Xi Invokes Mao’s Image to Boost his own Authority

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 1

President Xi Jinping has used the celebration of Chairman Mao Zedong’s 120th birthday on December 26 to legitimize his conservative policies—and the concentration of power at the apex of the party-state apparatus. While more than 100,000 people, mostly rural residents, converged on Mao’s birthplace in central Hunan Province to honor the founder of the People’s Republic, the festivities were relatively muted in major cities. In Beijing, however, all seven members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee showed up at the Mao Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square to pay their respects to the Great Helmsman (Hunan Daily, December 16, 2013; People’s Daily, December 26, 2013). Xi’s keynote speech at a lavish commemorative service in the Great Hall of the People threw light on not only his administration’s plans to carry out the reform recently endorsed by the Third CCP Central Committee Plenum, but also on how the General Secretary and Commander-in-Chief plans to gather the reins of power in his hands.

Consistent with the series of exhortations that Xi made after becoming party chief at the 18th CCP Congress in November 2012, the 60-year-old supremo underscored the imperative of “faith in socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Praising Mao for having “creatively solved the major question of synthesizing Marxism-Leninism with Chinese realities,” Xi reiterated that Chinese should boost their “self-confidence in our path, our theories and our institutions.” The President and Commander-in-Chief paid tribute to Mao’s principle of “independence and self-determination,” which, he said, ruled out China copying any foreign models, especially those from the capitalist West. “No single people or country have become strong and reinvigorated by relying on outside forces and by strictly following in the footsteps of others,” Xi added. “This would only entail failure or result in [one country] become the vassal of others” (Xinhua, December 26, 2013). 

There does not seem to be a contradiction between Xi’s veneration of Maoism and the Xi leadership’s advocacy of market-oriented reform, as demonstrated by the liberalization blueprint—Resolution on Certain Major Issues in Comprehensively Deepening Reform (Resolution)—endorsed by the party’s Central Committee last November. Rather, he appears to be attempting to follow the path charted by reformist leader Deng Xiaoping—using capitalist reform as a tool to bolster the authoritarian model of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Xi, who was responsible for drafting the document, has reiterated that reforms must be carried out orderly and incrementally—and will be monitored by centralized authority at the apex of the CCP. The reform document underscored the imperative of dingceng sheji or “top-level design” and the “organic integration of the leadership of the Party, the people mastering their own affairs and governing the country according to the law.” (Xinhua, November 15, 2013; China News Service, November 15, 2013).

Xi’s carefully calibrated rhetoric is thus geared toward appeasing Chinese who want a continuation of economic reforms as well as conservative elements within the Party who agree with Deng’s judgment that “if we abandon the standard of Mao Thought, we are in fact negating the party’s illustrious history” (People’s Daily, March 24, 2010).  Indeed, in his now-famous internal talk last December on drawing the right lessons from the collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Xi noted that the CPSU made a fatal error in denigrating Lenin and Stalin. As a result of forsaking their founding fathers, Xi pointed out, “[latter-day Soviet party members] were wallowing in historical nihilism.” “Their thoughts became confused, and different levels of party organizations became useless,” he said. (Radio Free Asia, May 24; Deutche Welle Chinese Service, January 25, 2013).

Despite Xi’s expressions of confidence in the Chinese model, he revisited a theme that had appeared many times in his speeches the past year: the fear that the “dynastic cycle” will catch up with the 92-year-old CCP. He cited Mao’s famous remark that “we will never become Li Zicheng.” Li (1606–1644) was the charismatic leader of a peasant rebellion at the end of the Ming Dynasty; but even though he overran Beijing, the would-be emperor failed to keep power because he and his colleagues alienated the masses by adopting an aristocratic lifestyle. Xi also cited famous proverbs that Mao and other First-Generation cadres had often used: “a regime’s vigor may seem overwhelming; yet death could strike all of a sudden.” Again following Mao, however, Xi’s prescription for righting the wrongs of the Chinese situation was not to introduce novel concepts or institutions. “We must boost the party’s abilities in self-purification, self-perfection, self-renewal and self-elevation,” he noted.

Xi’s apparent obsession with Mao-style thinking is behind some of the contradictions in the Resolution that was approved at the Third Plenum. For example, while the Resolution indicated that “the market will play a decisive role in the distribution of resources,” it also laid emphasis on “strengthening and improving the party’s leadership over [different aspects of] reform.” “We must fully develop the party’s core leadership function in taking hold of the overall situation and coordinating different sectors,” the document said. And while the Third Plenum seemed to have enlarged the wiggle room for private as well as foreign enterprises, the Resolution urged the “ceaseless enhancement of the vigor, controlling force and influence of the state economy” (Xinhua, December 15, 2013; China News Service, December 15, 2013). 

It is clear that Xi wants a tight personal control over the entire reform agenda. The ability of Xi to personally set the pace of reform will enable him to reconcile demands made on leadership by disparate power blocs in the polity. There is no doubt that Xi shares Mao’s penchant for authoritarianism governance. In his December 26 speech, Xi did not entirely ignore Mao’s monumental mistakes made, particularly those incurred during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), but the contemporary leader largely followed the verdict delivered by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, that “Mao’s contributions were primary, his errors secondary.” While Deng at least partly attributed Mao’s failings to the CCP’s weak institutions, including the absence of checks and balances, Xi made no reference to the party’s Leninist—and dictatorial—traditions. [1] One reason for Mao’s aberrations, Xi indicated, was simply that he was venturing upon new territories. “[When Mao tried] to construct socialism under China’s social and historical conditions, there were no precedents,” Xi wrote. “It’s like a climber tackling a high mountain where nobody has been to before.”

