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Why Xi Jinping Isn’t Another Chairman Mao

Secondautomatic liquidator time President Xi Jinping wields more power, and critics have compared the Chinese leader to Chairman Mao Zedong, whose one-man dictatorship led to disaster. Those complainers may have underestimated Xi’s ambitions. More often than not, the accusation that Xi is emulating Mao — a tyrant whose campaign of political terror and runaway economic policies have killed tens of millions — is a prediction that China’s leaders are undercutting potentially beneficial norms by and the system to sow trouble for themselves. checks and balances his authority. These doomsayers are learning the lessons of Mao’s unfortunate end. In the two decades before his death in 1976, absolute power and a cult of personality made the great helmsman increasingly isolated and paranoid: a despot alienated from his most capable revolutionary comrades, military commanders and aides, among whom Many of them were purged or driven to their death toll.

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For Mr. Xi, those predicting doom made many enemies during his first decade as Communist Party leader. They point to an ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has netted hundreds of thousands of officials, including the heads of large state-owned enterprises, police and other security chiefs, military generals and members of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo. The same skeptics point out that Xi Jinping-era regulatory crackdowns and policy changes have spooked China’s business sector and driven billionaires, entrepreneurs, creative artists and other useful talent out of the country. On top of all this, the bearish sentiment will add to the sudden and ill-planned abandonment of covid-19 containment measures last December. Elites in cities like Beijing, sensitive to changing political winds, shudder when they hear Mao-era slogans repeated. Officials cringe when they call Mr. Xi the “core of the party” and “the leader of the people,” or urge all 97 million party members to learn Xi Jinping Thought.

An announcement last month made people nervous. Officials unveiled a party-wide “advancement of investigation and research” plan that would send officials to “grassroots units,” reaching down to individual businesses, schools or villages. Once at the grassroots level, officials have to listen to the masses and reflect on whether they have fallen into “formalism” in their work, the party jargon of pretending to follow Xi Jinping’s instructions. For educated Chinese, there are echoes of an earlier campaign to promote investigative research, launched in 1960-61 when senior leaders were sent to their hometowns to investigate “mistakes” in the Great Leap Forward ’, Mao Zedong’s disastrous campaign to collectivize agriculture and industry that killed millions in man-made famines.

In 1961, Mao lost the confidence of many senior colleagues. Sending some of them on tour provided him with political cover to reverse the worst of his Great Leap policies. But soon, he made up his mind to take revenge. In 1966, he mobilized crowds to attack and overthrow party officials and other authority figures. China calls that crazy, bloody decade the Cultural Revolution. Modern Americans might refer to it as Mao Zedong’s “campaign against the deep state,” says Professor Andrew Wald of Stanford University.

The analogy helps outsiders think about Mr. Xi’s approach to power. Calling Mr Xi a second Mao is misleading. Mao was a radical, willing to blow up institutions he didn’t trust. Contemptuous of the notion that inner-party discipline could reform arrogant bureaucrats, he opted for violent class struggle imposed by the mob from below to discipline cadres. Xi, by contrast, is a career politician who has called on party members to purify themselves under the watchful eye of fearsome internal disciplinary inspectors. He believes in top-down control, not chaos. He worked hard to expand the party’s influence to every corner of the economy and society. He built a vast apparatus of censorship, surveillance and propaganda to control the masses, not free them. In other words, Xi Jinping does not want to be a Mao-style strongman. He also wants to wield power through the deep state.

As an example, look at Xi Jinping’s praise of former Chinese President Liu Shaoqi, who was hated by Mao Zedong and, in Professor Wald’s words, “the head of a shadowy state”. Before the revolution, Liu was a hardline underground party cell and guerrilla organizer trained in Moscow, and after the revolution a ruthless enforcer of party discipline. As the disaster of the Great Leap Forward became undeniable, he fell out with Mao. In 1961, Liu confronted his leaders behind closed doors after meeting starving farmers in the central province of Hunan. Because of his suffering, Liu was purged and tortured during the Cultural Revolution, only to be rehabilitated after Mao’s death.

Personal rule or powerful party?Xi’s answer: both

Today, I commemorate Liu’s trip to Hunan in Tianhua Village. Old photos in the showroom show him coaxing the truth from nervous farmers. A mud-walled farm office where he lived has been restored. Curator Yang Yi shows a door leaning against two benches where the then-president of China is said to have gone undercover as a rank-and-file inspector (a truck loaded with soft furniture was driven away). Xi referred to the same hard bed in a speech in 2018, when he praised Liu as a shining example of party cadres “seeking truth from facts”. The phrase adorns the entrance to the site, which attracted 300,000 officials, schoolchildren, soldiers and other visitors in the last year before covid-19. The Tianhua exhibition distorts history, portraying Mao and Liu as allies who jointly investigate the suffering of the masses. When asked about Liu’s lonely death in a detention center in 1969, Mr Yang blamed not Mao, but his aides, the Gang of Four.

This assertion of unity is bad history, but politically instructive. As Prof Ward points out, Xi uses Maoist symbols but sounds like Liu in his obsession with discipline, grassroots party building and honed officials. Xi-style governance combines one-man rule with a nominally powerful party apparatus. The big test involves telling the truth. Xi Jinping is wrong, can his subordinates tell him? Otherwise, disaster is bound to come.

Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
Joe Biden Tries to Pull a Chinese Tiger’s Teeth (March 30)
The charm of cities with the lowest prices in China (March 22)
Why Chairman Mao’s Victims Don’t Get Justice (March 16)

Another: How did the teahouse column get its name

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