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Mao’s Cultural Revolution Legacy and Xi Jinping’s Governance Model

September 30, 2016

NOTE: The following is an English translation of an essay originally presented at “The Legacy of Mao Zedong and Contemporary China” conference held in June 2016 at the University of California at Riverside. 

[Translation by Human Rights in China]

Mao Zedong was the predestined misfortune of the Chinese people to whom he owed a sinful debt. In his lifetime, Mao exerted a profound influence over the fates of several generations of Chinese people, altered the direction of the original historical path of contemporary China, and hurled the entire nation into a test field of communist utopia. While many years have passed since his death, his specter is still haunting China, pulling the strings that control the future of Chinese society. The Cultural Revolution, the largest piece of political legacy Mao left for China, has lurked in hibernation in the hearts of those inside and outside government. It would show itself intermittently and would linger, influencing the highest ranking leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the way they think, govern, talk, and make policy choices.

Deng Xiaoping Should Be Responsible for Reviving Mao’s Cultural Revolution Legacy

After the cataclysm of the Cultural Revolution ended, a lesson was supposed to be learned from this painful experience. It could have been a perfect opportunity for a thorough accounting of all of Mao’s crimes once and for all. Deng, however, singlehandedly throttled the voices inside and outside the Party that were critical of Mao: he stressed that Mao’s achievements outweighed his mistakes and the necessity of establishing the historical place of Mao Zedong Thought. Thus, Mao was lifted up high and let off gently. Instead, Lin Biao (林彪)[1] and Jiang Qing (江青)[2] were made the scapegoats for the Cultural Revolution. In addition, at Deng’s recommendation that when it comes to the Cultural Revolution, it is “better to focus on the major points than to dwell on the details (宜粗不宜细),” the truth of history was purposefully concealed. But of course, “the devil is in the detail.” Without historical details, ordinary citizens have no way of knowing the truth behind Mao’s launching of the Cultural Revolution and his criminal responsibility. Subsequently, the CPC’s official rhetoric of “completely rejecting the Cultural Revolution (彻底否定文革)” was reduced to a hodgepodge of abstract rejection and concrete ambiguity. This job half done would cause profound trouble for a long time to come.

Deng’s deliberate protection of Mao stems from the two men’s history. Deng owed Mao a debt of gratitude for recognizing his talents and promoting him to important positions. Deng didn’t want to be an ingrate and be known as the Nikita Khrushchev of China. This complex controlled Deng’s political judgment and reform preferences. At the political level, Deng steered clear of probing the systemic root cause of the Cultural Revolution so as to preserve the party’s rule. Deng Xiaoping played a critical role in the resurgence of Mao’s Cultural Revolution legacy today. The amount of historical responsibility he should bear is no less than that of the June Fourth crackdown.

At the same time, the uneven, “one-legged” reform Deng Xiaoping implemented after he took power brought about ever growing social injustice and grievances, providing the very soil that enables Mao’s legacy to revitalize and wreak havoc. Deng was the ultimate instigator of crony capitalism in China. His so-called “Chinese characteristics (中国特色)” theory essentially advocates for a semi-controlled and semi-market economy driven by power, in which power seeks rent and the market makes it a reality. This is the reason why the CPC bureaucracy and even the entire Chinese society have sunk into such a deep mire of corruption. Without the checks and balances of political reform, economic reform under a one-party rule has unleashed greed in both human nature and capital, which inevitably engulfs and devastates the entire society with the same feverishness as that of the Cultural Revolution instigated by Mao.

China’s reform died in the June Fourth crackdown. The so-called reform became the prerogative of the power elite, resulting in a severely off-balanced distribution of interests, a polarized society, great disparity between the rich and the poor, and the sacrifice of the broad and underprivileged populace. People began to feel nostalgic for the so-called fair and clean politics of the Mao era and regard Mao as the standard-bearer in the fight against social injustice and power elite corruption. Furthermore, fundamentalists within the CPC capitalized on Mao’s Cultural Revolution legacy as a powerful weapon to denounce Deng’s reform. The irreconcilable opposition between the pro-Mao leftist and pro-Deng rightist camps tore the society apart. And the evils of human nature that were set free jointly by Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Deng’s one-sided reform have destroyed the ecology of Chinese society and compromised its moral and ethical bottom line. Such is the situation that Xi Jinping, head of the CPC’s fifth-generation leadership, is facing today.

