In “The Cultural Revolution, Fifty Years Later,” recently published in Foreign Affairs, Professor Xu Youyu, the University in Exile Scholar at The New School, rightly notes that many intellectuals and officials who lived through the Chinese Cultural Revolution are quietly taking stock of the lessons and legacies of that tumultuous event. This year, on the 50th anniversary of the revolution’s launch in May 1966, these individuals reflect on the meanings of an episode that very much resonates in the current political climate. After nearly four years in power and nearing the end of his first five-year term as Party Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping’s populist political style and approach to handling would-be rivals suggests to Professor Xu and many others that Xi may be “taking a cue” from the old Chairman and instigator of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong.
Like Mao, Xi Jinping has generated widespread public support for an anti-corruption campaign aimed at both high-ranking and ordinary officials (“tigers and flies”). As Professor Xu notes, the campaign that started in 2013 shortly after Xi took office has the added benefit, if not the underlying strategic intent, of eliminating rivals and their power bases who could challenge Xi or resist his bold moves to consolidate power outside of accepted channels and norms that have been in place for several decades.
The CCP instituted a series of institutions and norms in the early 1980s aimed at preventing another leader from ever gaining the cult of personality and unbridled individual power that Mao managed to achieve in the 1960s. Collective leadership was the strongest of these norms, as were term and age limits on all leadership posts. Deng Xiaoping, while exercising formidable informal powers, never held the top post as Party Secretary in the years of his dominance. Xi Jinping, by consolidating power as the self-appointed leader of numerous “leading groups” dealing with national security, economics and finance, and foreign affairs, appears to be openly violating this practice of collective leadership. China watchers are closely looking for signs that he may breech the rules on term limits, as he transitions to a second and what would be a final five-year term beginning in 2017.
For all the parallels drawn, we should be cautious about viewing Xi as the return of Mao, or even Maoism. (Magazine cover art from The Economist and other Western media have been quick to make this connection.) In my view, Professor Xu correctly stops short of applying to Xi Jinping the label of “neo-Maoist.” Xi is taking tactical cues from Mao, but Xi is anything but a Maoist in terms of how he views popular mobilization. Xi Jinping is very much in keeping with post-Mao leaders’ obsession with social stability. Mao believed in the potency and seemingly redemptive qualities of mass demonstrations and violence to rid the CCP and government bureaucracies of corruption, dysfunction, and general distance from the masses. Xi’s governing technique is much more in keeping with pre- and post-Cultural Revolution practices to send investigation teams to the grassroots to collect information about the misdeeds of local cadres and rooting out corruption through secret files and hearings, rather than open calls (as took place in the summer of 1966) for the masses to “bombard the headquarters” of Party and government offices. Both then and now, a party leader is trying to perform a “shock and awe” campaign against party and government officials, without addressing the systemic sources of corruption.