Why Xi Jinping is not another Chairman Mao

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EBUT hour As President Xi Jinping gets more powers, critics are comparing the Chinese leader to Chairman Mao Zedong, whose one-man rule brought the country to disaster. These grumblers may be underestimating Mr. Xi’s intentions. Often, the accusation that Mr Xi is imitating Mao – a despot whose campaigns of political terror and reckless economic policies left tens of millions dead – is a prediction that a leader China is storing up trouble for itself, by weakening norms and institutions that could be helpful. control and access his authority. Such traitors draw lessons from Mao’s unhappy end. Over the two decades before his death in 1976, the Great Helmsman’s absolute power and cult of personality left him increasingly isolated and paranoid: a traitor ostracized by his revolutionary comrades, military commanders and subordinates. -help, many of them cleaned or directed to their companions. deaths

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In Mr. Xi’s case, those making predictions are citing the many enemies he made in his first decade as leader of the Communist Party. They note ongoing anti-corruption campaigns that have netted hundreds of thousands of officials, including heads of large state-owned companies, police and other security chiefs, army generals and members of the ruling Politburo party. The same doubts point to Xi-era regulatory obstacles and policy changes that have left China’s business sector in a funk and driven billionaires, entrepreneurs, creative artists and other useful talents to flee. from the country. To all this, bearish types would add last December, with poor planning to abandon covid-19 controls. The elites in big cities like Beijing, ever alive to the changing political winds, shudder when they hear slogans from the Mao era revived. They wake up when officials refer to Mr. Xi as “the heart of the party” and “the leader of the people”, or they urge 97m party members to study Xi Jinping Thought.

An announcement last month rattled nerves. Officials unveiled a party-wide plan to “encourage investigation and research”, where officers will be sent to “basic units”, down to businesses, schools or villages. Once on the ground, officials are to listen to the crowd and consider whether, in their own work, they have drifted into “formalism”, party jargon for just being pretending to follow Mr. Xi’s direction. For educated Chinese, there are echoes of an earlier campaign to encourage study and research, launched in 1960-61 when senior leaders were sent to their hometowns to study on “mistakes” in the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s radical move to collectivize farming and ranching. industry, which killed millions in a man-made famine.

By 1961 Mao had lost the trust of many senior colleagues. Sending some of them on study tours gave him political cover to reverse the worst policies of his Great Leap Forward. Soon, however, he was bent on revenge. In 1966 he launched a campaign to attack and assassinate party officials and other authority figures. China calls that wild, bloody decade the Cultural Revolution. Today’s Americans could say Mao’s “campaign against the deep state”, says Stanford University Professor Andrew Walder.

The analogy is helpful for outsiders considering Mr. Xi’s approach to power. It is false for Mr. Xi to call him a second Mao. Mao was a radical man, willing to blow up an institution he did not trust. Disgusted with the idea that discipline within the party could reform arrogant bureaucrats, he chose to defeat terrorists with violent class struggle, forced from below by the people. By contrast, Mr. Xi is a career politician who wants party members to clean themselves up, under the supervision of fearsome inspectors within the discipline. He believes in top-down control, not chaos. He has been working to expand the reach of his party to every corner of the economy and society. It has built a massive apparatus of censorship, surveillance and propaganda to control the people, not disperse them. In other words, Mr. Xi wants to be more than a Mao-style strongman. It also wants to channel power through the deep state.

For evidence, consider Mr Xi’s praise of Liu Shaoqi, China’s one-time president and a man Mao came to loathe as, in Professor Walder’s words, “the leader of the deep state”. Liu was a tough, Moscow-trained organizer of underground party cells and guerrilla units before the revolution, and a ruthless enforcer of party discipline afterward. He fell out with Mao when the disasters of the Great Leap Forward became undeniable. Liu confronted his leader behind closed doors after meeting with starving peasants in his home region of central Hunan province in 1961. Because of his pain, Liu was purged and tortured during the Revolution. -mach Cultural, and was restored immediately after Mao’s death.

Personalized rule or strong party? Xi’s answer: both

Liu’s tour of Hunan is commemorated today in the small town of Tianhua. Old pictures in an exhibition hall show him extracting the truth from curious farmers. The mud-walled farm office where he stayed has been restored. Yang Yi, the warden, shows a door lying on two benches that the then president of China was supposed to use as his bed, after coming under cover as a simple inspector (a truck was who arrived with soft furnishings to shake away). Mr Xi referred to the same hard bed in a speech in 2018 which Liu said was a shining example of a party group seeking “truth through facts”. That phrase adorns the entrance to the site, which attracted 300,000 officers, schoolchildren, soldiers and other visitors in the last year before covid-19. Tianhua’s exhibition inverts history to portray Mao and Liu as friends, jointly exploring the suffering of the masses. When asked about Liu’s solitary death in a detention center in 1969, Mr. Yang blames not Mao but his men known as the Gang of Four.

Claims of unity like this are bad history, but they will show up politically. As Professor Walder notes, Mr Xi is using Maoist symbols, but in his obsession with control, grassroots party building, and with officials hardened by austerity, it looks like Liu. Xi’s style of governance combines one-man rule with strong appointed party institutions. A great test involves truth. Can winners tell Mr. Xi when he’s wrong? If not, disasters are surely waiting.

Read more from Chaguan, our China columnist:
Joe Biden tries to protect the Chinese tiger (March 30)
The revealing appeal of China’s cheapest city (March 22)
Why justice is being denied to the victims of Chairman Mao (March 16)

Also: How the Chaguan column got its name

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