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Let’s Hope Xi Jinping’s a Maoist

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China Power

Let’s Hope Xi Jinping’s a Maoist

Many are worried by the Chinese president’s embrace of Maoism. Should we be cheering instead?

In the context of the Bo Xilai trial, much has been made about Xi Jinping’s Maoist tendencies in recent weeks. Earlier this month, for instance, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the potential for political reform under Xi that was entitled, “China's Leader Embraces Mao as He Tightens Grip on Country.” Similarly, the always insightful John Garnaut had a piece in Foreign Policy that rightly argued that Mao’s influence in the modern CCP has not ended with Bo’s downfall.

Xi’s Maoism has understandably elicited alarm in light of the enormous devastation Mao wreaked upon China throughout his lifetime. Indeed, Mao was not unlike the Imperial Japanese he fought against in that he claimed to free the Chinese nation from one form of imperialism, only to condemn it to a fate that was in many ways just as bleak.

But while Mao was certainly ruthless, he was also ruthlessly effective, fundamentally transforming China with astonishing speed multiple times during his rule. Of course, in Mao’s case these transformations were often ill-devised if not downright malicious. But Mao’s power, like all forms of power, was objective in the sense that it could have been used for good or evil.

Which is why Xi’s Maoism may not be a bad thing entirely. Of course, no one wants to see anyone gain as much absolute power as Mao had. Deng and the Eight Immortals were right to try and prevent any single individual from wielding as much power as Chairman Mao. But thanks in part to their efforts, it doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility that Xi will ever become the absolute dictator Mao was.  

Yet, he will need to harness much more power than his most immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, if he and the current leadership are going to successfully transform China’s economy into one driven more by internal consumption.  And indeed, Mao may offer important insights into how to overcome the barriers they will face.

One crucial difference between the economic reforms of today and those of the 1990s is that the latter had to overcome the entrenched interests of both ordinary Chinese and Party elites. Indeed, in privatizing (and therefore bankrupting) many State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) during the 1990s, the Chinese government left millions unemployed even as it revoked the cradle-to-the-grave safety net ordinary Chinese had long enjoyed.

Today, by contrast, the entrenched interests that Xi and the Chinese leadership will face are mostly within the Party. Indeed, if done right, the current economic reforms should improve the quality of life of most of the masses by empowering them to consume more. Thus, the challenge Xi has to contend with is how to deal with the resistance among the members of the Party who benefit from the current economic model of hyper-investment and exports.

One of the areas in which Mao acted with ruthless efficiency, of course, was in forcing compliance among the Party faithful. He did this in no small part through his charisma and unparalleled stature as the leader of the Revolution, which Xi will have to do without.

Still, as I noted in passing last week, one difference between Bo’s embrace of Mao and Xi’s is the former was used in many cases to mobilize the masses while the latter appears to be aimed primarily at the Party. For example, some of Xi’s most Maoist policies are the mass line campaign to reconnect the Party to the people, his anti-corruption effort, and his various measures aimed at keeping the military in line. Even his admonishment of Soviet leaders for losing faith in their Party and principles harkens back to Mao.

Not coincidently, I suspect, these are also useful tools by which Xi can root out resistance to the leadership’s economic reforms. In fact, many of the more notable targets of the anti-graft campaign so far have come from the type of oversized, inefficient SOEs that will have to be reformed if China is to reorient its economy

For example, Liu Zhijun, the former Railway Minister, was put under investigation long before Xi even came to power, but finally sentenced last July. Notably, a few months before Liu’s suspended death sentence was handed down, it was announced that China was breaking up the railways ministry Liu formerly ran.

Liu Tienan, a vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, has also come under investigation by the Communist Party since Xi took over. Most recently, Xi’s anti-graft campaign has begun targeting senior executives at PetroChina and its parent company, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the largest oil company in China.

Thus, it seems the Chinese leadership is using the anti-graft and mass line campaigns as tools to eliminate the individuals who would have the most to lose from the economic transformation that Xi and Premier Li seem intent on implementing. This not only allows them to replace these individuals with more pliable ones, but also strikes fear into some of their counterparts that might be intent on trying to undermine the proposed economic realignment.

This is classic Maoism albeit for a better cause. For example, to protect his ill-fated Great Leap Forward, Mao encouraged Party members to speak freely about the program at the Lushan Conference in 1959. When one unfortunate individual, Peng Dehuai, took Mao at his word, he was purged from the Party in a clear message to other would-be dissenters. Similarly, when Mao feared that his closest supporters were secret Khrushchevs, he launched the Cultural Revolution to purge the Party ranks and protect his legacy.

While Xi’s anti-graft campaign will certainly not go to the lengths of the Cultural Revolution, the basic principle seem to apply. Presumably, no one in the top echelons of the CCP is completely innocent of corruption. Thus, an anti-corruption campaign allows Xi to remove any person(s) who become obstacles to his economic reforms.

And if that’s what’s need to build a more sustainable economic model in China, it may not be a bad thing… just unfair.