Near the old imperial capital of Xi’an, in central China, is a tomb of great political importance. Situated in a wide, lush park the size of 40 football fields, it belongs to Xi Zhongxun, the father of China’s current Supreme Leader Xi Jinping. To the left of an oversized statue of the late Party sage is a large plaque bearing a phrase uttered by Mao Zedong in 1943: “The interests of the Party come first.”
In a sense, there is nothing surprising or contradictory in this way of highlighting the link between Mao and the Xi family. The father of the current leader was one of Mao’s closest revolutionary companions since the 1940s, the decade in which the Chinese communist state was formed. When Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, he presided over the first official and national revival of Mao-era political culture since the death of the Great Helmsman in 1976.
Xi Jr. has revived traditions such as self-criticism sessions, one of Mao’s main tools for controlling ideas in the early 1940s; has revived Maoist terms such as mass line (which in theory promotes criticism of officials from the base), and rectification (the way to discipline misguided Party members). Xi has invoked the chuxin (original aspirations) of the early leaders of the Communist Party of China (CCP), especially Mao Zedong, as models of purity and political success.
This year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, there has already been a cascade of propaganda slogans the likes of which have hardly been seen since Mao’s time. At a recent mobilization meeting on education in Party history, Xi repeated over and over again that “struggle” is necessary (douzheng), a word steeped in the Maoist policy of relentlessly fighting enemies.
Xi and his advisers have reintroduced the cult of personality and ideological hegemony (now focused on Xi rather than Mao). An almost religious aura has been created around the leader that is reminiscent – though not yet feverish in its madness – of devotion to Mao. In recent official celebrations to highlight that China has officially eradicated poverty, Xi was praised for being the genius and author of that triumph, despite the fact that it is the result of approximately 45 years of economic growth and hard work and talent. of billions of Chinese. For years, Xi’s signature has dominated the CCP’s ideological magazine, The Search for Truth (Qiushi).
Like Mao in the 1940s, Xi has tightened control of the party and centralized power in his person. He has made the party once again the sole legitimate, disciplined, and opaque representative of China, its people, and national interests – a daunting task, as Xi inherited a CCP mired in a shameless oligarchic corruption crisis.
Like all rulers of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1991, Xi and his comrades are haunted by the memory of the sudden dissolution of the USSR and are determined to avoid that fate. Xi’s explanation of the Soviet collapse is simple: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union delegitimized itself by repudiating its revolutionary past, Lenin and Stalin. To hold the People’s Republic of China together, the CCP must continue to fly the flag of Maoism: “If we lose Mao, we lose the glorious history of the Party.” Xi Jinping’s Mao is a majestic paterfamilias, Party and nation builder.
But the relationship between the Xi family and Mao is not as strong as this stark commemorative plaque suggests. Xi Jinping’s recovery of Mao is very partial and is based on a selective reading of the legacy of the Great Helmsman. It is enough to know a little about recent Chinese history to notice the contradictions and tensions in Xi Jinping’s superficially close relationship with Mao. The appointment selected for the monument to Xi Zhongxun – “the interests of the Party come first” – is in line with Xi Jinping’s public interpretation of Mao and his legacy, as the august architect of the Communist Party and its state, the People’s Republic China. But Mao had other diverse and very opposite political behaviors, the most extreme example of which is the Mao of the sixties.
In 1966, as the instigator of the Cultural Revolution, Mao assured the Chinese people that “it was right to rebel.” He mobilized tens of millions of Chinese to attack – with violent and often lethal results – the leadership of the Communist Party. Xi Sr. suffered a purge in the early 1960s and spent 16 years enduring intermittent persecution and in and out of jail and internal exile, working in factories. The daughter he had with his first wife – Xi Jinping’s father’s sister – suffered constant harassment until her death at the end of the same decade.
That is, during the Cultural Revolution, Xi Jinping witnessed the destruction of his family and he himself had to abandon his life among the Party elite in Beijing to be exiled to a life of subsistence and work, in the poor and isolated region. rural northwestern. Xi has decided to suppress these aspects of Mao’s heritage, especially the popular mobilizations of the Cultural Revolution, which were on the verge of ending the Party-State that he now wants to strengthen.
To shore up their own legitimacy, Xi and the party he leads today portray Mao as a respectable and disciplined statesman and paterfamilias, rather than an anarchic tyrant. But Beijing’s current view of Mao hides Maoism’s destabilizing legacies: a volatile mix of one-party autocracy, militarism, anti-colonial rebellion, and “continuing revolution.” At this time when Mao is gaining more prominence in an increasingly authoritarian Chinese government, it is worth remembering that his ideas inspired and fostered insurgency and subversion throughout the world since the 1940s.
In the past 80 years, Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Peru, India, Nepal and many other countries have been torn apart by revolts inspired by Mao’s theories of class struggle and guerrilla warfare. In Vietnam, Maoism helped create an army that pitted first against France and then against the US In Western Europe, far-left intellectuals and students misinterpreted and embraced Maoism in a spirit of playful disobedience (though it also helped spark the murderous terrorism of his most extreme disciples). In Peru, Mao’s ideas inspired a tiny group of poorly equipped far-left ideologues, the Shining Path, who came close to overthrowing the state.
Even in today’s China, Mao’s legacy is ambiguous and changing. There are large populist buds of the Mao cult that continue to flourish beyond the party’s control. When he dismantled job security for urban workers in the late 1990s, those laid off demonstrated with portraits of Mao as the patron saint of workers’ rights. Chinese neo-Maoists, angered by the inequalities that the free market and globalization have created, cite Mao’s calls in the 1960s to overthrow the state (“it is right to rebel”).
If there is one place where the paradoxes of the Maoist legacy are evident today, it is Hong Kong. In 1967, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, the British colony’s Red Guards implemented Mao’s calls to crush capitalism and imperialism with strikes, protests, riots and bombings. Many years later, with the anti-government demonstrations of 2019, Beijing’s position had been reversed: the Chinese government, still proudly declaring that Maoism is its “fundamental principle”, was willing to use military force to quell the unrest. . Maoism is, as it has always been, capable of the most disconcerting metamorphoses: a program of totalitarian autocracy that at the same time considers the fiercest challenge legitimate.
Julia Lovell is Professor of Chinese History and Literature at the University of London, and the author of Maoism, a global history (Debate).
Translation of María Luisa Rodríguez Tapia.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.