BEIJING - China's ruling Communist Party has dropped its strongest hint yet that it will move in the direction of reform, removing a once standard reference to late leader Mao Zedong in statements ahead of a generational leadership transition.
Mao has always been held up as an ideological great in party communiqués, which also normally mention Marx, Lenin, one-time paramount ruler Deng Xiaoping, former President Jiang Zemin and President Hu Jintao.
The Politburo, a powerful decision-making council with two dozen active members, said on Monday a party congress next month would discuss amending the party's constitution.
|A statue of the late Chairman Mao Zedong at Dong Fang Hong Square in Nanjie village of Luohe city in China's central Henan province September 25, 2012./ REUTERS
Previous amendments, including one implicitly allowing party membership for capitalists, have formed the guidelines for important economic and political reforms in the world's most populous country.
But, crucially, the Politburo in its statement on the issue left out what had been standard wording citing Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, which adapted the original theories of Marxism that grew out of industrial Europe to the conditions of largely rural China when Mao took over in 1949.
"It's very significant," Zheng Yongnian, the director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, said of the removal of a reference to Mao Zedong Thought and the implications of that for the direction leaders were taking.
"Before the fall of Bo Xilai, that direction was not so clear. But now it's become quite clear. I mean, less Maoism, but more Dengism."
Bo, a former high-flying politician supported by leftists, was ousted this year in China's biggest political scandal in two decades.
By removing Mao Zedong Thought, the top leaders were signalling a push for reforms, Zheng said, in the same way Deng introduced market reforms in the late 1970s that turned China from a backwater into an economic powerhouse.
There was also no reference made to Mao thought in a previous announcement on the date of the party congress.
Doctrinal differences between reformist and leftist factions reflect an internal debate about the direction of the new leadership whose taking up of the reins of power starts at the congress opening in Beijing on November8.
The debate has been under the spotlight since the rise and subsequent fall of Bo, who, as party boss of the southwestern city of Chongqing, drew support from leftists critical of aspects of the market-based reform agenda.
China heads into the congress with the economy heading for its slowest annual growth rate in at least 13 years, while social stresses, such as anger over corruption, land grabs and unmet welfare demands, stir protests.
State media, as well as experts close to the government, have made increasingly strident calls for bold reform to avoid a crisis, though nobody seriously expects a move towards full democracy.
This week, for example, the Study Times, a newspaper published by the Central Party School which trains rising officials, lauded Singapore's form of closely managed democracy and its long-ruling main party for having genuine popular support.
"If you want to win people's hearts and their support, you have to have a government that serves the people," it wrote.
Despite his ruthless political campaigns in which tens of millions died, Mao, whose portrait looms large on Tiananmen Square, has always been largely revered as a charismatic ruler who stood up to foreigners and unified the country.
Mao's legacy in China remains tightly guarded by a Communist leadership bent on preserving his memory to shore up their own legitimacy, which, unlike his, was not forged in war.
In 2003, on the 110th anniversary of Mao's birth, Hu declared that "the banner of Mao Zedong Thought will always be held high, at all times and in all circumstances".
An enormous slogan outside the central leadership compound in central Beijing, boldly states: "Long live invincible Mao Zedong thought!"
Some cautioned that it may be too soon to write off Mao.
"This is just not possible," said Wang Zhengxu, a senior research fellow at University of Nottingham's School of Contemporary Chinese Studies in Britain, on speculation that Mao thought and Marxism-Leninism would be removed from the party's constitution.
Despite China's all-pervasive Internet censorship - "Mao Zedong" and "Mao Zedong Thought" are both blocked on microblog searches - some users were able to discuss the issue, with opinions split on the possible removal of Mao thought.
"Mao Zedong thought is the soul of the People's Republic of China ... and it is a light leading people towards justice," wrote one user.
Still, Singapore's Zheng said Mao's vision had become irrelevant as many Chinese were apathetic about him. The doctrine could be de-emphasised in the amendment to China's constitution during the congress, he said.
"Only the left side cares about it," he said. "For most people, for the young generation, they don't care about it. The memory is gone."