Xi Evokes “New Left” Vision of China’s Future
[This is an article posted in the pro-usa imperialist think tank, jamestown.]
Chinese President Xi Jinping honored the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth on December 26, using the occasion to speak at length about the significance of the founder of the People’s Republic in Chinese and Party history (Xinhua, December 26). The speech was generally laudatory but made brief references to his “mistakes”: launching the Cultural Revolution and, in a possible reference to the Great Leap Forward, “simply copying Leninist theory and imitating the experience of Russia’s October Revolution, causing grave harm to the Chinese Revolution.” However, Xi quoted Deng Xiaoping’s verdict on the legacy of Mao to argue that his failures came second to his achievements: uniting the Chinese nation and achieving its independence, solving “difficult problems about the relationship of the Party and the people,” and establishing the “basic socialist system.”
The speech is Xi’s most detailed effort yet to explain the legacy of Mao, and it demonstrates two important aspects of his vision for China: first, that his alternating evocations of Mao and Deng do not represent vacillation, but an effort to reconcile the “two undeniables” of Chinese politics. As Xi put it in the speech, deploying a slogan: “Without Reform and Opening, there could be no China today; if we abandon this path, China can have no tomorrow” (for more on the speech, see “Xi invokes Mao’s image to boost his own authority” in this issue of China Brief).
Second, the speech—and, even more, its explication in the Party’s ideological journals—suggest strongly that Xi’s vision of China’s future has been shaped by the group of academics known as the “New Left.” The group is associated with nostalgia for Mao and especially with Bo Xilai’s experiments in Chongqing—making the resurgence of the Ne Left’s ideas after Bo’s downfall all the more interesting. In attempting to understand his plans for China’s future, his borrowings from Mao should be read not as ersatz efforts to justify policy, but as belonging to an established discussion about the future of China’s social and political systems.
The New Left—a controversial name rejected by many of the academics to whom it is applied—emerged in the 1990s as a criticism of unfettered capitalism, and emerged as a major player in the Hu Jintao-era debates about the idea of a “China model.” Essays such as Wang Hui’s (Tsinghua) “Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity” expressed reservations about the dislocations of rapid economic change, while Pan Wei’s (Peking University) “Toward a Consultative Rule of Law Regime in China” examined Hong Kong and Shanghai to envision a future without Western-style democracy (Tianya, Issue 5, 1997; Journal of Contemporary China, Volume 12, Issue 34, 2003).
While the movement contains a great deal of ideological diversity—including some adherents sympathetic to forms of representative democracy—it is generally defined by an effort to challenge the account of the Reform and Opening Era as one of salvation from failed policies. Rather, they argue, the legacies of Mao and Deng are complementary: where Mao provided equality and a strong, “spiritual” version of Chinese identify, Deng and his successors created a powerful economic base at the cost of social and spiritual dislocation. They deploy Marxist dialectics to argue for a reconciliation, describing Mao and Deng as a thesis and antithesis in need of synthesis. In a particularly ambitious version of this story, Wang Shaoguang’s 2010 article on “Socialism 3.0,” the author observes that Mao’s rule and the period of Reform and Opening initiated by Deng had each lasted for 30 years—inviting China’s leaders to declare a new era uniting the two (for more on this, see “Socialism 3.0 in China,” The Diplomat, April 25, 2011; original article republished in English in China 3.0, European Council on Foreign Relations 2012).
While this school of thought was closely associated with Bo Xilai’s policies in Chongqing—Wang proposed them as a model for the next stage of socialism in China, while the distinguished New Left academic Cui Zhiyuan joined Bo’s government as an official—the careers of its proponents do not seem to have been adversely affected by his downfall, in contrast to the recent firings of liberal intellectuals associated with Charter 08, such as Peking University Professor Xia Yeliang (South China Morning Post, October 20).
Explanations of Xi’s speech in Party ideological journals, and of his earlier mentions of the “two undeniables,” reflect this account of Party history. A November 8 article in People’s Daily, signed by the CCP Central Committee Party History Research Department, provided a guide to help readers “Correctly Deal With Both Historical Periods Before and After Reform and Opening,” a theme that has been heavily emphasized in the last weeks as journals such as Qiushi (Seeking Truth) and Hongqi (Red Flag) have published articles on Xi’s speech, covering the historical appraisal of Mao, a “30-year Vision for China’s future” (an interview with Pan Wei), and “The China Road and the Chinese Communist Party” (Qiushi, December 9, 2013; January 1).
Xi’s New Year’s address to the nation likewise played upon themes drawn from New Left literature, with the title “Making a More Just and Equal Society” (Xinhua, December 31, 2013).
The ideas of the New Left are visible not only in Xi’s rhetoric but in his political efforts—his emphasis on national confidence and the unique historical circumstances of the “China Dream” and his combining economic reform with Maoist rectification. Looking at Pan Wei’s 2003 article may even help to understand the conundrum of the rise of “rule of law” rhetoric coming at the same time as a crackdown on advocacy of “constitutional government.”
If Xi is using New Left theory as a political guide, the current ideological crackdown is unlikely to be lessened, and indeed we may expect to see greater efforts at mass participation. Democratic political reform and large-scale privatization of state-owned industries will likely remain off the table. However, a certain set of long-promised reforms, targeting social inequality, corruption, and the privileges enjoyed by the Communist elite and state businesses, may play a central role in Xi’s plans for the future.
Xi Invokes Mao’s Image to Boost his own Authority
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.  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.
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.