Some reflections on How the Red Sun Rose

It is impossible to work through Gao Hua’s (高华) legendary history of the Yan-an Rectification Movement (延安整风) - How the Red Sun Rose (紅太陽是怎樣升起的 - the story of how Mao Zedong took over the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1930s/early 1940s - without reflecting on the lights it throws on the CCP today. Gao Hua, a former Nanjing University professor who wrote this encyclopedic history in his spare time, describes what Mao learnt from Stalin. John Garnaut’s 2017 speech on the brutal return of ideology in Beijing, recently re-upped on Sinocism, has got everyone talking again about Xi Jinping’s Maoist-Stalinist inclinations. How the Red Sun Rose is perhaps the best source to help us to consider this question of what Xi might have learnt from Mao. The book is banned in China - already a good sign.

The CCP was not been born in the Yan-an mud-bowl. That dubious honor goes to Shanghai, or rather a lake outside the city to which the communists fled half-way through their first meeting, in 1921. But the 1930-40s were the Party’s formative years, when it coalesced, matured from a motley crew of peasants, rough-hewn army guys and Marxism-spouting city intellectuals, into a Party-State machinery in waiting. It was in rural Shaanxi, in the Yan-an bat-caves, where Mao developed an organization (importing Party and state institutions from the Soviet Union), determined on a culture (basically totalitarian, thank you Stalin), and figured out how to ‘Sinify’, and thus turbo-charge, an alien European philosophy. Put simply, Leninism + Marxism + Nationalism = Power, an equation that obviously, I think, Xi studied hard.

It is difficult to see past Mao’s bulk as we peer back into CCP history, but he wasn’t dominant for the first 20 or so years. He was respected for his heterodox military skills, but distrusted for his ‘dictatorial tendencies’, as Gao explains, and quietly mocked for his theoretical backwardness. Mao led the guerillas up Jinggan Mountain in 1927, and consolidated Party control over the army at the Gutian Conference in 1929. But after Party seniors arrived in the Jiangxi Soviet in the early 1930s, he was sidelined. Then, after a series of military defeats blamed on others, he got another chance to run the army at the 1935 Zunyi Conference. From there, its a master-class in destroying one’s enemies and consolidating total power.

Pictured above, Gao Hua’s focus is on the 1937-43 period in Yan-an, when Mao launched his a carefully-prepared war against his peers. He revised Party history, led a campaign of ‘education’, which mutated into horrible self-struggle meetings, and ordered mass arrests and torture. He had a dual challenge - to thoroughly destroy the ‘Moscow faction’ led by Wang Ming, but also to subordinate seniors like Zhou Enlai. By the end of it, at the Seventh Party Congress in 1945, Mao was in clear charge, with Mao Zedong Thought entrenched as the core of CCP ideology.

I would like to consider two broad questions. Given the many comparisons made between Xi and Mao, I’d like to reflect upon what Xi might have learned from Mao’s Yan-an victory. Given how he grew up, as Garnaut reminds us, amongst the Red Princelings, in a family which was persecuted by Mao, the Great Man must have loomed large in how Xi prepped for power. But second, a more difficult question: how is China today different from China then, and what might that mean for how Xi rules?

So, question one: What did the young prince learn from his estranged father-figure?

For starters, he started off way weaker than Mao. Comrade Zedong was there in Shanghai, and had led troops in battle. Mao too had had plenty of time to study his fellow-communists, zero in on their weaknesses, and identify those who would cheaply sell their souls. In contrast, Xi arrives in the top-post in 2013, faction-less, still pretty fresh from the provinces, an ideological lightweight, in the midst of what seems like an attempted coup by Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Ling Jihua and the generals. Xi must have known that if he didn’t have a extremely cunning plan, he’d end up being the plaything that Hu Jintao had been, or worse. (Of course, we cannot ignore the luck that Xi had too - Bo over-played his hand and over-estimated his charms, and his erstwhile deputy, Wang Lijun, royally mucked up any carefully laid plans…).

At the core, it seems to me, Xi hit upon a variation of Mao’s Rectification campaign. Instead of focusing on ideological errors and failures in military strategy against the Kuomindang, Xi used economic crimes as the core of his campaign. These were the betrayals of the Party and country which he could use to destroy his enemies. And unlike Mao, he did not have to make up or exaggerate his peer’s mistakes; their crimes were written down in bank accounts, real estate filings and villas of carefully-stacked cash. But Xi needed the people to investigate and the hard power to enforce this campaign, and now in hindsight its clear Wang Qishan and the Central Discipline & Inspection Commission (CDIC) was that. The power of the Party elders collapsed when they lost influence over this organization and other bits of the security state.