Mao’s Cultural Revolution Legacy Clashes with Civilization, Tradition, and Humanity

Mao’s Cultural Revolution legacy is the twin brother of the CPC’s official ideology. The former is an extreme version of the latter. The two share the same origin and permeate each other. The Cultural Revolution gene has always existed in the official ideology. At its core are enemy mentality and struggle philosophy, provocation of hatred, and worship of violence. The ideology of the Cultural Revolution comprised the doctrines of “class struggle” and “permanent revolution”; its real objective was to seize power and purge dissidents, replacing them with loyal Mao roaders, to eventually establish a Mao family dictatorship; and its theory and practice clash with civilization, tradition, and humanity.

Bearing the unmistakable individual imprint of Mao, the Cultural Revolution was a monster born of the union between Mao’s individual will and China’s one-party totalitarian system. The psychological journey leading up to Mao’s launching of the Cultural Revolution can be traced all the way back to the time when the CPC’s rule was newly established, and its starting point was the fantasy that a communist utopia could be realized in China in no time. The death of Joseph Stalin ignited Mao’s ambition to become the revolutionary leader of the world. He significantly accelerated the pace of socialist transformation of all sectors and industries, in an attempt to “sprint into communism (跑步进入共产主义).” After Mao had planned with Khrushchev in Moscow to “catch up with the United Kingdom and surpass the United States (超英赶美),” he launched the Great Leap Forward, encouraged mass production of steel and iron, established people’s communes, and “blew the communist wind (刮”共产风”).” These campaigns resulted in a nationwide famine that starved 30 million people to death.

Facing the disastrous consequences of his actions, Mao refused to admit any wrongdoing and instead purged Peng Dehuai (彭德怀)[3] at the Lushan Conference[4] for his forthright criticisms. Mao feared that his comrades may be secretly conspiring to remove him and that he would suffer the same fate as Stalin, whose body was disrespectfully handled after his death. Mao believed that Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇)[5] was the one getting ready to secretly report on him behind his back. Under the magic spell of “China’s Khrushchev,” Mao inched toward the Cultural Revolution, tilting at windmills like Don Quixote. Given the fact that Liu Shaoqi had already cultivated considerable influence within the party and was enjoying growing respect and a rising reputation, it would be difficult to get rid of him by conventional methods. Only through extraordinary measures would Mao’s goal be achieved. Launching the Cultural Revolution was precisely the extraordinary measure that Mao took, risking everything he had.

Mao’s launching of the Cultural Revolution had nothing to do with idealism. Throughout his life, Mao had an inordinate thirst for power. The decade-long history of the Cultural Revolution was one of naked power struggle. The so-called class struggle and permanent revolution theory were nothing more than a theoretical disguise and propaganda device produced by official scholars—to find a pretext for Mao’s Cultural Revolution and to fool the people. Mao started the Cultural Revolution as a mom-and-pop shop with his wife; it greatly exposed his “emperor complex” deep down. Making a revolution by mobilizing the masses and kicking the party committee aside, Mao would ultimately turn the one-party rule into a family dictatorship. He secured himself from getting purged by letting the Cultural Revolution faction take over the most powerful positions. This is the actual trajectory of the Cultural Revolution. Red terror shrouded the entirety of China and turned it into a hell on earth, where Mao’s followers flourished and his opponents perished. In the name of “revolution,” human lives had no worth: people were dragged out for struggle sessions and paraded for public humiliation, killing and brutality permeated black jails, and miscarriages of justice spread throughout the country. It was the darkest chapter in China’s modern history.

Furthermore, the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution ravaged the spirit, tradition, culture, morality, and ethics of the Chinese nation with profound and long-lasting damage. Mao was a self-proclaimed “Karl Marx plus Qin Shi Huang.” Mao’s likening himself to an autocratic, tyrannical historical figure not only exposed his “emperor complex” deep down, but also shed light on the continuity between the Cultural Revolution and Qin Shi Huang’s burning of books and burying of scholars. In both theory and practice, Mao’s Cultural Revolution took to extremes the Marxist idea of “completely breaking away from traditional thoughts,” so much so that it pitted itself against civilization. The Cultural Revolution upended the Chinese traditional values of thousands of years and was more destructive to Chinese civilization than any war in history. During the Cultural Revolution, the entire humanistic tradition, spiritual beliefs, and value system broke down, leaving the country with one single brain and eight model operas (样板戏).[6] Furthermore, the concept of the Cultural Revolution was contradictory to modern civilization and incongruous with universal values or concepts of freedom, democracy, human rights, rule of law, and constitutional government. The Cultural Revolution purged Chinese culture and tradition in one fell swoop. There’s a saying that “China no longer existed after the Naval Battle of Mount Ya (崖山之后无中国).” In fact, the Cultural Revolution was the true “Mount Ya,” which committed genocide against the spirit, culture, tradition, morality, and ethics of the Chinese nation.

