Throughout Xi Jinping’s presidency, he has frequently been compared to Mao Zedong. In recent weeks, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been cracking down on law enforcement officials in a campaign echoing actions taken by Mao in the 1940s to ensure loyalty. There are also recent reports that Xi may choose to adopt the title of “chairman of the Communist Party of China” – a title that has not been held since Mao. Analysts have called him the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao while others worry about exactly how much like Mao Xi might become.
As someone who lived in a China before the Communists came to power and remembers the day Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China, I have my own thoughts and reservations about comparisons between Mao and Xi.
Mao was first and foremost a revolutionary leader. He came to power in a China suffering Japanese occupation amidst an ongoing “century of humiliation.” He rose up the ranks by surviving the Long March and winning military conflicts. When he announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China, he was not simply announcing a victory over the Nationalists, but a victory over China’s past. Today, the century of humiliation is over and China’s leaders seek stability, not revolution.
Mao’s New China was founded on Chinese communist ideologies. With its “iron rice bowl,” cradle-to-grave work units, and centrally controlled economy, the country looked very different than it does today. The failures of the Great Leap Forward and collectivized agriculture led to devastating famines. Today’s economy, while still somewhat centrally planned, is much more capitalist. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and opening up were markedly different than Mao’s policies. Deng’s reforms led to decades of double-digit economic growth, which helped China find a place in the world and emerge as a global player. Chinese leaders today certainly do not want to undo the economic and geopolitical benefits of these reforms.
Under Mao, “landlord” classes were destroyed, private property was seized, and land was redistributed. My family lost several properties during the Mao years. Our houses were taken from us without compensation under the guise of patriotism and nationalism and never returned, even half a century later. That chapter of China’s history has been swept aside and its victims ignored. Today, China has over 300 billionaires – second only to the United States – a booming housing market, and a sizable middle class. Much of CCP legitimacy, once tied to Mao Zedong and his communist ideology, is now linked to economic growth and prosperity.
So, if Xi is not a revolutionary leader and continues to embrace economic reforms, what part of Mao’s rule is he trying to emulate? Xi continues to strengthen the Chinese Communist Party while also consolidating his own personal power, including removing presidential term limits in 2018. Xi’s fervent followers have been likened to his own cult of personality and “Xi Jinping Thought” has been added to the Chinese constitution. Similar moves by Mao ultimately led to the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Xi Jinping, while emulating Mao’s actions, fails to acknowledge the potential consequences.
In June 1972, I returned to China for the first time since leaving as a young man in 1949, just before the People’s Republic of China was founded. I was in China on behalf of the U.S. government in order to build exchange programs and strengthen unofficial ties and engagement after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit that February. I was eager to experience this New China and be reunited with my family.
The reality I faced, however, was a China ravaged by the Cultural Revolution. When I entered China through Shenzhen, I was greeted by a large propaganda billboard of a Chinese soldier carrying a rifle calling for the liberation of Taiwan. The next thing I noticed was how worn down and quiet the people appeared. It struck me how little the country seemed to have improved over the war-ravaged China I had left over 20 years prior. In fact, in many ways it seemed worse. As I met with university professors and library leaders to discuss exchanges, they hinted at the difficulties academics faced under the Cultural Revolution – schools were closed, youth were sent to the countryside, and research restricted. Academics who had studied in the West were often ousted or “rehabilitated,” sometimes violently.
An even bigger shock awaited me as I finally had the opportunity to visit my family. While pleased to see me, their smiles were muted. My siblings stood side-by-side, but there was one noticeable absence. My mother was not there. My family bluntly broke the news that my mother was dead, but silenced my questions, wary of the Chinese officials who were nearby accompanying me on my trip. I was, after all, still a representative of the U.S. government and had to keep my personal pain inside.
In private, however, I found out the truth of the horrible day that, unbeknownst to me, my family had suffered at the hands of the Red Guards. In 1960, when my father passed away, he received a state funeral with many Communist officials sending my mother condolences. Six years later, however, the Cultural Revolution had taken on a life of its own and the Red Guards patrolled the neighborhoods, deciding on their own who was not proletarian enough. They had already come and destroyed the hundreds of oil paintings my oldest brother, who had trained in the United States, had painted because they were too “Western.” But, worse was still to come.
In 1968, the Red Guards came for my second oldest brother. He had been drafted to the U.S. military while studying in the U.S. and was later granted citizenship for his service. Even though he had fought bravely against Japanese forces and had helped liberate China, the Red Guards considered him a traitor due to his American citizenship. Over 100 Red Guard youth broke down the door to our home and dragged my veteran brother outside. They hung him upside down from a tree in our courtyard, beat him, and called him a spy. It was three days before a family friend found him and brought him down. If not for that friend and for the young Red Guard who took pity on him, giving him food and water, my brother would be dead.
My oldest brother was beaten and locked in his room. My sister was thrown into the outhouse. At the time, my mother was ill and bedridden. That didn’t stop the Red Guards from viciously dragging her from her bed and beating her. She did not survive. Uncaring that they had just killed a frail old woman, they sealed the house with her body inside. While my siblings were eventually freed, they were kicked out of their home and were never able to give my mother a proper funeral. To this day, we do not know where she was buried. My mother, who loved with all her heart and encouraged me to pursue my American dreams, was gone and I did not even get to say goodbye.
This is just one family’s story. The tragedies of the Cultural Revolution were countless – and avoidable. After the failures of the Great Leap Forward, Mao started being sidelined by other prominent members of the Party leadership. In an effort to oust his rivals and solidify his power, Mao returned to his roots as a revolutionary. He launched the Cultural Revolution and called for “continuous revolution” with himself at the helm. Soon things spun out of control and a level of lawlessness descended. Mao may have resurrected his power, but he unleashed chaos in the process.
Today, the CCP’s primary goal remains staying in power. But as the Chinese economy slows, their power can no longer be guaranteed through economic growth alone. That has left Xi Jinping looking to Mao as an example. Xi is not calling for continuous revolution, however. Instead, he is touting the “Chinese Dream” and fomenting nationalism, urging support for himself and the CCP as champions against outside forces perceived as trying to deter China’s rightful rise.
By emulating the techniques of Mao, Xi hopes to restore Party legitimacy based on ideology and nationalism. Xi however, is overlooking the risks of taking things too far. Another Cultural Revolution would be devastating, not only for the people of China, but for China’s role in the world. It is possible Xi can manage to bolster his position and promote ultra-nationalism without slipping down the same slope that led to the Cultural Revolution. The question is: Is it worth the risk?
Dr. Chi Wang is president of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation and previously served as the head of the Chinese section at the Library of Congress.