Xi knew too that he could not launch a full-frontal assault; as in warfare, guerrilla tactics were suitable. Pick off weaker enemies when they were not looking, then fade into back the hills. Make your enemy nervous by removing their last-but-one secretary. Sap their appearance of untouchability, pushing others to defect. And then build momentum, display power and force colleagues to recognize you as pre-eminent. At a certain point, all incentives for opposition disappear. It was Mao’s ability to combine an un-opposable ideological campaign with a hard security apparatus which won him power.

Ideology, ideology, ideology

Let’s start with the similarities in the ideological campaigns. Gao Hua understands well the importance of gaining ideological pre-eminence; it is equivalent to controlling the consciousness of the Party, he writes. For Mao, it was the central challenge given the dominance of the Soviet faction, and their eloquence with Marxist-Leninism. Mao had little time for Wang Ming and the other Russian intellectuals. ‘Minds full of emptiness’ was one of his politer criticisms (“your dogma is worthless…less than dogshit”, was what he really thought).

But before the 1940s, the Chinese communists saw themselves as junior to Moscow. Stalin was the leader of the International Socialist movement; the CCP was more a branch office of that movement than an independent Chinese party. Garnaut rightly highlights the influence of Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on Mao’s thinking. This was Uncle Joe’s Masterclass in the ruthless application of power; shamelessly re-write history, abandon all consistency in attitudes, label enemies left and right and in-between as ‘opportunists’ and (god damn them!) ‘empiricists’. The evil potion that Mao borrowed from Stalin was that the key to political power was not a pure, rigid doctrine, but a flexible ‘Thought’ that could be deployed to attack all enemies, twisting to destroy right and left. Mao soon started using these labels in his writings. He understood well that ideology was a political weapon.

Mao’s years-long campaign to dislodge Moscow and its lackeys had a number of elements. First, he had to sneakily gain Moscow’s trust. He grabbed control of all the radio equipment and staff in Yan-an, ignoring messages from the Comintern that he did not like, and slanting the reporting back. He sent a new -lackey, Wang Jiaxiang, to plead his case as a more effective military leader than the theoretician Wang Ming. Moscow’s interest was in China tying down Japan in the east, thus preventing the USSR having to face a two-front war. Moscow wanted the CCP and the KMT to join forces to this end. Mao consistently opposed this strategy, seeing it as diminishing the CCP’s firepower. He also resented Stalin’s liaisons with Chiang Kaishek. But Wang must have spun quite a tale, as in August 1938 he returned from Moscow bearing a message that the Comintern recognized Mao as the CCP’s leader. Mic drop!

Soon after, Mao calls the Sixth Plenum of the Sixth Central Committee (六届六中全会) in September 1938. Here’s a photo of some of the happy delegates.

Front row from the left: Kang Sheng, Mao Zedong, Wang Jiaxiang, Zhu De, Xiang Ying, Wang Ming. Back row from left: Chen Yun, Bo Gu, Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Zhang Wentian. Note Kang sitting next to Mao, and on the other side, Xiang Ying and Wang Ming, both hated by Mao, sitting together.
Source: Duowei

Mao had carefully prepared the ground. Ever since Zunyi, he’d used his military command to grow power in the Party (in effect reversing the Gutian resolution of Party control). He’d positioned Liu Shaoqi as a loyal number two, displacing the ever-wanting-to-please Zhou Enlai. He’d had some luck too - Moscow consistently declined to offer much military assistance, which did Wang Ming et al no favors. And then Mao had some luck too; Wang Ming appears to be completely hopeless at politics. Gao recounts how Mao warmly embraced Wang on his arrival in Yan-an, playing a friendly drunk over dinner. And then there were the continued military failures which Mao blamed on his challengers in the Party.

With the Comintern’s recognition, Mao stepped up the pace. Here its worth quickly considering this term, ideology, as it generates much unneeded confusion. The key point that both Mao and Xi grasped was that the content of the ideology is not as important as the fact that you control it, and that people obey you, whatever you say. Thus the importance of instituting Mao Zedong Thought, or Xi Jinping Thought. Once you’ve attained that status you can say whatever you want, and everyone has to listen.