Mao’s Cultural Revolution legacy is against humanity in theory and in practice, destroying the standard of right and wrong and compromising the moral bottom line that had existed in China for thousands of years. It can be said that the most far-reaching crime the Cultural Revolution committed was that it destroyed humanity and released bestiality. It trampled on human dignity and inflicted spiritual abuse and physical mutilation to the greatest degree possible—even cannibalism took place in Guangxi. In that fanatical age of the Cultural Revolution, anyone that opposed Mao was labeled a class enemy, was no longer regarded as a human being, and therefore was subjected to all kinds of inhuman treatments imaginable. Incidents abounded where father and son attacked each other, husband and wife became enemies, friends and relatives told on one another, and family members betrayed one another. This was more than individual family tragedies—it was a nationwide collapse of humanity, which was the most detrimental consequence of the Cultural Revolution. Only when we discard Mao’s Cultural Revolution legacy altogether and reflect on the past in repentance as a whole nation will we be able to revive our humanity and rebuild Chinese civilization.

Mao Is the Spiritual Godfather of Second-generation Reds

Xi Jinping’s ascent to the CPC’s fifth-generation leadership signaled the beginning of a new era in which China is governed by second-generation reds (红二代). Second-generation reds are generally discontent with the society under the previous two generations of leaders, Jiang Zemin (江泽民)[7] and Hu Jintao (胡锦涛).[8] Before Xi Jiping took power, second-generation reds held an unprecedentedly large-scale celebration to self-congratulate and get the momentum going. Before we discuss how Mao’s Cultural Revolution legacy affects the circumstances, thought paradigm, and governance model of Xi Jinping’s rule, let us first have a look at what constitutes second-generation reds, and their upbringing and political preferences. This will help us understand the actions and measures Xi Jinping has taken since he took over.  

The term “second-generation reds” gained overnight popularity in recent years. Similar to “second-generation of government officials (官二代)” and “second-generation riches (富二代),” the new phrases have replaced preceding terms such as “princelings (太子党)” and “sons and daughters of senior officials (高干子弟).”  First, in terms of background, their fathers devoted their lives to the CPC revolution and participated in the founding and building of the Red Kingdom. Second, in terms of age, second-generation reds were generally born between the 1940s and 1960s, and the majority of them graduated from secondary school during the first three years of the Cultural Revolution (老三届, literally “old three classes”). It can be said that the second-generation reds are “eggs laid under the red flag (红旗下的蛋),” or that they “were born in the new China and raised under the red flag (生在新中国,长在红旗下).”

 Internally, second-generation reds have a rigid, pyramid-like hierarchy with various ranks and grades where each rank has a clique of its own. At the very top are the sons and daughters of the founding fathers of China, also referred to as “proletarian revolutionaries (无产阶级革命家).” At a lower rank are the sons and daughters of officials who, when the CPC newly established its rule, held office at or above the provincial or ministerial level (省部级) in the government or ranked above major general in the military. People who come from these two types of background are through and through second-generation reds. They are the ones who make up the heavily publicized General Offspring Chorus as well as the core circle and the prominent figures of second-generation reds.

After the CPC established its rule in China, the revolution started to swallow up its own sons and daughters. Things worsened during the Cultural Revolution and an enormous number of CPC officials faced tragic misfortune from which they could not escape. In a significant change of fate, some among the second-generation reds were reduced to political pariahs, falling from the red aristocracy down to become “sons and daughters of the reactionary gang (黑帮子女)” and “sons of bitches (狗崽子).” Xi Jinping was one of the second-generation reds whose family encountered this unforeseen mishap before the Cultural Revolution.

Here, one must note the difference between before and after the Cultural Revolution, which is essential to understanding Xi’s personality and moral standing. Before the Cultural Revolution, the political movement affected a relatively small group of people. As a result, those purged and their families were isolated and easily stood out and were more likely to be discriminated against. In addition, their young sons and daughters were relatively young, exactly in the malleable age of personality formation. Xi Jinping was only nine years old when his father Xi Zhongxun (习仲勋)[9] met with misfortune. The cruel circumstances directly affected the formation of his personality, making him more likely to conceal his true ambitions and patiently bide his time. This is where he differs from Bo Xilai’s (薄熙来) domineering ostentatiousness. Because Bo was already in high school and his personality had already taken shape at the time of his father Bo Yibo’s (薄一波) downfall during the Cultural Revolution. While Bo also had to adopt tolerance and keep a low profile in order to survive as a “son of a bitch,” his true personality would re-emerge once the circumstances changed.

