The Man Who Would Be Mao

December 23, 2013 Topic: Politics Region: China

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.

In fact, Xi stoutly defends that past. He has developed the ideologically dense “Two Non-Negatables.” This ungainly phrase tells cadres they cannot use the historic period after gaige kaifang—Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reform and opening up—to negate the historic period before gaige kaifang; in other words, the tumultuous time of Mao’s rule. By putting criticism out of bounds, Xi has reversed a decade of admirable attempts in Chinese intellectual circles to reassess a particularly painful period in Party history.

Of course, the Party could not sponsor celebrations of Mao except in a period of enforced orthodoxy. Xi Jinping’s efforts to recreate the past, therefore, reveal an ambition lacking in recent Chinese supremos. It is said that each leader of the People’s Republic has been weaker than his predecessor, and that was certainly true through Hu Jintao, the “Fourth Generation” boss. Mao was as close as New China got to one-man rule, and successor Deng Xiaoping was a strongman as well, but eventually paved the way to collective rule. Jiang Zemin, Deng’s hand-picked successor, for the most part just let officials do what they wanted. Hu ended up as a paler version of Jiang.

Many analysts have viewed this progression toward weaker leadership as progress, and in many ways, it has been that. Gone, thankfully, are the days when one man could launch a Cultural Revolution, a decade-long campaign of violence that almost destroyed the one-party state, or the earlier Great Leap Forward, which destroyed tens of millions of lives.

Many think Xi, cut from different cloth than were his two immediate predecessors, has reversed the process. Wearing a blue greatcoat and moving with an aura of power, he looks different than Jiang and Hu. “I have sensed from the start that he has the kind of ambition that makes other people worry,” says China historian Arthur Waldron of Xi. “I feel that he is reaching for more power than any of his immediate predecessors had and that he is also seeking to lift himself up above the group of people who would otherwise seem to be very similar to him.” That is exactly what Mao did. He did not start the Communist Party, but by force of personality, cunning, and ruthlessness, he lifted himself up, soon emerging as its undisputed leader.

Mao in recent years has emerged as a protest symbol, a rallying point for those dissatisfied with various ills, most notably corruption and official extravagance. Yet the problem for Xi is that only an outsider can truly ride the Mao wave. Moreover, despite the Mao phenomenon, few Chinese really want another Mao or even Maoist-style rule.

Nonetheless, Xi obviously believes he should have Mao-sized powers. After all, one of his diagnoses of the Soviet collapse—there was no “real man” to stop it—suggests he believes he should accumulate power for the good of the party-state. That, of course, sends chills down the spine. As Waldron tells us, Xi’s power grab “is eliciting a great deal of disquietude.”

The new leader causes disquiet in so many ways. One of the most hopeful developments in China during the past decade has been the evolution of thinking about governance. Among both the country’s elite and even the populace as a whole there is a desire—and sometime a demand—for genuine political reform. “No matter how hard the authorities want to suppress, they can’t just do what they want anymore because there is consensus in society on constitutional rule and the protection of free speech,” notes Xu Youyu, retired from the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “These are things that you can’t just get rid of by denouncing.”

Xi, however, has tried to rule by denunciation, devoting his first year to attacking, among other things, constitutionalism and other concepts derided as “Western.” The infamous Document No. 9 assails liberal political thought and therefore isolates him from the society he rules. As Xu Youyu suggests, most people in China no longer believe a one-party state is appropriate for the country’s modernizing society.

Xi constantly worries that the Party is losing the support of the Chinese people, yet at the same time he has “lurched” to the left. Did he really believe the Chinese people would lurch with him? Most of the populace believes the nation should put Mao’s great tragedies behind them, not rejoice in them, especially because so many became victims or were perpetrators, and in both cases wish to forget. It is hard to imagine what they think when their leader, sounding anachronistic and very off-key, resurrects an unwelcome past.

Xi is clearly out of touch. His Mao binge can only further divorce the Party from the Chinese people. The ruling organization still has the power to coerce, but not to inspire or lead. Xi Jinping may say, as he did this summer, that “our red nation will never change color,” but the Chinese people have simply moved on.

On the day after Christmas, the great and glorious Communist Party of China will celebrate Mao’s birth. Yet Xi and the cadres will, for the most part, be doing so alone.