I read one criticism of Garnaut’s speech which claimed he’d misunderstood the word ideology. ‘We are always in ideology’, Christian Sorace of Colorado College writes (here), so its unfair to label Xi an ideologue when we are all are too. This sounds smart, but its not. It only really moves the goalposts. Everyone who is engaged politically has beliefs, but they divide into those who think everyone should be imprisoned until they believe the same things, and those who believe in a liberal society where differences in values and opinions are allowed to compete within reasonable bounds. Mao and Xi are of the first kind, which makes them dangerous. Garnaut is of the second type - and if you can’t see that the difference (whatever you want to call it) is worth defending, then I don’t know what to say.

Sorace clambers up to some firmer ground when he states that Xi is no Mao, that there are differences between them. Where’s Xi’s mass struggle sessions, where’s his class warfare?!? Clearly, there are differences, to which we will dig into a bit more below. But Sorace then ruins his argument, I think, by saying that Xi and Mao are at different ends of ‘the ideological spectrum’. What, Xi’s a Trotskyite? A Hayekian free marketeer? Garnaut’s core point is that, outside of the political philosophy department, ideology is all about control, rather than ideas.

So, what did Mao do on the ideological front? He had been ruminating for years on how a Marxism had to be molded to fit with (here come those infamous words) ‘Chinese characteristics’. And so that’s what he did; in one move, he made Marxist more tactically practical for a poor, rural society, and more emotionally seductive. He injected Chinese nationalism into the Marxist bloodstream.

Mao, a keen reader of Chinese history, knew that no mass revolution was going to come from the tiny urban proletariats of Shanghai or Beijing. Rather, corrupt Chinese dynasties were overthrown by peasant armies. So that was what he wanted to build. Thus, his concentration on land reform (where he constantly took a radical line, pushing for confiscation from all land-owners, not just the richest) and on guerrilla warfare around the cities. His aim was to generate popular support in the countryside and then use that to take on the urban classes. He claimed to sinify Marxism, catalysing the attractiveness of the movement to millions of people who’d grown up with tales of dynastic cycles. The China Dream is just another step along the same road.

Once he’d found his differentiated platform, Mao turned to propagating it. He hired in theorists like Chen Boda and Hu Qiaomu to write his essays and propagate the ideas. And then, in 1942, he declared the need for everyone in Yan-an to study, and appointed Kang Sheng as lecturer in chief (as Gao notes, Mao had decided it was time, emperor-style, to withdraw from the dreary business of appearing in public). It was at this point that Yan-an mutated from a Mecca of free-thinking, May Fourth-style intellectuals to an indoctrination prison camp. Intellectuals were to be servants of the new power, not critics of it. Here is Mao and the Yan-an literary society in 1942 at the height of the campaign. It looks like a literary festival; many of these folk would have been scared out of their wits at the time.

Mao selected 29 documents which everyone had to read, read again, note-take, memorize, then read again. Traditional classes on Marxism-Leninism were cancelled at the Yan-an Party School; Mao Zedong Through was now primary. Mao instituted “notebook monitoring”, believing it gave him a window into the souls of his subordinates. Imagine that deadly combination of boredom and the constant self-surveillance that must go into writing at such meetings. Mao wanted the notebooks collected and checked. Cadres suspected of insufficient keenness were subjected to endless ‘struggle sessions’ (self-criticism, shouting, haraungings, beatings), and if they failed that arrest and torture in the Yan-an caves awaited. The Party turned on itself, just as it had done before, and just as it would do again after.

Endless Party classes have also been a feature of recent times too, of course. Over the past year, ‘in-the-system’ friends complain about innumerable study sessions. Now we have the new ‘Study the Strong Country’ (学习强国) app. You think Facebook’s algorithms are evil? Well, try an app which only gives you points for time spent reading and commenting on Xi Jinping Thought - and then hearing that your job depends on keeping up a monthly score. The always excellent David Bandurski’s take is here. Mao would have been jealous of the monitoring potential.

And then came the terror. Kang Sheng plays a starring role in the Rectification campaign as Mao’s chief enforcer. Mao’s Lavrentiy Beria wore knee-length boots, and always walked with his dogs surrounded by bodyguards. Terrifying guy. There’s a bit when Bo Yibo’s mother comes to visit Yan-an, but can’t sleep because of all the screaming at night. Young Bo goes looking to find a hundred or so Party School intellectuals locked up and being tortured in the caves round the back. Liu Shaoqi, later to die alone in a prison cell, rode the tiger, overseeing the arrest and torture of his enemies, including Tao Zhu and Ke Qingshi. Mao mercifully relented, releasing the two, earning their undying loyalty. Here’s Kang lecturing.