Despite their different fates and experiences as adults, second-generation reds all had the same formative environment, suckled on the same wolfish culture of the Communist Party, and considered Mao Zedong as their spiritual godfather. Second-generation reds grew up in precisely the era when, as the CPC’s official rhetoric puts it, the rapid and abrupt growth of Mao’s leftist thoughts thrust the nation toward the Cultural Revolution. It was also during the Cultural Revolution that their restless teenage minds were formed. It can be said that their youth is emotionally connected with the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s enemy mentality, struggle philosophy, worship of violence, and provocation of hatred permeated deeply into the bone marrow of second-generations reds and morphed into their red genes. For example, below are some of the wildly circulated quotations of Mao during the Cultural Revolution that were absorbed into their bloodstream and became their collective subconscious mind and thought paradigm: “Who’s our friend? Who’s our enemy? (谁是我们的朋友,谁是我们的敌人)”; “A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another (革命是暴动,是一个阶级推翻另一个阶级的暴烈的行动)”; “We are the ruler of everything under heaven and the owner of our country (天下者我们的天下,国家者我们的国家)”; “We, the youths of this generation, will build with our own hands a great socialist power out of our poor and undereducated homeland. We will participate in the battle that will bury imperialism for good. We shoulder a lot of responsibility and have a long way to go (我们这一代青年人,将亲手把我们一穷二白的祖国建设成为伟大的社会主义强国,将亲手参加埋葬帝国主义的战斗,任重而道远).” 

Due to the inherent inadequacy in the environment in which they grew up and the dominance of totalitarian politics over their lives, second-generation reds are obsessed with politics to the point of having no regard for humanity. To put it more vividly, they are the deformed infants born of an era of insanity. On the one hand, they were deprived of the opportunity for education when they were supposed to be in school. Instead, an entire set of Mao’s preposterous thoughts and evil theories were drilled into their brains. As a result, their knowledge structure was fractured and incomplete, and won’t fit into modern civilization. On the other hand, believing that they have descended from a pure and royal communist bloodline, they have an intense “Red Kingdom consciousness (红色江山意识)” and fervently participate in politics. Deep down, they have an intense desire and passion to safeguard the revolutionary enterprise established by their fathers. To do that, they must protect the top leadership, the Party, and the Red Kingdom from harm. Later in life, second-generation reds would go through the ups and downs in the stormy ocean of fate and get knocked down by life—many of them experienced disappointment, doubt, and disillusionment. But overall, their sense of responsibility to safeguard the Party’s rule ultimately endures as the foundation of their lives. And as time goes by, it is strengthened and transformed into an intense consciousness to wield power in real-life politics.

As for how to deal with Mao’s Cultural Revolution legacy, most of second-generation reds find themselves stuck in an internal struggle: On the one hand, Mao is their spiritual godfather and the founding father of the Red Kingdom. On the other hand, Mao purged and persecuted their parents during the Cultural Revolution, shattering their families with death and separation. This conundrum is especially conspicuous among prominent second-generation reds.

Among second-generation reds, the parents of Liu Yuan (刘源),[10] Bo Xilai,[11] and Kong Dan (孔丹)[12] all died tragic and unjust deaths: Liu Yuan’s father Liu Shaoqi was tortured to death and given a fake name after he died; Hu Ming, Bo Xilai’s mother, died mysteriously while being escorted on a train to Beijing; Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun also spent long years in jail during the Cultural Revolution and couldn’t recognize his own son after he survived the catastrophe and got released. I should correct here a common misunderstanding that Xi Jinping resents Mao for implicating his father. In fact, Mao had done for the Xi family more to deserve gratitude than hatred. A long while ago when they reached the north of Shaanxi Province during the Long March, Mao saved Xi Zhongxun’s life. Although later persecuted by Mao, Xi was only incidentally involved when Mao was fighting back Peng Dehuai’s “reversal (翻案)”[13] and eradicating cliquism (山头, literally “mountaintop”) in the northwest.

Even though these prominent figures among second-generation reds encountered adversities during the Cultural Revolution  that were too painful to look back on, they are unable to recount the unjust death of their parents’ in public like ordinary people, let alone restore justice to console their parents’ spirits. They hold an ambiguous attitude toward the Cultural Revolution, refrain from publicly criticizing it, and provide only a cursory sketch of the history while eschewing details with grave significance. Liu Yuan is a typical example in this regard. When recalling his Cultural Revolution experience, he said, “I was forced under the threat of whips to undergo Reform-through-Labor from age ten. My blood seeped out of the tight shackles. For so many years, through thousands of nights and days, every single hour blood and tears dripped in my heart; every single moment I endured inhuman treatment and intimidation. I clenched my teeth tightly so that I wouldn’t go mad.” But when talking about Mao Zedong, the ultimate culprit of the Cultural Revolution, he made every effort to exculpate him by saying, “Mao did a lot of wrong things, but he did even more good things. Mao’s motive for the Cultural Revolution was not an evil one; its ills can only be chalked up to dereliction of duty; my father died a tragic death, but he also committed a big mistake in not having stopped the insurrection as the second-in-command.”