While Xi did not say much about Mao’s strongman-style leadership, he has in practice done the dictator proud by successfully amassing power after having been in office for a mere 14 months. A year-end Politburo meeting announced that Xi had been named as the Head of the newly created Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reform. Xinhua indicated that the leading group would be in charge of “designing reform on an overall basis, arranging and coordinating reform, pushing forward reform as a whole, and supervising the implementation of reform plans” (Xinhua, December 29). Moreover, another group set up at the Third Plenum, the National Security Commission, will also likely be headed by Xi. (See “Xi’s Power Grab Towers over Market Reforms,” China Brief, November 20, 2013). This development means that Xi will have the ultimate say over the economy, in addition to his ironclad control over the party-state apparatus, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the police forces (Ming Pao [Hong Kong] December 30, 2013; Bloomberg, December 30, 2013). Times, however, have changed since Mao exercised near-totalitarian control. Despite the many titles he has assumed, the Xi needs at least the acquiescence of central and regional units in the vast party-state-military apparatus to get things done.

Moreover, glorifying what Xi called the “major contributions of our forebears” is an indirect means by which princelings—the offspring of party elders—claim “revolutionary legitimacy.” For Xi, unabashed celebrations of Maoism yield the added bonus of unifying princelings and rallying them behind himself, who are not a reliably united power bloc. “Today, what we can reassure Comrade Mao Zedong and other early revolutionaries is that … we are closer than any other historical juncture to attaining the goal of the renaissance of the Chinese race,” said Xi, who is the son of late vice-premier Xi Zhongxun. It is not surprising that civilian and military cadres with “revolutionary bloodline” have in the past decade been the most fervent celebrants of the Maoist tradition. At more or less the same time that the disgraced Politburo member and high-profile princeling Bo Xilai launched his infamous “singing red songs” campaign, then vice-president Xi also re-hoisted the standards of Maoism. For example, while visiting the “revolutionary mecca” of Jinggangshan in Jiangxi Province in 2008, Xi paid homage to the “countless martyrs of the revolution who used their blood and lives to win over this country.” “They laid a strong foundation for the good livelihood [we are enjoying],” he said. “Under no circumstances can we forsake this tradition.” Military princelings have also been fervid custodians of Maoist heirlooms. For example, the “Singing Troupe of 100 Offspring of Generals” has been active in organizing “red concerts” since the late 2000s. Senior members of the troupe include the sons and daughters of Marshals Chen Yi, Nie Rongzhen, Luo Rongzhen and He Long, respectively Chen Haosu, Nie Li, Luo Dongjin, and He Xiaoming (Dazhong Daily (Shandong), June 26, 2010; People’s Daily, October 15, 2008).

At the same time, PLA generals have vowed to push forward Mao’s aggressive military and foreign-policy precepts, particularly in areas such as “fighting imperialism.” In a seminar on Mao’s national defense doctrines that was held at the Academy of Military Sciences, Director of the General Political Department General Zhang Yang indicated that “Mao’s military thinking is a strong ideological weapon for vanquishing enemies and winning wars.” Linking Mao Thought with Commander-in-chief Xi’s “Chinese dream,” General Zhang called on officers and the rank and file to closely study the Great Helmsman’s instructions “so that we can boost our cohesiveness in realizing the Chinese Dream and the dream of a strong army” (CNTV.com, December 25, 2013; People’s Daily, December 24, 2013). Hawkish military commentators such as Generals Luo Yuan and Zhang Zhaozhong have the past few years saluted Mao’s readiness to “stand up to the Americans” particularly when compared to the conciliatory “keep a low profile” mantra of late patriarch Deng Xiaoping (360Doc.com [Beijing], December 16, 2013;   www.wyzxsx.com [Beijing], October 6, 2010).

The nation’s dissidents and liberal intellectuals, however, have a much different take on Mao and his relevance for 21st-century Chinese politics. In interviews with the Hong Kong and overseas-Chinese media, they warned that Chinese must draw the right lesson from Mao-style dictatorship if the country were to become a modern and just society. “The destruction of the market was one of Mao’s major blunders,” said Bao Tong, the secretary of the late party chief Zhao Ziyang. Bao saw a contradiction between the authorities’ commitment to “comprehensively deepen reform” on the one hand, and “honoring tyrant Mao Zedong” on the other. Li Rui, the 96-year-old former secretary of Mao, recalled how the Great Helmsman regarded himself as a latter-day Emperor Qin (260-210 BC), the First Emperor well-known for his brutal suppression of the people. Li deplored the fact that the powers-that-be had to defend the despot’s legacy. “They were raised by the Communist Party, they grew up wearing red scarves,” said Li about the current leaders. “Away from Mao, the Communist Party and Marxism, then they are not legitimate. They have to safeguard their origin” (South China Morning Post, December 21, 2013; Radio Free Asia, December 13, 2013).

Thanks to the revolutionary bloodline, Xi seems significantly more sentimentally attached to Mao than ex-presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, whose Mao eulogies in 1993 and 2003 were politically correct but much less emotionally charged. It seems clear that Xi has to emerge from Mao’s shadow if he is to implement the kind of economic and political reforms that are more in sync with the requirements of the 21st Century.


  1. Deng’s verdict on Mao was contained in the Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a document approved by the 11th Central Committee in June 1981. In a famous August 1980 speech entitled “On the reform of the system of party and state leadership,” Deng noted that building viable institutions and rule by law was more important than picking saintly leaders to run the country.