, and other small business loans (see 中国小额贷款扶贫还有三道坎, Southern Metropolis Daily, 2006). He has also argued on behalf of larger-scale private lenders, such as Wu Ying 吴英, who have had run-ins with finance laws that he regards as relics of an antiquated centrally-planned economic system. ‘I, too, am guilty of illegal fundraising’, he told the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily in a 2012 interview.
Mao was a prominent critic of the Three Gorges Dam, arguing that the project was economically unjustified and was pushed through without regard for expert objections. He was scathing about officials who advocated the project, viewing them as serving the interests of the few over the welfare of the millions affected by the dam. Looking back on the debate in a 2011 interview with Southern People Weekly, he said: ‘In matters like these, you can’t simply have majority rule. Voting for NPC [National People's Congress] delegates, you can have majority rule, but on scientific questions, you can’t. In science, in the study of objective things, that would be irrational.’ He was also among the signatories of a 2005 open letter demanding the release of the economic impact assessment of the Nujiang hydroelectric project, which prompted Premier Wen Jiabao to suspend the project until a scaled-down plan was adopted.
Mao Yushi is well-known for the controversial remarks he makes in interviews and in his writings. For example, he has argued that low-income housing should be built with shared bathrooms instead of private bathrooms (to prevent corrupt officials from hoarding them), or that homeowners are to blame for skyrocketing housing prices. These remarks, however, come across as far more outrageous when circulated in bite-sized chunks on blogs and microblogs than they are in their original context.
Among the most widely publicized statements by Mao are his criticisms of Party orthodoxy and the Party’s version of Chinese history. On 26 April 2011, Caixin Online, the website of prominent editor Hu Shuli’s investigative business magazine Caixin Century, ran an essay by Mao Yushi titled ‘Returning Mao Zedong to Human Form’ 把毛泽东还原成人. The essay, which sought to ‘humanise’ the deified leader by recounting his flaws and highlighting the numerous crimes that had been committed against the Chinese people under his watch, brought up issues that successive post-Maoist administrations have consistently deemed sensitive and inappropriate for public discussion. Mao’s essay gained him instant notoriety but was quickly scrubbed from domestic websites (and is now archived in a number of places, including Chinese PEN). It aroused a storm of criticism from neo-Maoists who called him a traitor and a slave of the West and attempted to have him charged with subversion and libel.
Among the reasons why Mao Yushi is called a traitor is his qualified defense of the Republican-era political figure Wang Jingwei 汪精卫. Wang, a prominent Nationalist, remains widely loathed in China for capitulating to Japan’s imperial army when it invaded China in the 1930s. In 2005-2006, Mao had written a long essay, ‘The Interests of the People, the State, and Politicians’ 人民的利益，国家的利益，政治家的利益 (published in two parts), a wide-ranging meditation on people-centered governance, in which he argued that there were circumstances under which surrendering to an invading force might be considered more ethical than defending the homeland to the death. He followed with remarks about the need to reflect on what is meant by the word ‘traitor’:
I recently saw an article that said there should be a reappraisal of Wang Jingwei. I didn’t read the article, and I haven’t studied Wang Jingwei, but it got me thinking. From the people’s perspective a traitor is likely to be very different and even totally opposite from a traitor in the eyes of the state. Of course, a traitor who sells out the country for personal gain is not fit to be called human. But perhaps there have been some traitors who were not out for personal wealth or advancement, but sought instead to alleviate the suffering of the people by acting as a buffer between the Japanese aggressors and the Chinese people. Such traitors are not only blameless but are true heroes. They descend to hell to alleviate the sufferings of the people. Conversely, there are heroes who mortgage hundreds of thousands of lives and refuse to surrender, all in the service of the emperor. From the standpoint of the people’s interests, these people are not worth emulating. In this light, the problems of several thousand years of history need to be rewritten. It is obvious how important it is to distinguish between the interests of the state and the interests of the people.
These remarks fueled anger. Some speculated whether Mao Yushi was actually Wang Jingwei’s third son, who was supposedly stillborn in Nanjing in 1929.
Mao continues to provoke outrage on Sina’s microblog platform where he often posts statements that stake out libertarian and anti-Party positions, ranging from supporting an increase in road tolls over holiday periods, to condemning the pointlessness of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute. He phrases democracy in terms of putting people first. In a blog post of December 2012, he wrote:
Mao Zedong’s defenders put the ‘state first’. The People’s Republic was founded, and therefore Mao is great. We are ‘people first’; Mao did not bring benefit to the people. That the Mao era had the atom bomb and atomic submarines is a fact. But that even television sets couldn’t be manufactured but had to be imported is also a fact. We suffered thousands of years of ‘state-first’ education. It is hard to shake off this mentality. Now things are increasingly ‘people first’. The state exists only to provide public services (15 December 2012).
Mao Yushi has published numerous popular books on liberal economics, including Economics in Everyday Life 生活中的经济学 (1993), the product of his work at the Institute of American Studies and The Future of Chinese Ethics 中国人的道德前景 (1997), an examination of ethical practices in the market economy. In 2012, the Cato Institute awarded Mao Yushi the Milton Friedman Prize, and in July 2012 he founded the Humanism Economics Society 人文经济学会, a loose scholarly association for which he currently serves as chairman.