The Futile Legacy of Mao Zedong

Foreign Policy, 19.01.2024
Doug Bandow, académico-investigador del Cato Institute
  • Xi Jinping wants to be a new Great Helmsman. It won’t work

Just after Christmas, the People’s Republic of China’s increasingly authoritarian leader-for-life Xi Jinping celebrated Mao Zedong’s 130th birthday. Xi led the Politburo’s Standing Committee in a requiem in the Great Hall of the People for the infamous Red Emperor, the greatest mass murderer in modern if not all human history. The members thrice bowed before the grand killer’s statue and remembered his “achievements.”

Mao’s thoughts are a “spiritual treasure” and would “guide our actions in the long term,” Xi said. The Chinese people must “work to enable our party to adhere to its original mission … maintain vitality and vigor, and ensure that our party never degenerates, never changes its color, and never loses its flavor.” Under Mao, Xi said earlier last year, the Chinese Communist Party developed a “brand new form of human civilization.”

Ironically, by strengthening his arbitrary rule, Xi is actually making an eventual counterreaction more likely. Ever-tightening repression poisons the entire system. Fear exiles honesty and accountability in policymaking, leading to more and bigger mistakes, including at the top. State centralization and politicization are reversing the very forces that spurred economic growth. The determination to indoctrinate as well as regulate already has spawned antagonistic youth movements that challenge authority. Political stability is likely to be only temporary; when Xi passes from the scene, the succession fight is likely to be more bitter and fraught.

Not everyone agrees with Xi. On a recent trip to China, I met an academic colleague who expressed profound pessimism, which he said many intellectuals and others shared. In the past, he observed, they at least could look forward to some change every five or 10 years, when a new party general secretary (and president) was chosen.

But no longer. Not only is Xi president for life, but the party is also rapidly reverting back to the habits of the Maoist era.

Yet Xi was not alone in reveling in the supposed achievements of the Great Helmsman. Mao’s birthplace in the southern Hunan province, which I’ve visited, has long been a major tourist destination. Today, it may be the one place in China where a dissident can covertly promote revolution. As a Nikkei report on the anniversary observance noted:

“The younger attendees on Tuesday seemed particularly inclined to chant slogans considered more extreme in their rhetoric. Those included such slogans adopted by China’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution as ‘No crime in revolution!’ and ‘To rebel is justified!’”

However, as Xi concentrates his power, I wonder who these young visitors think they’re rebelling against.

Right now, Xi’s power seems unshakeable. But so did Mao’s during his lifetime. Almost immediately after he died, policies began to change—and had shifted on the ground even beforehand. Within a decade or two, the country was almost unrecognizable.

Some of the devotion to Mao was real, and he retains some fervent fans. When I visited his impressive mausoleum in Tiananmen Square a few years ago, the lines were long. Many people bought flowers from vendors before entering to set before Mao’s massive bronze statue in the entryway. Some visitors seemed genuinely overcome with emotion. However, capitalism ultimately triumphed: On exiting, everyone passed by stalls marketing overpriced Mao tchotchke.

That the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to cling to Mao to maintain its revolutionary credentials is embarrassing, but hardly surprising. Mao remains one of China’s most recognizable symbols. His portrait hangs on the Gate of Heavenly Peace on Tiananmen Square’s northern edge. His mausoleum dominates the space and is much more impressive than Vladimir Lenin’s dark and dank resting place. And Mao’s face adorns China’s currency.

All this was built on a pile of corpses. The CCP consolidated power with campaigns against so-called counterrevolutionaries, landlords, and other enemies, killing 5 million or so Chinese. In 1950, Mao made the decision to enter the Korean War to save North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Some 200,000 Chinese soldiers died, along with untold thousands killed by them in a war prolonged by two-and-a-half years. In 1956, Mao initiated the Hundred Flowers Campaign or Movement, in which he encouraged the people to speak freely. Apparently shocked after receiving criticisms rather than encomiums, he responded with the Anti-Rightest Movement, in which millions were killed.

In 1958, Mao’s fertile mind came up with his worst idea yet: the so-called Great Leap Forward, simultaneously collectivizing farming and decentralizing manufacturing. Estimates of total deaths vary widely, but perhaps the most comprehensive account came from a party member and Xinhua reporter. Yang Jisheng figured:

“[T]he Great Famine brought about 36 million unnatural deaths, and a shortfall of 40 million births.”

Mao’s final flight into pure madness was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The murderous mix of party purge, civil war, and social collapse may have caused as many as 2 millions deaths.

Mao’s death was almost as consequential as his life. Pragmatic revolutionary Deng Xiaoping won the resulting power struggle and moved China down the course of economic reform. However, Deng, like Mao, rejected political liberalization and orchestrated the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, which was followed by purging millions of party members.

The CCP recognized that Mao had made mistakes, but it was unable to let go of the legacy of the national founding father altogether. Mao was still 70 percent right, the official verdict decided. (Contrast the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev, who was able to take Joseph Stalin’s legacy down entirely, in part because Lenin provided a convenient alternative state founder.)

Even after Tiananmen, China remained far freer than under Mao. However, that was then. In almost every way, Xi has shoved his nation backward.

Independent journalists and human rights lawyers are gone. Internet controls are tighter. Repression of churches is more intense. Academic exchanges are more limited. Controls over Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Hong Kongers have metastasized. Companies host party cells. Business is being made to serve the CCP.

And Xi has greatly strengthened party and personal control and uses both propaganda and coercion to insist that everyone thinks like him. He has tried to control history, presenting an idyllic version of the party’s bloody past. There is a burgeoning personality cult, though it seems perfunctory, lacking the ardor and intensity that more often surrounded Mao, at least during the latter’s life.

An important problem with Xi’s retreat to Maoism is the absence of Mao. Give the latter his due: Charismatic and driven from the start, he took a weak and divided movement from defeat to triumph and cast off centuries of Western and Japanese imperialism. In contrast, Xi is a colorless apparatchik who carefully ascended a party structure created by others. He wants Mao’s control without having earned, brutally and bloodily, Mao’s power.

Opposition exists but is futile. Wall Street Journal reporter Lingling Wei reported on a meeting at which a forlorn liberal administrator who had worked on stock market reform “signaled me to a corner of the venue. … ‘The whole thing about getting listed companies to set up party committees,’ he said, ‘is a reversal of what we had tried to do.’ Then he walked away without saying anything else.”

Indeed, China may be slipping back toward the Soviet Union in terms of political sentiment, if not economic achievement. People are still much better off than before, but a sense of ennui, even despair, afflicts those who desire personal freedom to enjoy their material bounty and personal opportunity to shape the social order around them. Xi, like Leonid Brezhnev, insists that soulless apparatchiks are the center of society.

It appears to be the fate of every nation that the worst will get on top, sometimes. However, as Friedrich Hayek predicted, they will do so more often in communist systems.

China is proving the rule. There was Mao. Now there is Xi. With Xi celebrating Mao, hopefully there won’t be another.

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