For all the hyperbole about Xi Jinping being the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, and for all the speculation about him operating like a new Great Helmsman (one of the many awestruck terms used about Mao when he was alive) when pressed about giving some basis for this claim, most fall back on airy abstractions: Xi is promoting Maoist style mass campaigns and a full-on personality cult, along with his use of some of the red propaganda from the Maoist era. Even the most cursory knowledge of that period, however, would show that China then and the country that exists today are very different places. Comparing Mao’s power to that of Xi is like trying to compare apples with pears; there is little real commonality.
Take one simple example. Mao’s propaganda bosses (one of whom was Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, who worked as a high level official in the Ministry of Culture before being felled in the early 1960s) were physically able to control access to information in ways that are impossible today in a country where almost a billion people are constantly using social media. The outlook of the average person in the late Maoist era, when high socialism reigned, would have been heavily dependent on a couple of newspapers, one state broadcaster (for the few that even had a television), and highly controlled radio. The very few foreigners let into the country in this era were mostly kept within tightly managed delegations with zero contact with locals. Exercising Maoist levels of control in today’s market China would not only be hard to imagine — it would simply be impossible.
What similarities exist are in form rather than substance. Xi has borrowed some of the very effective messaging of Maoist era politics, albeit renovated and updated. He has created the same sense of imminent crisis, which the Party must be ever vigilant against, and often appeals to the reward of impending historic destiny if these problems are resolved — a theme often figured in Mao’s language. His aim, like that of Mao, is to create a rich, strong country. The goal is the therefore the same. But the terrain being traveled over is different.
There is one very specific area where Xi is definitely following Mao’s footsteps – the attack on personal networks and vested interests. The usual term for this is guanxi. But a more precise name would be renqing – a society of human links and relationships, where the principle of not what you know but who you know takes precedence. The grease that orders this society is human links, not laws, institutions, or social common values and beliefs. The highest value is placed on personal relationships.
Mao’s most radical aspects involved his strong attacks on tight personal bonds taking precedence over all else. The term used in the 1950s was “mountain stronghold-ism” (shantou zhuyi) – people in the Communist Party of China (CPC) who were setting up their own fiefdoms to serve personal interests, not the common Party (and therefore social) good. The CPC for Mao was scientific and modern, working to achieve a society where the old style China was being eradicated — along with its feudal hierarchy and fragmentation, within which the extended family was all that mattered. The overall objective was to make China a place where objective principles were in charge rather than the vagaries of a system ordered around tribal family structures, where each seemed to operate as their own kingdom. Communes were the most dramatic attempt to achieve this. The core entity they targeted was the ultimate Chinese personal network – the family.
In Mao’s China, the Party also attempted to supplant the family by replacing it with itself. It was frequently referred to as a “great family.” People needed to belong to it, not their own, small, personal one.
At the end of his life, Mao bemoaned the fact that he felt he had failed in his mission to change Chinese people. This self-criticism is probably right. Almost half a century later, a single statistic in a recent book by American political scientist Bruce Dickson shows how little the Maoist onslaught on renqing and the family, so central to Mao’s mission, made any real lasting difference. In 2012, of those interviewed about whom they trusted, local officials polled the least, followed by national leaders, then, in slightly higher numbers, colleagues, friends, and neighbors. No group ranked more than 25 percent, however. Exceeding all these, coming in at a full 100 percent were families. Everyone in modern China trusts their family.
Under Xi, as under Mao, the Party is once more seeking levels of allegiance and loyalty like those enjoyed by the family. It wants to be a “big family” again. In this family, Xi is like a wise elder brother or uncle. The Party regards the levels of trust invested by individuals in the family with envy but also frustration. Prioritizing family links, it believes, make people violate ideological, moral, and social boundaries. China remains a society where family enjoys almost preternatural powers. For Xi, this stands as a huge failure of the Communist project of modernity waged since 1949.
Clearing out renqing and trying to impose other, less personal, more rules based bonds has been a fundamental part of the Xi program since 2012. Creating stronger rule by law, using the anti-corruption struggle to clear away vested interests, much of it centered around family linkages, breaking some of the enormous powers of elite family networks, and trying to create more regulations and ordering principles across society — these are the common themes that run across almost all policy areas developed over the last four years. And while Mao sponsored campaigns of brutal savagery to try to wipe away the power of family allegiances, Xi has had to adopt more modern methods based on persuasion with a bit of punishment thrown in.
The question is whether he will succeed any more than Mao did. If he does, then it will be a remarkable achievement, and give at least some meaning to the idea that he is a true heir to Chairman Mao.
Kerry Brown’s latest book is China and the New Maoists with Simone Van Neuwenhuizen.