But Mao was not Stalin. During the “AB League campaign” (打AB团) of 1930-31, Mao had attacked a rival faction in the Southwest Jiangxi Red Army, and thousands were tortured and executed as ‘counterrevolutionaries’ (AB=Anti-Bolshevik). Gao Hua argues that in Yan-an, Mao needed to go easier - he had to appear as a wise leader, so there were limited shooting-squads. That’s not to say that did not happen; a one hundred hapless intellectuals, including Wang Shiwei, a young man who’d erked Mao with talk of liberal freedoms, were dragged out of their cells and shot in 1947. (Wang wrote ‘Wild Lillies’ (野百合花) in the Liberation Daily in 1942, attacking the privileges enjoyed by senior cadres and the darkness of Yan-an). Hu Qiaomu wrote later, Gao reports, that some 15,000 ‘secret agents’ were purged in Yan-an in the early 1940s. Of course, few were actually KMT agents; most were communist believers caught on the wrong-side of Mao’s purge. Ye Jianying’s ex-wife, Wei Gongzhi, stuck scissors in own her neck to escape the persecution. She lived.

So what is different about Xi??

By now, you’ll have heard many echoes of Yan-an. The ideological campaign targeted at opponents, left and right, backed by the security state, the elevation of un-opposable ‘Thought’ and the innumerable study sessions, the targeting of liberal values. No more intellectual nonsense about ‘intra-Party democracy’ or empowering the National People’s Congress to oversee the Party. Everything, from the arts, to media to the courts, must all work for the Party. All roads lead up to Xi’s desk. Weak in ideology, the Party Secretary drafted in Intellectual No. 1, Wang Huning, to help him continue to ‘sinify’ Marxism (‘Jiang Shigong and the dangers of National Socialism’). Xi was under-estimated, and now is feared. There is no locus of opposition, just much grumbling. Mao ensured a constant competition between potential successors - and destroyed anyone who could rival him more on that here. These are important parallels in governing styles.

And there are important differences. The lack of violence against intra-Party opposition, for one. As Frank Dikotter has laid out for posterity’s sake, most of Mao’s reign was incredibly bloody, from mass executions of hundreds of thousands landlords in the 1940-50s, to the armed battles and torture of the Cultural Revolution. No doubt today’s CDIC do use ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, and medical care is tactically denied, but few corrupt tigers and flies from were shot. Xi’s mortal enemies Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, and now General Fang Fenghui, are enjoying the fresh air at Qincheng Prison.

What about that charge that Xi and Mao have different ideologies - that there’s no class warfare or blowing up the bureaucracy with Xi; with him its all about control. The awesome Steve Tsang at SOAS in London writes here that Xi seems more like Liu Shaoqi in his desire to govern the country as a strict, by-the-book Leninist. There is definitely something to this, but at the same time, we should remember that Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 precisely because he’d lost control. In the aftermath of the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, he could sense his colleagues itching to take-over. Bombarding the headquarters and letting loose Lord of the Flies-style mayhem at schools and universities throughout the land was Mao’s round-about way of knocking off his rivals. In Yan-an, in contrast, Mao very much wanted to know everything, to make make all the decisions, and to keep everyone else subordinate. Remind you of anyone? Control and chaos were means to an end, rather than a rigid ideology. I argued this point here. But don’t take my word for it; MacFarquhar and Schoenhals document it happening step by step in the unbeatable Mao’s Last Revolution. We do not know what Xi would do if or when he senses his authority dripping away.

However, control should not to be confused with rigidity, and here is another important difference with Mao (and goes to Steve Tsang’s point). One danger of absolute power is obstinacy, and a refusal to listen to advice. Mao had that problem. But Xi seems still a little more flexible. When the storm of worry about private enterprise hit, he allowed himself to be dragged to the Great Hall of the People to make reassuring noises (here), and the bureaucracy is being forced to do helpful things. ‘Inclusive’ bank loans (sub-CNY 10mn in size) to small firms are picking up. VAT tax cuts might help SMEs a bit too. But at root, the private sector fears the bureaucracy and unlimited Party power, and I’m doubtful these moves will have a substantive impact. But Xi seems to have calmed nerves.

