Maoist Thought and Xi Jinping’s Leadership 

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Maoist Thought and Xi Jinping’s Leadership 

Insights from Daniel Leese.

Maoist Thought and Xi Jinping’s Leadership 

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the 2019 BRICS Summit in Brasilia, Brazil.

Credit: Palácio do Planalto/Isac Nóbrega

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Dr. Daniel Leese – professor of modern Chinese history and politics at the University of Freiburg and author of “Mao Cult: Rhetoric and Ritual in China’s Cultural Revolution” (Cambridge 2011) and “Justice after Mao” (Cambridge 2023) – is the 401st in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” 

Analyze the influence of Mao Zedong thought on Xi Jinping’s political thought. 

This is a difficult question, for at least two reasons. First, the political thought of Mao Zedong was by no means static, but rather evolved in dialectical fashion. The radical ideological underpinnings of his later years have thus been deleted from the officially propagated version of “Mao Zedong Thought.”

Second, we have very little access to internal speeches or writings by Xi Jinping, unlike in Mao’s case, when during the Cultural Revolution many uncensored speeches became public. Based on the available material, I would see the strongest echoes of Maoist ideas in the importance Xi attaches to ideology, or to put it in Marxist terms, in the relevance of the superstructure. There are few speeches in which Xi does not emphasize the importance of individual belief in the “historical mission” of national rejuvenation, as well as preparing oneself for possible temporary hardship in the future. Another shared theme is the seemingly perpetual fight against corruption and abuse of party privileges, though without questioning party dictatorship as such. 

Major differences, at least so far, relate to questions of control. Mao often consciously created situations of chaos to see things unfold, while Xi seems to crave control above everything else.

Compare and contrast political rhetoric usage between Mao and Xi.  

Political rhetoric is one of the dimensions in which Xi Jinping clearly attempts to build on Maoist practices. Mao liked to use historical quotations and literary references in his political conversations, not least to demonstrate his intellectual superiority. He furthermore made himself a name as a poet, quite often displaying romantic feelings in artistic form. The consciously crafted image resulted in his official staging as a philosopher-king, who displayed unrivaled mastery in basically all domains of political governance. 

Xi Jinping’s attempt to have a similar air of sagacity and extraordinary capabilities ascribed to himself constituted one of the clearest breaks with reform era politics, which had been built on the consensus no longer to allow exuberant personality cults and the elevation of an individual above the party. While Xi has not yet stylized himself as a poet, his public speeches are also peppered with historical references and quotes. Their suitability and intellectual depth, however, has been subjected to sharp discussions among Chinese intellectuals. 

Examine how Xi Jinping invokes Maoist elements to legitimize his leadership. 

The most obvious element of Maoist rule to reemerge after Xi’s accession to power is the unabashed glorification of the leader’s persona. While leader cults had by no means been eradicated after Mao’s death and the brief tenure of Hua Guofeng, the Xi cult has baffled and estranged especially those who had been drawn into the maelstrom of the late Maoist campaigns. 

Charismatic rule has been retroactively legitimized in the 2021 resolution on party history, which represents another key element of Maoist rule: the attempt to provide an official evaluation of the recent past. While Xi could not claim the status of a war hero, the resolution ascribed his charisma to having overcome a life-and-death struggle among differing factions within the party. The harmful impact of Western individualistic values and profit-thinking accordingly was only achieved by having the supreme leader represent not just the party but the whole polity. The leader in turn needs to display his modesty by emphasizing his proximity to the masses in the Maoist format of the “mass line,” another recurring element of Mao era politics.

Assess how Maoist thought is shaping China’s political culture under Xi’s authority. 

The answer to this question necessitates a distinction between explicit and implicit expressions of Maoist thought. On the surface, the return of the leader cult, as well as the rhetoric of “struggle” and the constant emphasis on national and cultural “confidence,” have a Maoist ring to it. On the fringes of official discourse, especially in the security sector, occasionally a friend-enemy binary reappears in documents, which had been a foundational element of Mao’s thought. 

The implicit consequences of these changes can be seen in the widespread return of fear of expressing differing opinions, not just in public, but in classrooms or even in private conversations. While criticism of the party had been off limits before Xi’s tenure, by now many more topics have become subject to what political scientists call “securitization,” the ever-widening circle of themes to be avoided for reasons of national security. This fear has, for strategic reasons, also affected the party’s rank-and-file, who constantly need to display their loyalty to the leader in order not to fall prey to the looming rectification campaigns.

In what ways is Maoist thought manifested in China’s current foreign policy and diplomacy? 

The official contribution of Mao Zedong thought to Chinese foreign policy is described as “independence and self-determination” (独立自主). This is certainly mirrored in Xi’s attempts at standing tall and displaying confidence in changing the current world order. Mao Zedong was a master of strategic ambiguity, so much that the twists and turns of his foreign policy also left parts of the Chinese populace and leadership bewildered. So far, Xi Jinping is following a steadier course, despite China’s increasing assertiveness in foreign politics. 

The emphasis on developing countries is certainly a shared theme, though the element of socialist solidarity obviously no longer plays an equally prominent role. Both leaders liked to employ “foreign friends,” including journalists, for diplomatic initiatives. Mao also used his meetings with foreign dignitaries for wide-ranging and open discussions. At present, there is no clear evidence that the same applies for Xi Jinping. 

Ultimately, the difficulty of striking a balance between the implications of China’s global ascent and solidarity with developing countries has remained a constant theme over time.