Flashpoints | Diplomacy | Politics

From China to the US, the ‘Self-Reliance’ Slogan is Back

With Xi Jinping’s neo-Maoist rhetoric and Trump’s calls for African self-reliance, the Cold War ideological concept is back.

By Benjamin R. Young for
From China to the US, the ‘Self-Reliance’ Slogan is Back

In this September 16, 2018, file photo, American flags are displayed together with Chinese flags on top of a trishaw in Beijing.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong, File

During the Cold War, U.S.-Soviet competition ushered in an era of immense global social change. With the lack of a distinct “third way” of socioeconomic development, leaders in the decolonizing world promoted the concept of self-reliance as a nation-building mechanism. Most notably, it was Mao Zedong in 1945 that first promoted self-reliance via his slogan, “regeneration through one’s own efforts (zili gengsheng).” Mao’s influence on self-reliance permeated throughout the Third World as his revolutionary theory gained followers and ideological adherents. As a rural-centric brand of socialism that promoted anti-colonialism, many Third World leaders took up Maoism as their guiding light for self-reliant development. In addition to his slogan of zili gengsheng, Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” featured one of the first explanations of self-reliance during the Cold War era. In section 21, titled “Self-Reliance and Arduous Struggle,” a quote from Mao reads, “We stand for self-reliance. We hope for foreign aid but cannot be dependent on it; we depend on our own efforts, on the creative power of the whole army and the entire people.” The global dissemination of the “Little Red Book” shepherded in a period of radical admiration for Maoism. 

After the collapse of the Communist Bloc, self-reliance faded away as a developmental policy and neoliberal global capitalism became the de-facto ideology for much of the developing world. However, nationalistic leaders such as U.S President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping have recently evoked the rhetoric of self-reliance as a useful concept for their reactionary agendas and foreign policies. With the resurgence of strongman style politics in much of the world, self-reliance is no longer a Cold War-era slogan reserved only for marginalized states. 

Mao Zedong’s idea of self-reliance developed during the Chinese Civil War. His first iteration of self-reliance in 1945 was a countermeasure to Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek’s supposed servitude to foreign powers. A year later, Mao wrote an inner-Party directive in which he proclaimed, “We must work hard in production in order to become completely self-sufficient in all necessities and first of all in grain and cloth… To sum up, we rely entirely on our own efforts, and our position is invincible; this is the very opposite of Chiang Kai-shek who depends entirely on foreign countries.” 

Mao’s portrayal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as an archetype of self-reliance vis-à-vis Chiang Kai-Shek’s flunkeyism bolstered popular support for the communists. After a century of national humiliation at the hands of Western imperialist powers, Mao’s rhetoric on national autonomy undoubtedly resonated with an impoverished population that had become frustrated with foreign exploitation and oppression.

Neo-Maoist slogans, such as self-reliance, have made a resurgence in Xi’s China. In September 2018, Xi visited the China First Heavy Industries factory in the country’s northeastern “rust belt” region. At the factory, Xi said, “Internationally, advanced technology and key technology is more and more difficult to obtain. Unilateralism and trade protectionism have risen, forcing us to travel the road of self-reliance.” Xi’s revival of the term “self-reliance” stands at odds with China’s recent embrace of global capitalism and the market economy. However, difficult trade talks with the Trump administration caused Xi to revitalize a Maoist term. By evoking self-reliance, Xi seemingly pushed autarkic nationalism to the forefront of the CCP’s socioeconomic strategy. 

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 With calls for the curbing of intellectual property theft from China, the Trump administration’s heavy pressure on Xi’s regime has caused the Chinese leader to domestically push economic self-reliance. More specifically, Xi’s evocation of self-reliance at the China First Heavy Industries indicated that state-owned enterprises would play a bigger role in China’s economic future. Xi reiterated the need for self-reliance during an October 2018 trip to a state-owned factory in Guangdong province, China’s technological center. Ironically, Xi’s evocation of self-reliance coincides with his increasingly authoritarian rule. From the cracking down on protestors in Hong Kong to the cultural genocide of Muslims in Xinjiang, Xi has repackaged self-reliance as a political tool that bolsters the legitimacy of his increasingly repressive regime. 

As Beijing seeks to reshape the international order with its Belt and Road initiative, Xi’s domestic calls for self-reliance seemingly contradict the global nature of the contemporary Chinese economy. However, Xi’s rallying cry for economic self-reliance are directed toward the domestic population. As evidenced by the estimated imprisonment of over 1 million Muslims in the Xinjiang region, social control and internal stability remains the number one priority for Xi’s regime. With future economic uncertainties and increased international attention regarding human rights atrocities in Xinjiang, Xi’s revival of self-reliance is more about boosting domestic support than an indication of an actual shift in China’s economic policies. 

By evoking self-reliance, Xi linked himself directly back to Mao. While Mao’s legacy in China is complicated, many Chinese citizens still maintain a favorable view of the former dictator and thus Xi’s evocation of Maoist phrases, chiefly self-reliance, advances his own status as a charismatic leader akin to that of the “Great Helmsman.” Xi’s desire to stabilize his government in the midst of internal ethnic tensions and the trade war with the U.S. has led him to revitalize phraseology from Mao’s era. In other words, his revitalization of self-reliance was a populist tactic meant to provoke nostalgia for a bygone era of anti-American, national unity, and autarky. Xi’s call for self-reliance intended to inspire the Chinese masses and galvanize the domestic workforce. China’s current economic rivalry with the U.S. manufactured a political identity crisis, which regenerated the term self-reliance under a nationalistic banner. 

In addition to China, the concept of self-reliance has been evoked in recent U.S. policy toward Africa. Trump’s call for self-reliance in Africa has become a cornerstone of his administration’s foreign policy toward the continent. The Trump administration’s Africa strategy, released in December 2018, states, “We hope to extend our economic partnerships with countries who are committed to self-reliance and to fostering opportunities for job creation in both Africa and the United States.” The official White House memorandum calls for African self-reliance on four separate occasions. Most notably, it explains, “The [Trump] Administration will encourage African leaders to choose sustainable foreign investments that help states become self-reliant, unlike those offered by China that impose undue costs.” 

Trump’s call for African self-reliance coincides with his nationalistic “America First” strategy and trade war on China. Trump’s promotion of African self-reliance vis-à-vis China’s heavy-handedness is distinctly different from the Cold War era when Maoist China advanced the idea of self-reliance on the continent and the U.S government provided generous aid to many African countries. While the Trump administration retreats into semi-remoteness from African economic issues, China extends developmental assistance to many African governments. Trump’s distrust of foreign alliances and lack of belief in the benefits of international aid has led his administration to push self-reliance as the key to African development and stability.

Within the context of contemporary U.S.-China global competition, the concept of self-reliance has lost touch with its radical and revolutionary past. Xi and Trump have reclaimed the term from the Cold War landscape and used it for their respective nationalistic agendas. The ideological terrain of the modern world is riddled with authoritarianism and far-right populism. The declining world superpower, the United States, and the rising hegemon, China, seem destined for a collision course and have adopted the concept of self-reliance for their respective reactionary agendas. Self-reliance has become a useful political tool for the two world hegemons, which are locked in an existential conflict with each other. 

Benjamin R. Young, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in cyber leadership & intelligence at Dakota State University. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S Naval War College from 2018-2019 and is currently finishing his first book “Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World (Stanford University Press, 2021).”