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Ashutosh’s Take on Why China’s Xi Jinping is Invoking Mao’s Legacy

Is President Xi Jinping trying to divert attention from real issues that confront China by invoking Mao’s legacy?

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Is President Xi Jinping trying to divert attention from real issues that confront China by invoking Mao’s legacy?
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Here’s a question: What do Xi Jinping, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi have in common? All four political leaders ask their countrymen to rally behind similar sounding slogans. Xi talks about the great revival of the Chinese nation. Donald Trump wants to make America great again. Putin wants to do the same for Russia, while our very own Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants India to emerge a global superpower.

All four leaders rode high on a growing tide of nationalist sentiment. Putin is the senior-most of the four – Russia has seen much progress under his leadership. Trump, on the other hand, is not taken seriously at all.

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In a bid to put India on the world map, Modi has eventually destroyed his country’s economy. China seems dissatisfied with Xi Jinping since the economy has taken a turn for the worse and corruption is on the rise.

Also Read: Xi Jinping’s Political Ideology to Be Taught in Chinese Schools

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin looks at a work report by Chinese President Xi Jinping during the closing ceremony of the 19th Party Congress, Beijing, 24 October, 2017.
Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin looks at a work report by Chinese President Xi Jinping during the closing ceremony of the 19th Party Congress, Beijing, 24 October, 2017.
(Photo: AP)

Xi Jinping Emerges a Powerful Leader

It is commonplace for political leaders to hark back to a supposedly glorious past in times of trouble. When the vikas that Modi promised failed to materialise, tensions between majoritarian forces and minority communities became the new normal. Beef has been turned into a contentious issue and the Ram Mandir conflict has been given a new lease of life.

These days, either the Taj Mahal is at the centre of criticism or college students are targeted in spurious debates about Kashmir and nationalism.

Unlike India, China has a simpler solution – to invoke Chairman Mao, no matter what the problem is. This is exactly what Xi Jinping is busy doing these days as the Chinese Communist party’s 19th Congress draws to a close.

Also Read: At China’s Communist Party Congress, All Eyes on Xi Jinping

In the absence of a democratic set up, it is this Congress in China which decides the fate of the highest political authority in the country.

Xi Jinping has been endorsed for a second term, with his name and ideology included in the Constitution of the Communist Party. This confirms his status as the most powerful leader in China since Chairman Mao.

His predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, both had the party constitution amended to include their thoughts, but without their names attached.

China’s Obsession with Economic Progress

This does not bode well for China and is likely to have terrible ideological repercussions. In Mao’s totalitarian regime, anyone who disagreed even slightly with the party line was an instant enemy. Mao made life a living hell for anyone who was perceived to be a threat.

Even Deng Xiaoping – who pulled China out from the shackles of poverty and helped it transform into a global power – was relegated to a common prisoner in a concentration camp for seven years. This happened despite the fact that he was among top notch leaders of China.

Even Mao’s successors – Lin Biao and Liu Shaoqi – died under mysterious circumstances. Millions died of starvation and persecution.

Mao was never considered the butt of humour during the regimes of Deng, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, unlike the USSR where Khrushchev mocked his predecessor Joseph Stalin, after his death. China tried to limit Mao to school textbooks and thus, he was not a figure associated with inspiration – The mantra of the day was economic reform and progress.

In the spring of 1992, Den Xiaoping toured southern China to assert his economic agenda in the face of hostility from conservative political forces. He had then thundered that those opposed to reform were welcome to vacate their posts. The party finally recognised that their supreme leader meant business; and China hasn’t looked back since then.

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Security personnel stand on guard on Tiananmen Square before the closing ceremony of China’s 19th Party Congress, in Beijing, 24 September, 2017.
Security personnel stand on guard on Tiananmen Square before the closing ceremony of China’s 19th Party Congress, in Beijing, 24 September, 2017.
(Photo: AP)

Deng Xiaoping’s Creative Push

For me, Deng was a bigger leader than Mao. It is true that Mao helped China rise out of feudalism, but it is equally true that his arbitrary style of ruling wreaked havoc on the lives of common citizens. His regime was marked by terror, oppression, and persecution.