Clearly, such an attempt by second-generation reds at exculpating Mao is not only driven by a Mao-worship complex, but is also a result of political calculations; but whatever the reason, it has gone below the bottom line of humanity and defied the moral and ethical standard one should uphold as a human being. Mao deserved their hatred for being responsible for the deaths of their parents. However, those who drink water should be grateful for its origin. As the founding father of the Red Kingdom, Mao is their superhero and the source of the power they now enjoy. The interwoven attitudes of worshipping Mao and seeking family vengeance hurled second-generation reds into a cognitive dissonance and ethical dilemma. In the Chinese tradition, it’s ethical and moral for a son to revenge his father. In contrast, the second-generation reds are unable to appeal to and restore justice for the wrongful deaths of their parents. On top of that, they have to worship the ultimate culprit of the Cultural Revolution as their god and treat him with the utmost respect. What absurd lunacy! Furthermore, the disastrous Cultural Revolution was not just a matter of “family vengeance” in the normal sense, but a “national sacrifice” of the Chinese people. The ghosts of countless people who were wrongfully persecuted are still restlessly roaming in the underworld, unable to rest in peace. 

Second-generation reds currently in power use phrases like “red beliefs (红色信仰),” “kingdom consciousness (江山意识),” and “big picture consciousness (大局意识)” to defend their worship of Mao. These terms are just a pretext for what is in effect a feast of power-sharing. Perhaps the most representative case is when Wang Guangmei (王光美), widow of Liu Shaoqi, invited family members of Mao to have dinner together several years ago, and when the two families “greeted each other with a smile that thawed all the hatred,” shook hands, and had a pleasant chat. She also left a comment at the Mao Zedong Memorial Museum in Shaoshan and signed “Mao’s student.” Could it be that she had completely forgotten about the tragic death of Liu Shaoqi in the Cultural Revolution and the humiliation she herself had endured? Certainly not—she did this to pave the road for the political career of her son Liu Yuan.

Prominent figures among second-generation reds share a tacit understanding of this strategy and have all staged similar dramas for their ascent to power. Before Xi Jinping took office, he had paid three visits to Mao’s former residence in Shaoshan and left these words of overflowing gratitude: “Without Mao, my father would have been killed a long time ago, and I wouldn’t even be here today! (没有毛主席,我父亲早就被杀害了,哪里会有今天的我)” When Bo Xilai was assigned to Chongqing,[14] he also played the Mao card in a bid to return to Beijing and ascend to the CPC’s top leadership. He was reported to have admitted in private: “Upon thorough consideration, I believe that only Mao Zedong Thought is the Party’s positive asset. We need to return to Mao.” This was where Bo got his inspiration to launch the “sing red, strike black (唱红打黑)” campaign. In short, Mao is the spiritual godfather and leader of the political journey of second-generation reds, and they have an unbreakable spiritual bond among them. This is the origin of the political life, logic, and strategies of the second-generation reds currently in power.

Xi’s Governance Dilemma in the Shadow of Mao’s Phantom

Xi Jinping took office amid hopeful expectations from the general public that he would be a liberal leader like his father Xi Zhongxun,[15] solve various social problems that had accumulated under the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao administrations, and guide China in completing the transformation to constitutionalism. But Xi’s subsequent actions and policies turned out to be a major disappointment. After he took office, Xi made a full swerve to the left, hoisted the Maoist flag, backpedaled on previous achievements, and grabbed power under the pretext of fighting corruption. It can be said that Xi has got all the tricks in the bag to concentrate power but none to run the country. What’s more, Xi Jinping aped Mao in all aspects: he promoted a cult of personality of himself and declared that “the two 30 years [Mao’s era and Deng’s era] must not negate one another.” He also tried to lift the condemnation of the Cultural Revolution, unleashing a bombardment of “great criticisms (大批判)” in the official media in the beginning of 2016 that was reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. While the criticism campaign was not officially named, it was referred to as the “Ten-day Cultural Revolution.” Xi also earned himself the unflattering nickname of “Emperor Mao II.” Why has Xi Jinping become so obsessed with retreading the path of the Cultural Revolution? Below is my attempt to analyze and comment on this issue.

