The Man Who Would Be Mao

Xi Jinping has ambition and is consolidating power. But will the Chinese people listen?

“The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are,” Mao Zedong said of one of his contemporaries, Adolf Hitler. Mao, the revolutionary, could have been responsible for as many as 70 million deaths in horrific campaigns beginning soon after his taking power in 1949 and ending only with his passing in 1976.

Despite the great toll, Xi Jinping, the fifth and current ruler of “New China,” will go all out to commemorate, on the day after Christmas, the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth.

Yet the new leader—the general secretary of the Communist Party since last November and state president since March—has not waited to begin the celebrations. Months in advance of the anniversary, Xi has made pilgrimages to locations Mao made famous, reminded audiences of the Great Helmsman’s iconic sayings, and reinforced Maoist education and indoctrination across the country. In June, he borrowed Mao’s language and tactics and initiated his “rectification” and “mass line” campaigns. In August, he sounded like Mao himself when he called for “ideological purification.”

Is Xi’s devotion heartfelt? Optimists say it is not, and that his throwback language is merely a means to rally support from the Communist Party’s “leftists,” yet this view does not fit easily with the dominant narrative about his political position in Beijing. At the time of the “shirtsleeves summit” in Southern California this June between the American and Chinese leaders, the White House went out of its way to convince major media outlets—most notably the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times—that Xi had quickly consolidated power. If he was in fact then firmly in control of the Party, he would presumably have had little need to court fringe elements so assiduously. His continued promotion of Maoist themes, therefore, indicates that on some level he believes in the extremist positions he enthusiastically espouses.

Yet whether or not he is a Maoist, Xi’s constant repetition of reactionary themes suggests they will become the defining element of his rule. Last December, when he had been general secretary for only a month, he gave a fiery secret speech to cadres in Guangdong province staunchly defending Party prerogatives and lamenting the fall of the Soviet state. Xi told officials they must heed “deeply profound” lessons and return China to Leninist discipline. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse?” he asked. “An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered.”

Xi is not wavering; his message now is essentially the same as the one he delivered in Guangdong. Since September, cadres across the county have been forced to watch a six-part documentary, “20th Anniversary of the Death of the Soviet Party and State: As the Russians Relate.” The film, part of Xi’s campaign to rejuvenate the Chinese Party and restore ideological rigor, defends Stalinism and reinforces the themes of his December oration. If there is a villain in Xi’s universe, it is Mikhail Gorbachev, who attempted to open his political system with Western-style reforms and relax the Soviet Communist Party’s monopoly on ideology.

Those are not Gorbachev’s only sins in the eyes of Comrade Jinping, however. The Russian leader also gets blamed for “historical nihilism,” Beijing lingo for criticism of communism’s past. The practice is so forbidden in China that it was included this spring as one of the Seven Don’t Mentions, topics not to be discussed. Moreover, nihilist criticisms are targeted by what is now known as Document No. 9, issued in April by an organ of the Party’s Central Committee with Xi’s apparent blessing.

In short, Xi has thrown a dark cloak over the disasters of the Maoist period, essentially pretending they never occurred. By forbidding criticism, Xi can link the survival of the Party to its reaffirmation of Mao Zedong, something he evidently views as important. So by endorsing Mao, China’s communists can avoid Gorbachev’s “mistake” of repudiating the past.