Deng, on the other hand, stoked the fire of creative energy in China and helped realise its potential. Unlike Mao, Deng didn’t build a cult of personality around himself. He didn’t think of himself as a divine messiah. He exhorted the populace to consider him as another son of China.

Deng used to emphasise how impossible it was for a single person or party to bring about economic reform in China. He was succeeded by Zemin and Jintao, who served as supreme leaders for ten years each and ensured a peaceful transfer of power after their term.

Deng is to be thanked for the conditions under which such a transfer could be effected, since as a rule within communist regimes, successors are appointed only after the death or ouster of current leaders. Speculations are rife that Xi wants to restore Mao’s system of governance.

Hospitality staff members pose for a group photo near the large portrait of Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Gate, in Beijing, 24 October, 2
Hospitality staff members pose for a group photo near the large portrait of Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Gate, in Beijing, 24 October, 2
(Photo: AP)

Xi Jinping: Victim of Mao’s Autocracy

It is interesting to note that Xi himself has suffered at the hands of Mao. His father was an influential leader within the Communist Party, who fell from grace after Mao suspected him of being a troublemaker.

Owing to pressure from the party, Xi was separated from his sister and mother and was forced to denounce his father. It was common for families to be torn apart when one of the family members was under suspicion in those days.

Despite this unfortunate episode, Xi continues to honour Mao. Take, for instance, the atrocities committed under Mao’s regime that came to light after his death. Disturbing accounts from China’s cultural revolution are there for all to see and to be judged by history. Yet, the space for critiquing Mao has shrunk considerably in the last five years of Xi’s regime. Criticising Mao is not an easy task even for historians.

According to ABC news, few museums dedicated to preserving records of the revolution have been shut down. Websites that used to carry accounts of victims from that time met a similar fate. Historian Frank Dikkoter complains that it is increasingly hard for people within his field to gain access to archives that shed light on Mao’s regime. This renewed veneration of Mao under Xi merits a sharp scrutiny.

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China’s Model of Economic Growth

One could claim that it stems from genuine admiration, though that may not be completely true. Xi has spent two-thirds of his life in new China – a China that has shed its communist past and embraced capitalism. It is true that economic reform didn’t pave way for political reform; capitalism couldn’t usher democracy in China. Plurality of voices, freedom of speech and elections are alien to China.

China can be said to have developed a new model whereby their politics remains conservative and communist, while their economic system has become capitalist. This model has clearly been a successful one for them. It is probable that China would have remained extremely impoverished under the older model of conservative politics and economics. Why then does Xi Jinping seem to want to go back to an older era?

Despite an upward trend since 1978, China’s economy has recently taken a turn for the worse. It has slowed from a steady 10 percent to a growth rate of 6.7 percent in the last quarter. While average incomes soared, job opportunities didn’t witness a similar growth.

A rise in labour costs has resulted in an increase in the price of several commodities, with demand for products being hit. Tension is evident due to increase in gap between the rich and poor.

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Rhetoric vs Reality

While these conflicts are contained through elections in a democracy, they portend danger for a single-party regime. There are only two recourses under such conditions: the opiate of nationalism and invoking a golden past.

It is no coincidence that Xi is seen donning a military uniform these days. Even Prime Minister Modi can be seen wearing an army fatigue and celebrating Diwali with soldiers, amidst uncomfortable questions on the economic state of affairs.

In China, it is imperative for a leader to have a strong hold on the armed forces. Deng, for example, did not resign from his military post even after he stepped down. The Military’s support is crucial in economically turbulent times. China is flexing its muscles in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to intimidate its seven neighbouring countries. The Doklam standoff with India, as well as the threats and invectives employed by Chinese media against Prime Minister Modi, serve much the same function.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising if Xi starts employing charged emotional rhetoric on the lines of Mao in near future. It will be a clear warning to USA and India to toe the line. There is a possibility that the Chinese troops might advance near India’s borders and China inching closer to Pakistan.

President Xi’s statement that China is entering into a new phase where it can hope to emerge as a global says a lot about his aspirations as far as the US and India are concerned. For this, Xi needs to divert attention from China’s weak economy and stoke jingoist emotions, just the way Mao used to do. Alas, similar tricks are at play in India as well.

(The writer is an author and spokesperson of AAP. He can be reached at @ashutosh83B.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. This article was originally published on QuintHindi.)

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