It should be said that Xi Jinping is clearly aware that he got handed a mess. The political, economic, and social conflicts that had accumulated over many years are on the brink of a full-blown explosion: the corruption among officials has cost the CPC the trust and respect of the people; from the Bo Xilai incident, people got a view of the dark secrets and hideousness of the inner struggle in the CPC top echelon; furthermore, the days of high-speed economic growth—the source of the CPC’s legitimacy after the June Fourth crackdown—are now numbered. The overall grim economic outlook has further aggravated a variety of social conflicts and thus endangered the CPC’s rule. Painfully aware of the crisis threatening the Party’s survival, Xi refuses to be the leader who presides over the collapse of his own party. And the “Red Kingdom complex” prevents him from letting CPC perish in his hands. He must do something and find a way out. Continuing to play the game of “passing a time bomb around until the music stops” as they did in the Hu Jintao era would for sure lead the Party to a dead end.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, Deng Xiaoping let Mao off easily. Deng’s campaign of “completely rejecting the Cultural Revolution” was no more than a cat’s effort to cover up its poop—it left the root cause of the problem untouched and failed to hold Mao accountable for his historical crimes. Mao has remained as the idol on the CPC’s altar and Mao Zedong Thought continues to guide its rule. They remain unchallenged and are still being wielded as a weapon to protect the one-party rule. In this context, in order to obtain legitimacy, the CPC leaders have no other choice than waving the Maoist flag. Even a political giant like Deng Xiaoping was no exception to this reality—the most he could have done was bait-and-switch.

But having been shelved by Deng Xiaoping for so many years, Mao is at most a political symbol. The key to reviving Mao as the official political discourse is figuring out how to loosen the noose around Mao’s instigation of the Cultural Revolution. This is because the entire Reform-and-Opening-up era was founded on the repudiation of the Cultural Revolution. With this in mind, Xi Jinping purposefully obscured his true political ambitions when he first took office with a series of intricate and deceptive Kung Fu movements. Having kicked off his administration with the “China dream,” Xi seemed to be upholding both Mao and Deng on the surface while in reality highlighting Mao and downplaying Deng. When he became the CPC new General Secretary, he visited the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone as his first inspection trip, showing the world that he will continue to implement Deng’s Reform-and-Opening-up policy. At the same time, Xi declared that “the two 30 years must not negate one another.” He then held a grandiose memorial for what would have been Mao Zedong’s 120th birthday and extolled Mao’s historical achievements. He also led the ensemble of the CPC Central Committee members to pay respect at the Mao Zedong Memorial Museum, followed by a visit to Yan’an,[16] Gutian,[17] Xibaipo,[18] and Jinggangshan.[19] Through the series of activities, Mao Zedong Thought, lain dormant for more than 30 years, returned to the political stage and became the baton with which Xi Jinping commands the Party and rules over the realm. While loosening the noose around Mao, Xi also released the ghost of the Cultural Revolution from the magic bottle and came under its spell.

After taking office, Xi chose to fight corruption with an iron fist as the breakthrough point of his governance. This was a meticulously designed ploy to hit two birds with one stone: given that the CPC’s corruption had cost it the trust and respect of the people, only a forceful anticorruption campaign could save the Party. In the meantime, the campaign would allow Xi to establish himself as an intimidating, all-powerful, and strong-arm leader. Then, with all factions of the party succumbing to his political clout, Xi would end up holding all power in his hands. It can be said that Xi has truly learned from Mao the essence of power concentration, psychological warfare, and power struggles.

Copying Mao’s old tactics, Xi got rid of the existing Party governing system and started up his own system to “rule the country as head of small groups (小组长治国).” In addition to holding the three top offices as the General Secretary of the CPC, President, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi is also the head of as many as seven “small leading groups” at the top central government level—clenching key power within the Party, government, and military. Still more, to highlight his authority, Xi also revised the General Secretary’s role prescribed in the CPC constitution from one of the convener of the Standing Committee to a de facto “chairmanship.” He emphasized the General Secretary’s control over the whole situation and reinstalled the Mao era system in which the Party led the government. He also ordered Politburo Standing Committee members—each responsible for the work of various departments such as the National People’s Congress, the State Council, and the People’s Political Conference—to report to him. This in fact transformed the relationship between the General Secretary and Standing Committee members as one between a supervisor and his subordinates.