Or when President Trump blindsided Beijing in the the early rounds of the trade war, the official press here was prepped to launch a wholesale People’s War against American enterprise, but then Beijing backed off and offered to open its checkbook. And now, having played it cool, it looks suspiciously like Beijng is going to win big. Nothing in the leaked deal will undermine Xi’s industrial plans, and there’s even talk of DRAM maker Fujian Jinhua being de-sanctioned. Xi may well enhance his reputation as a man who can take on the United States. (Of course, having an opponent who, after a spectacular opening game, is easy to read, a policy moron and downright terrible at negotiating helped.) So Xi does seem to some extent agile in his policy positions.

The biggest difference with Mao is that Xi governs a much richer and more capitalist society than Mao. Over half of the population is in the cities, compared to less than a third in Mao’s time, with most owning their own apartment, or two. Some three hundred million are in the middle class, focused on their careers, healthcare, and their kid’s education. They like shopping, watching duanzi (video shorts), and going somewhere nicer (Japan, Thailand) for holidays. In the countryside, things are looking up too, largely thanks to migrant remittances. If anything, the Party is moving, dripping slow, to allow farmers to rent out/sell their land.

As a result, there is zero appetite for revolution - and much appetite for the future. But that’s a future in which the Party plays less, not more of a role. And here, Xi is out of kilter with the country he rules. As I’ve said before, Xi is a little like Trump in this regard; his heart is in the past. His push to clean up Beijing was prompted by old Party members in the city remembering fondly the uncrowded streets. Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi played the anti-immigrant card like populists today the world over, knowing his boss would approve.

Jennifer Pan at Stanford University had a great paper a few years back, in which she plumbed survey data to show people in richer parts of China are more ‘liberal’ in both their political and economic values. In other words, they’re less nationalistic, like their personal freedoms, and are keener on private enterprise. So, in terms of values, China is the East & South and cities versus the North & West and countryside. Xi is a leader of the later, but the only way he stays in power is if the country becomes more like the former.

And so Xi’s vision of a stronger, more demanding, more interventionist Party will rub up against a more quietly liberal society. No one goes out to the street when their WeChat account is erased on account of a too-sensitive posting, and when their private business is expropriated, the workers are not manning the barricades. So, Xi’s push will, I assume, not trigger much open opposition. But the urban elite likes the stability the Party provides and would rather that it, like Edwardian children, are not heard from. So, as the CCP “gets closer to the people” its more likely going to trigger more quiet resentment. Watch the reaction to the Xuexi Qiangguo app. Most will find it a complete bore, and turn them off Xi’s empty propaganda. (But as the very smart Daniel Koss might say (here’s a review of his book), the app is going to identify those whose pretend-love for the Party is most bountiful. They’re the guys and gals we want!)

The Party can likely afford to extend itself without causing open opposition in the short run. As Li Yuan in the NYT notes recently, the rich can and will exit the country, and there’s still some opportunities for those left to get rich too. And there are versions of domestic exit too. Those with talent in the SOEs who are bored with empty political lectures can look for other opportunities in the private sector. Fed up with Beijing? Head for Hangzhou or Shenzhen, where the Party-state is (so far at least) less in your face. Don’t want to watch the Xi Jinping Thought quiz show on TV? Well there’s Honor of Kings. But for many there is no domestic exit; if you have kids at state school, or if you work for a hospital or a school or the government, your choices are limited and you will be forced to be Redder. For those who chose Voice over Exit, the Party will be unforgiving. More folk will be arrested for standing up taller. “Re-education” camps will get fuller, out west and in the east too, I would bet.

The effects of all this will be gradual. The more political loyalty rather than competence is the way to get promoted, the more dross will rise. And thus, the many day-to-day problems that make life in the cities hard - the pollution, the unresponsive bureaucracy, the pervasive sense of insecurity - won’t improve outside of campaign season. And so more people who can will emigrate. Over time too, the financial costs for running a more repressive state will rise - and that will mean taxes will have to rise, which will cause more resentment among the middle-class and business.

All this is a delicate balancing act. As a relatively smart authoritarian with a strong Party apparatus behind him, Xi may well not over-reach too much too soon. He’s shown an ability to tactically withdraw when resistance gets too heated. But the logic of his ambitions mean that he will eventually over-reach and eventually, the money will begin to run out. It is at this point, and it may be in five, ten years time, or further away, that Xi’s character - and what he really thinks of Mao - will matter. And here, its worth returning to John Garnaut, whose scariest point was that the logic of this system requires an enemy. That’s really now everyone who is “Western”, and who is trying “to prevent China’s rise”. With a closed economy, it was hard for Mao to blame foreigners for his disasters. Xi has more room to do just that.