26/09/2013 12:52 BST | Updated 26/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Do the Chinese Want Mao Back?

Last week I sat in a restaurant in the Chinese city of Chongqing and was transported all the way back to the year 1958.

The walls of the Red Flag Commune Canteen were covered with propaganda posters from the era of the Great Leap Forward. Mao Zedong, wearing a peasant's broad straw hat, smiled benevolently amid tall ears of wheat in one poster. In another the Great Helmsman waved his right hand before an image of a glorious red sun.

The smiling waitress who brought chilli-stewed fish to my simple wooden table herself looked like one of those apple-cheeked stars of the old socialist realist art works. "In the vast world you can use your unlimited creativity and effort to accomplish much" proclaimed the slogan over the restaurant's entrance.

Chongqing was once the seat of power of the senior Communist Party official, Bo Xilai. Many Chongqingers believe that Bo "accomplished much" while he was Governor of their hilly inland megalopolis in south western China.

This son of a revered Communist Party veteran cracked down on local crime gangs and spent public money on housing projects for the poor. He also resurrected the propaganda techniques of the Mao era. The public were texted stirring Communist slogans (like the one adorning my restaurant door) by city officials. A mass chorus of old "red" songs was held in Chongqing stadium to mark the Communist Party's 90th anniversary in 2011. Through this populist policy mix Bo built a platform of national fame that many assumed would elevate him to the elite nine-man Party committee that rules China, and perhaps even the pinnacle of power in the Party itself.

But it all unravelled last year when news broke that Bo's powerful chief of police, in fear of his life, had fled to an American consulate to seek asylum. That unleashed a flood of accusations of brutality, corruption and even murder around Bo and his family that rapidly destroyed his political career. And, at the weekend, the former rising sun of Chinese politics was sentenced to life imprisonment in a court in the eastern city of Jinin, found guilty of abuse of power and massive corruption.

In truth Bo's fate was sealed last year when he was implicitly accused by the former prime minister, Wen Jiabao, of leading China back to the nightmare of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. The official line in Beijing seems to be that Bo was a dangerous man, a potential dictator.

Yet (leaving aside the question of whether all the accusations against Bo are true) do the Chinese people actually crave such a leader? The Harvard historian, Niall Ferguson, told us in a Channel 4 documentary last year that Mao remains "wildly popular" in China. Other documentaries on China often seem to visit Mao's hometown of Shaoshan, where they show pilgrims who still believe in Mao-style Communism. Restaurants like the Red Flag Commune and the localised Maoist revival in Chongqing seem to support the view that the Chinese are itching to resurrect to the old hard line religion.

Yet I'm sceptical. No one I have spoken to in China wants to go back to the days of Mao's Cultural Revolution. My own extended family in the country tend to shudder at the very name of that dark period of social cannibalism. It seems to me more likely that Bo Xilai's enduring popularity in some quarters of Chinese society springs primarily from his redistributive public spending than his throwback Maoist propaganda. If you want to see why such policies might burnish a politician's reputation take the cable car across the Yangtze river, which links the central peninsula of the city of Chongqing to the surrounding hills. Look down and you will gaze on the squalid tenements in which hundreds of thousands of Chongqingers, despite China's stellar economic growth rates, still live.

The novelist Yu Hua, who was a vindictive Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, sees frustration at the exploding gulf between the haves and have-nots in modern China as the impetus behind this Maostalgia. "Many people have begun to pine for the era of Mao Zedong, but I think the majority of them don't really want to go back in time" he has argued. "Although life in the Mao era was impoverished and restrictive there was no widespread, cruel competition to survive, just empty class struggle, for there were no classes to speak of in those days".

There's something worrying about modern attitudes to Mao. But I would suggest that the problem lies less in China, than among modish Western intellectuals. Orville Schell and John Delury in their latest work on China, Wealth and Power, argue that Mao's razing of China's traditional culture in the Cultural Revolution laid the foundation for the country's stunning success over the past three decades. "Like a forest fire that clears the way for new growth it may have prepared the way to usher in spectacular new economic growth" they wrote. Niall Ferguson echoes that analysis, seeing the discipline of the Chinese workforce as stemming from the Mao revolution. "The key thing to grasp is the indispensible role played ...by Mao's system of mass mobilisation" he argues.

Yet this is a strangely rose-tinted interpretation of the legacy of a man who terrorised a population for decades and whose policies sent tens of millions of Chinese to early graves. And, curiously, it echoes the old argument of Mao apologists on the far left: "Yes he may have killed millions, but..."

Mao's portrait still gazes out over Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but the man's brutal and discredited policies look, mercifully, unlikely to return to China. Why? Because most Chinese grasp (better perhaps than some outside observers) that their interests will not be served by a return to extreme Communist ideology.

On that steamy evening in Chongqing The Red Flag Commune Canteen was the emptiest restaurant on the bustling street.

Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You've Heard About China is Wrong by Ben Chu is published on 10 October by Weidenfeld & Nicolson