It should be said that Xi Jinping’s rule had a pretty good start. Wielding his “three-trick axe (三把斧)” of fighting corruption, getting in touch with the people, and concentrating power, he achieved impressive results. On top of winning popular support for his anticorruption effort, Xi also received understanding and tolerance for his concentration of power from the general public, whose hope was that Xi, in the position of power, would promote political reform and complete China’s transformation to constitutionalism. But people soon realized that Xi’s anticorruption campaign, though impressive, only cured the symptoms while leaving the root cause untreated, and did nothing about the system as a whole. The anticorruption campaign was nothing more than an attempt to safeguard the one-party rule, which was precisely the systematic cause of corruption. As a result, corruption remained rampant within the Party and in society. In addition to the delayed formulation of sunshine law, civil society activists demanding the disclosure of officials’ assets were sent to jail. The anticorruption pageantry now no longer holds its appeal for its main audience—the people. Even officials of all levels who have been put on alert knew that it wasn’t about fairness but that it was a selective measure whose objective was to grab power and put Xi’s trusted followers in key positions. However, intimidated by the momentum of the campaign, enraged officials dared not speak out.

Even as he grabbed power through fighting corruption, Xi took up Mao as a political weapon and did his best to imitate Mao. He frequently quoted Mao in the process of commanding the Party and managing the military. He also copied Mao’s initiatives by launching an intra-party rectification movement (整风运动), convening forums on literature and art, and organizing another Gutian Conference on military political work. In addition, he consciously aped Mao’s speech style by using low-brow and uncomplicated idioms, such as “strike at the tigers and flies at the same time (老虎苍蝇一起打),” “take a bath, treat the disease (洗洗澡、治治病),” and so on. Xi also did his utmost to imitate Mao’s way of doing things in an effort to remake himself into the kind of charismatic leader Mao was. All of these aspects became a part of Xi’s governance style, making one feel as if the clock had been turned back to Mao’s era.

As soon as Xi took office, his team capitalized on the people’s favorable opinion of him thanks to the anticorruption campaign and switched on the entire propaganda machinery in order to strengthen his influence and enhance his image. The sweeping campaign made such a big deal out of everything as if Xi were Mao incarnate: state media news headlines almost featured exclusively Xi’s one-man show; the clamor for “Xi Dada” never stopped; his images and promotional posters were ubiquitous; the Spring Festival Gala became a sole celebration of Xi; and there even emerged such fulsome songs as “Xi Dada, the National Idol (全民偶像习大大),” “ The East Is Red Again (东方又红),” and “If You Want to Get Married, Marry Someone Like Xi Dada (要嫁就嫁习大大那样的人).” Moreover, Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan has not let herself be idled. She became the artistic director for the opera “The White-haired Girl (白毛女),” one of the icons of the Cultural Revolution. The central Party, government, and military departments issued a joint announcement ordering all local offices nationwide to organize group viewings of the show, in an effort to associate Peng with Jiang Qing, the standard-bearer of the Cultural Revolution.

At the very beginning, Xi’s rule was smooth sailing. He met no severe challenges from within the Party on either his anticorruption effort or concentration of power. Even his promotion of a cult of personality was first tolerated: people just watched and kept their mouths shut, at most raising doubts only in private. However, as Xi went on to forbid “making inappropriate comments on the central leadership (妄议中央),” designate himself as “the core (核心),” and intensified his cult of personality, Party members were finally compelled to join hands in saying “no” to Xi. Under the pressure coming from all fronts, Xi was forced to hit the brakes. The CPC had learned it the hard way before—the Party’s top leadership was well aware that a cult of personality, which is synonymous with the Cultural Revolution, would most certainly result in a personal dictatorship. Xi’s actions have left everyone in the Party feeling insecure, in fear of the replay of the nightmare of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This is a significant setback that Xi Jinping encountered since he took office.

Xi’s trouble didn’t end there. The Chinese economy deteriorated on all fronts, marked by surplus production capacity, environmental pollution, and a bleak outlook in the real economy. This in turn has escalated a multitude of social conflicts. Of course, Xi Jinping is not to be blamed for all of this—much was accumulated from the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao administrations over the past decades. But Xi is not free of responsibility, either. Promoting Mao while downplaying Deng since he took office, Xi focused exclusively on fighting corruption and did nothing in terms of economic reform for three years. He let any good opportunity slip away, and the economy further worsened.                                                                       

It can be said that the various actions Xi has taken since he took power has sent the CPC wobbling and tumbling like a ship in a storm—all aboard are in a panic. It was against this backdrop that the open letter by “Loyal Members of the Communist Party” demanding Xi’s resignation surfaced in March 2016. The open letter listed in great detail all the mistakes Xi has committed since he took office. It was widely circulated because it verbalized the thoughts that many had in their minds but had previously dared not to say out loud. It has become the banner around which the anti-Xi forces inside and outside the Party coalesce.

