Chinese president Xi Jinping has been compared with the ruthless chairman Mao Zedong.
His moves to consolidate power and his ideology have both come under scrutiny.
The crackdown on corruption and Xi’s emphasis on “mass line” — a leadership method created by Mao Zedong that calls for Party officials to forge stronger ties with the masses — has many wondering if Xi’s presidency will see a re-emergence of Mao-era rules.
But not everyone agrees.
There is a camp that thinks Xi is more like Deng Xiaoping — China’s paramount leader from 1978 until his death in 1997.
Economist George Magnus describes Deng as “a master of political economy and execution.” Deng is widely credited with opening up the Chinese economy, even though there were some calls for reform before him. But history also remembers Deng as the leader under whom the pro-democracy protests of Tiananmen Square were squelched.
The Maoist Camp
During the handover of power last year, former president Hu Jintao warned in his outgoing speech that corruption “could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.” It would appear that Xi took that message to heart.
Earlier this year, Arthur Dong, a professor of strategy and economics at Georgetown University, told Business Insider that he has heard of more Party indoctrination:
“I met with a party member, who happens to be a high-ranking member of the party. I had lunch with him and what he expressed to me was all senior-level party members are being sent to an essentially re-education. They’re being sent to the equivalent of their West Point and they’re undergoing more party indoctrination, where they have to wear uniform.
“He showed me a picture where they’re donning their uniforms of Mao’s long march. They’re all being required to partake in this sort of party cleansing exercise, where they have to be reminded of the roots of their past, wear the uniforms of the long march, go through this sort of re-education process to remind them about party loyalty, and also to be faithful to the party’s ideals.”
In September, Chinese officials met in Shijiazhuang for “Maoist-style self-criticism sessions,” reported Dexter Roberts at Bloomberg.
And Chinese state media have taken to warning about a collapse of power as seen in the Soviet Union.
Communist Party officials have been asked to watch a documentary called “In Memory of the Collapse of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union,” South China Morning Post reports. The documentary blames the nation’s collapse on democratic reforms in the style of the West that were copied by Mikhail Gorbachev.
“In the next five years, the CPC [Communist Party of China] will have been in power for as long as the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], and it intends to keep the red flag flying in China far beyond that and for the foreseeable future,” writes economist George Magnus in a note to UBS clients.
Critics argue that Xi’s efforts have gone toward consolidating his power, not just that of the Communist Party.
The anti-corruption campaign, for instance, largely targeted Bo Xilai — whose political career was on a meteoric rise — and his allies.
The State Security Committee (SSC) that was announced after the third plenum is reportedly an effort on Xi’s part to wrest control from the People’s Liberation Army and bring it under the control of the Communist Party and more directly, under him.
“Redder Than Red”
Some say Xi’s “neo-Maoism” can be traced to his childhood. Xi grew up in the lap of luxury when his father Xi Zhongxun was appointed vice-premier. But after the older Xi fell out with Mao Zedong, he was sent to prison.
Xi Jinping was then sent to work in the countryside. In an essay titled “Son of the Yellow Earth,” Xi explained that he despised farm work and ran away to Beijing, only to be captured and sent back.
But his time in the countryside is said to have been extremely formative. Xi is quoted writing (from The NY Times), “Much of my pragmatic thinking took root back then, and still exerts a constant influence on me.” On his return, he is said to have committed to his work and eventually sought out the approval of the Communist Party’s youth league.
Xi has been described as “redder than red.” And during a visit to Mexico in 2009, he showed his intolerance for Western criticism of China with a comment that is believed to have been directed at the U.S.
“There are some foreigners who have eaten their fill and have nothing better to do than point their fingers at our affairs,” Xi said during a press conference. “China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; or third, cause unnecessary trouble for them. What else is there to say?”
The Dengist Camp
Not everyone thinks Xi is a Maoist though.
In Xi’s parlance, “‘mass line’ means eliminating undesirable work styles such as formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance among officials,” according to Xinhua.
“Both the ‘eight-point’ instruction and the ‘mass line’ campaign are the CPC leadership’s endeavour to shoot persistent problems such as red tape, corruption and Party-people alienation among officials.”
Take his iteration of the “mass line,” for instance. That “is more narrowly typical of the more carefully circumscribed intra-party campaigns of the post-Mao period to promote party solidarity ideologically and politically, and to improve the party’s work style and public image than it is with the mass-driven criticism campaigns of the Mao era,” writes Alice Miller, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, an American public policy think tank, in The Road to the Third Plenum.
“I have been arguing for a while that he looks more Dengist than Maoist, and the Third Plenum Decision only makes that view stronger,” Bill Bishop, author of “Sinocism,” told Business Insider. “My guess is he is a Marxist-Leninist, single party authoritarian pragmatist. Like Deng, but perhaps with greater aspiration to power.”
Some have pointed to the third plenum, and the reform roadmap that has been laid out since, to reiterate this view.
“The reform outline from the 18th Central Committee’s Third Plenum includes expanded property rights, fair and transparent market regulation, and prices set by the market. At the same time, China’s new leaders are tightening political repression,” writes The Wall Street Journal staff in an editorial. “This is the model pioneered by Deng Xiaoping, and new party chief Xi Jinping is showing that he intends to follow in Deng’s footsteps.”
Magnus thinks Xi has a much harder task ahead of him because the Chinese economy is now bigger, more complex and Chinese citizens are more connected and empowered. “Economic reforms may work up to a point and governance may improve, but without political reform, they can’t really be labelled ‘transformational’.
“Where Mao had preached ‘communes are good,’ Mr. Deng simply preached ‘markets are good,'” wrote Patrick E Tyler in The New York Times back in 1997, the day after Deng’s death.
While comparisons with chairman Mao abound, Xi, it would appear, is following in Deng’s footsteps.
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