As the Chinese economy slows and information technology booms, political ideology—once the lifeblood of the Communist Party—is gaining vitality once again. Since the 1970s, China’s Communist Party has espoused a strange mix of Marxist and not-so-Marxist ideas—including the idea that “to get rich is glorious” and that China is returning to greatness through the nationalistic “China Dream.” But under the leadership of Xi Jinping, an old but familiar figure is also seeing a renaissance—Mao Zedong himself.
True, some of Mao’s actions were so terrible that even the communists will admit it. In a 1981 Resolution, the CCP blamed “Comrade Mao’s mistake in leadership” for the bloodshed and terror of the Cultural Revolution that lasted from 1966 to 1976. But official teaching concludes that Mao’s “merits” outweigh his mistakes. The Cultural Revolution is a blip of human error in the grand story of a great proletarian revolutionary. Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought are the “treasured mainstay” of communist China. Never mind the tens of millions of people who died as a direct result of the Chairman’s policies. Mao’s ideas matter more than their lives.
Xi Jinping has been tapping into this “spiritual asset” since he came to power in 2012. His leadership evokes Mao’s heavy-handedness and his rhetoric parrots many of his forerunner’s ideas. Xi has called for renewed belief in socialism with Chinese characteristics, the self-purification of the CCP, a return to the masses, a strong military bolstered by faith in the Party, and economic reform (i.e. keeping a tight grip on the state-controlled economy). He frequently quotes Chairman Mao and exhorts party members to embrace Mao Zedong Thought. Even his clothes resemble Mao’s. The nondescript, functional windbreaker he wears to meet the masses is a 21st century version of a Mao suit, a gesture at trying to make the supreme leader look like a man of the people.
This July, Xi affirmed the vital role of ideas in the battle for China’s future on the 95th anniversary of the CCP’s founding. He declared, “Abandoning Marxism means that our Party would lose its soul and direction,” and warned that “the wavering of idealistic faith is the most dangerous form of wavering.” That’s especially true if the people are wavering westward. In a 2013 paper called Document 9, the CCP cited western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, economic liberalization and privatization, and the freedom of the press as the greatest threats to the survival of communist China. To Xi, self-determination means China will rely on Mao—not capitalist reforms—to achieve the dream of becoming the greatest nation in the world. This idea has so far justified his harsh crackdown on threats to Party power.
Xi began his tenure with an anti-corruption campaign against Party members that calls to mind the “Three-anti” and “Five-anti” campaigns of the 1950s and the purges of the Cultural Revolution. As of January 2016, ChinaFile reports that 146 senior officials and 1,316 lower-ranking officials have been investigated, expelled from the Party, or tried and convicted. The professed purpose of the campaign is to weed out corruption, but it has mainly served to consolidate power under Xi.
Journalists are also under attack. Document 9 includes a direct assertion of the Party’s control over the media and Xi’s role at the head of the Party. It states media must always be “firmly controlled by someone who maintains identical ideology with the Party’s Central Committee, under General Secretary Xi Jinping’s leadership.”
Xi’s third major target is the university. In a 2015 CCP paper entitled Document 30, Xi instructed universities to “enhance guidance over thinking and keep a tight grip on leading ideological work in higher education.” Textbooks are being beefed up on Marxism and socialism and assessed for political correctness while professors receive mandatory political training. Yuan Guiren, Xi’s Education Minister, specifically warned them against “passing on negative emotions to the students.” Translation? Never criticize the CCP in the classroom.
This aggressive push to realign China with antiwestern and neo-Maoist ideology is a calculated effort to strengthen Party power, grow mass support, and justify the oppression of students, professors, journalists, lawyers, activists, Party members, and ordinary citizens who don’t kowtow to Xi’s leadership.
Yet it is also a balancing act. While denying Mao would undermine the intellectual and historical foundations of the CCP’s power, to embrace him is to accept the legacy of a mass-murdering fanatic. Xi must embrace Mao’s heritage enough to avoid criticisms from his left while still ensuring that no one uses Mao’s legacy to criticize his own style of rule. This is the paradox of Xi’s “two undeniables”—the doctrine that today’s China may not be used to deny Maoism and Maoism may not be used to deny today’s China. The only thing reconciling these two extremes is the CCP’s continued monopoly on power. By all appearances, that is a part of Mao’s legacy that Xi can whole-heartedly espouse.
For more news and analysis on all things China, follow us on Twitter @thechinaforum