Born into the waning era of the CPC’s red dynasty, Xi Jinping refuses to be the leader who presides over its destruction. As a second-generation red, he attempts to reverse the tide, reinvent the Party, and consolidate the Red Kingdom so that it lasts for eternity. However, in ignoring the direction the world is heading, going against the tide of history, and disregarding people’s true opinion of him, he has ruined his own image and drove a board of live chess pieces to checkmate in just three years’ time. Whether this was a result of Xi’s lack of qualifications or his problematic ideas about how to rule and govern, Mao’s phantom lurks in the shadow. This is the root cause of Xi Jinping’s governance predicament.

On the occasion of what would have been Mao’s 120th birthday, I wrote in an article, “China Must Purge Mao's Ghost (中国若进步,必须彻底批毛).” I still hold this view. It can be said that China will never have a day of peace and will go through torturous replays of the Cultural Revolution if the Mao disaster is not eradicated. Mao’s political legacy is the greatest obstacle to China’s transformation to a constitutional democracy. Unless Mao’s curse is thoroughly exorcised—from the political system, ideological realm, and even the spiritual and cultural sphere—and the truth of the Cultural Revolution is made known to the entire nation, China will never be able to break away from its fate of bloodiness, despotism, and fear, nor will it be able to join the ranks of modern civilized countries. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, standing at the crossroads of history and the present reality, I reflected over the unprecedented disaster of the Cultural Revolution and drew the above conclusions.

[1] Lin Biao was Minister of National Defense from 1959 until his death in 1971, when a plane carrying him and several members of his family crashed over Mongolia.


[2] Jiang Qing was Mao’s fourth wife and then his widow. A member of the radical political alliance “Gang of Four (四人帮),” she largely controlled China’s cultural life by designing model operas (样板戏) during the Cultural Revolution. She was arrested after Mao’s death in 1976.


[3] Peng Dehuai was a prominent military leader and served as Minister of National Defense from 1954 until 1959, when he was removed for criticizing the Party’s policies at the Lushan Conference. Lin Biao took over his position.

[4] The main topic of discussion at the Lushan Conference in 1959 was the Great Leap Forward. Mao identified and purged “rightist elements (右派分子)” including Peng Dehuai.

[5] Having served as Vice Chairman of the Communist Party of China and President of China, Liu Shaoqi was one of the most powerful men in China. He was persecuted to death in the Cultural Revolution as a “capitalist roader in power (走资本主义道路的当权派).” His honor was posthumously restored in 1980.

[6] Created by Jiang Qing in the Cultural Revolution, model operas were state-sponsored stage performances that combined opera and ballet with revolutionary and patriotic themes. 

[7] Jiang Zemin was General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (1989-2002) and President of the People's Republic of China (1993-2003).

[8] Hu Jintao was General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (2002-2012) and President of the People’s Republic of China (2003-2013).

[9] Xi Zhongxun, Secretary General of the State Council (1953-1965), was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

[10] Liu Yuan is the son of Liu Shaoqi. He is a retired general of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and served as Vice Mayor of Zhengzhou and Vice Governor of Henan Province.

[11] Bo Xilai is the son of Bo Yibo, former Vice Premier of the State Council who was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution and then brought back to power in 1979. Bo Xilai was Secretary of the Communist Party of Chongqing (2007-2012). He was sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption in 2013.

[12] Kong Dan’s father Kong Yuan was Director of the Central Investigation Department. His mother Xu Ming was the secretary of Zhou Enlai. Both were persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. Kong Dan is a Chinese entrepreneur and economist.

[13] Wu Han’s play “Hai Rui Dismissed from Office (海瑞罢官)” was interpreted as an allegory for Peng Dehuai’s verdict as a rightist at the Lushan Conference and a call for a reversal. Later, an eponymous novel about Liu Zhidan (刘志丹) was construed as an allegory for revolutionary leader Gao Gang’s purge. Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun was purged as Gao’s close comrade.

[14] Bo Xilai was CPC Secretary of Chongqing, 2007-2012.

[15] Xi Zhongxun was a prominent advocate for economic reform and a steadfast supporter of Hu Yaobang’s liberal political reform agenda. He convinced Deng Xiaoping to grant Guangdong the power to make its own foreign trade policy decisions, which eventuated in the creation of Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 1980. 

[16] Yan’an, in Shaanxi Province, served as the headquarters of the Communist Party of China during the Chinese Communist Revolution (1936-1948).

[17] Gutian was the location of the Gutian Conference, the first meeting of the Communist Party of China after the Nanchang Uprising and established the principle of “the party presiding over the army.”

[18] Xibaipo is a village in Hebei Province and was the last rural foothold of the Communist Party of China before it took over Beijing in 1949. It was also the site of a national land reform conference.

[19] Jinggangshan is located on the border of Jiangxi Province and Hunan Province. It is one of the starting points of the Long March and is regarded as the birthplace of the Chinese Red Army.   

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