Comparisons between Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong are real tricky. The former is commonly known as China’s most powerful leader since the later. Fair enough. But that doesn’t say much. Some folk see Xi as the new Mao, and there is something to that. But its complicated by the wildly different Maos that ruled the Party over forty years - and the obvious differences in temperament and policy.
But I do think we can definitely say is that Xi seems like a close student of Mao’s leadership. I say this for two reasons, though I’m sure the real scholars can spot others. Much of this note is informed by Huang Jing’s excellent Factionalism in Chinese Communist Politics, which I’ve been re-reading recently.
First, Xi appears to have largely recreated what was known as the Yan-an Roundtable leadership system. By the Chinese Communist Party’s Seventh Congress in 1945, Mao had won power from Wang Ming and the other Soviet-lackeys, was recognised as China’s font of ideological wisdom, and was focused on how to rule. The Yan-an system had three key characteristics. First, there was no real difference between, or separation of, the Party and the state. Pre-1949, of course, there was no State Council, but the Party still administered large chunks of the country - and it did so in an integrated fashion. Party cadres ran things. Second, Mao was the chairman of everything significant - all important reporting lines flowed up to him - which allowed him to control information and spot where preferences lay before moving on anything. Third, Mao kept the Party and army separate, careful to sit on top of both, and never to allow another to have a foot in both camps. When Gao Gang, under Mao’s initial encouragement, tried building an anti-Liu Shaoqi coalition across the Party and army in the early ’50s, Mao had no hesitation in stamping him out.
Later in life, Mao regretted changing this system, which he did in 1956, when he moved to institute the Two-Front Arrangement. By this time, he had a country to run. So he retained direct control of the PLA, but deferred down the day-to-day running of the Politburo to Liu Shaoqi, the State Council to Zhou Enlai, and the secretariat to Deng Xiaoping. Mao wanted to step back and control things from the giddy heights. But it didn’t work, at least as far as he saw it. Decisions he didn’t like got implemented, information did not reach him, other folk got to develop their own bases of power, and the dreaded bureaucracy splurged. Cue Mao’s launching of the Great Leap Forward in 1957, and his nurturing of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, both to turn over the whole damn apple-cart and reassert his primacy.
The similarities with today are obvious. The State Council has been largely supplanted by all the Party’s leading groups - all of which Xi chairs - and the boss has taken the title of Commander in Chief of the newly-integrated armed services to boot. He’s ticked all the Yan-an boxes; Mao would have been proud. One might dare to take the next step to assume that China under Xi is unlikely to see a chaotic return to class struggle or disastrous economics as long as Xi is assured he’s running the place. (But one can’t of course rule anything out.)
Second, and this may be more controversial, but I suspect Xi has learnt another lesson from Mao: succession politics are really horrible, so best avoid them. Mao picked Gao Gang, then Liu Shaoqi, then Lin Biao, then briefly Gang-of-Four Wang Hongwen, and then Hua Guofeng as his successor. None of them worked out. Gao died by his own hand after Mao turned on him, Liu from prison beatings after Mao turned on him, Lin in a plane crash while apparently fleeing China after Mao turned on him. Wang did not live up to expectations. Hua went peacefully and got to live out his years in peace (after Deng and everyone else turned on him).
Some, like Liu, tried to bolster their own power bases, leaving Mao feeling side-lined and vengeful. Or with the hapless Hua, the opposite problem: he was unable to grapple any real power away from the elders, so others (i.e. Deng) took him out, over-turning much of Mao’s legacy. Deng then picked Hu Yaobang, then Zhao Ziyang and then Jiang Zemin - only to sour on all of them. Hu died after he’d been relieved of his positions. Zhao almost split the party in 1989. Jiang, on the verge of being dumped in 1992, swung desperately to support economic reforms and Deng relented. And let’s not even get into the Chongqing murder, a very suspicious car crash, and coup that almost apparently happened as Hu Jintao handed over what little power he had in 2012. Xi lived through all of this.
And so we come to Xi’s move to revise the state constitution in March 2018, eliminating the two-term limit clause. Smart, in that he can delay the inevitably-horrible succession politics and focus on other things in the next five years. All of his potential successors still have all to play for - and jealousies between them can be better contained. But not so smart as we get into the mid-2020s, when Xi will inevitably be tempted to delay again, and again, whatever his intentions today. Succession politics without any rules are always horrible. And then we just have to hope that Xi’s study of Mao has extended into the later years.