Mao and Xi are different leaders who belong to totally different eras.
“Xi is a new Mao.”
It’s a phrase that has been heard with increasing frequency as China’s current Supreme Leader Xi Jinping has concentrated power in his hands.
This week it has been repeated again on the occasion of the Congress of the Communist Party of China (PCCh) in which it is expected that he will be ratified for five more years as secretary general of that organization, thus opening the doors for him to become the most powerful man that there has been in that country after Mao, who founded the People’s Republic of China and was head of the CCP from 1943 until his death in 1976.
The CCP does not set any term limits. But no leader other than Mao, the founder of communist China, has served a third term in power.
In addition, in 2018 there was a constitutional reform that abolished the two-term limit that existed to exercise the country’s presidency, thus opening the possibility that Xi, 69, will remain in power for the rest of his life.
That rule, which had existed since 1982, limited the power of Xi, who is, at the same time, secretary general of the PCCh, head of state and chairman of the Central Military Commission of China, for which reason he directs the country’s Armed Forces.
The comparisons between Xi and Mao have also been fueled in recent days by the rhetoric used by the current Chinese president during the inauguration of the 20th CPC Congress on October 16.
“From this day forward, the central task of the Communist Party of China will be to lead the Chinese people of all ethnic groups in a concerted effort to achieve the Second Centenary Goal of making China a great modern socialist country in all respects. and promote the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts through a Chinese path to modernization,” he said.
“Only by taking root in the rich historical and cultural soil of the country and the nation will the truth of Marxism flourish here,” he added.
But how much is Xi really like Mao Zedong?
Leaders and different moments
“Both are Chinese. That is the end of the comparison,” Rebecca Karl, a professor of history specializing in modern China at New York University.
“Both are Chinese. Both are leaders of the Chinese state and the Chinese Communist Party, so they inhabit a sphere and an institutional environment that makes them comparable,” he added shortly after.
Xi’s image alongside Mao’s has been sold as a souvenir during previous CCP congresses.
The expert warns that both leaders operate in very different worlds, since Mao’s China was immersed in the Cold War, when the world was divided between capitalism and socialism, and there was competition between two different forms of economic, social, cultural and policies.
“Today we live in a capitalist world where Xi presides over a country that competes within capitalism against what has been understood as the dominant capitalist states, Euro America, which are now no longer so dominant, so all this has precipitated a crisis within of capitalism, not between capitalism and socialism,” he says.
“You have a completely different world situation, and what Xi is trying to achieve is something completely different from what Mao was trying to achieve,” he adds.
“Xi is not the new Mao”
Jacob Shapiro, a partner and director of geopolitical analysis at consultancy Cognitive Investments, says that Xi and Mao are alike in one key respect, and everything else between them is difference.
“Both are leaders who have basically tried to increase centralized control in China to pass major reforms or changes that need to happen so that China can rise to a better geopolitical position,” the expert told.
“That’s where the similarities end because the way that Xi is trying to do all the things that he’s doing to make China stronger, more prosperous and more geopolitically relevant, in many ways has meant that he’s taken everything that Mao did and is trying to do the opposite,” he adds.
Shapiro points out that since the end of the civil war in China in 1949, there have been three supreme leaders in that country and each had a different role.
“The first was Mao. He was responsible for making China a modern nation out of what were a bunch of warlords and factions fighting each other in the civil war. He was the one who managed to put China on its feet. Next was Deng Xiaoping, who took the chaos of the Mao era and made China prosperous by making economic reforms over which the state had control, but whose top priority was making the country prosperous,” he says.
“I think Xi wants to strengthen China in a unified sense. So Xi is not the new Mao. Xi is not the new Deng. Xi is the new Xi. And if you want to understand what he is going to do and what that means for the future of China, we have to throw out these old kinds of comparisons,” adds Shapiro.
Shapiro sees such comparisons as a “lazy” way of thinking that doesn’t really help to better understand Xi and what he wants to do with China.
Chris Marquis, Professor of Chinese Management at Cambridge University’s Judge School of Business and author of the forthcoming book “Mao and Markets,” agrees that Xi and Mao are completely different leaders in completely different eras, so it is not it makes sense to compare them.
“What I do think is important about these comparisons is that Xi is using a lot of the levers of power, if you will, from Mao. Xi uses his propaganda and ideology to promote his programs. In fact, the way that the China’s political apparatus stems from Mao,” he says.
The expert points out that Xi uses three Maoist ideals to govern China.
The first has to do with keeping the CCP at the center of everything. “In China, the CCP is an umbrella that covers everything: the state, the market, the military. The People’s Liberation Army (the Chinese Armed Forces) is a unit of the Communist Party, not the government,” he says.
The second element has to do with the fact that Xi, like Mao, rejects criticism and internal revisionism.
“One reason the CCP finds it important to control history is because it serves as the basis for the party’s legitimacy. It is believed in China that one of the main reasons the Soviet Union disintegrated was because they somehow reneged of its history. This goes back to when Nikita Khrushchev criticized Josef Stalin, and then [Mikhail] Gorbachev and [Boris] Yeltsin ended up dismantling communist ideology,” he says.
The third ideal has to do with restoring China to the prominent place among the nations that it held for thousands of years.
“Mao is revered in China because he stood up to what were basically colonial powers that had kind of sliced China apart, so to speak, into different spheres of influence. China was for thousands of years a leading civilization in the world and in the middle of the 19th century came the West developed and conquered it, beginning what is known as the century of humiliation that culminated in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded,” he says.
“Mao worked to consolidate China, and Xi has been focused on this vision of the ‘Chinese Dream,’ in which China will regain its place among the world’s leading nations, and has confronted Western countries much more than his predecessors, so I think this is important,” adds Marquis.
The expert considers it important to understand these keys, among other reasons, because Xi is seen as a difficult leader to understand because he is involved in a lot of opacity. “So it can be important to understand the system in which he operates and how it’s built,” he says.
An ideologue, a pragmatist
Jacob Shapiro argues that an important difference between Mao and Xi is that the former was a revolutionary who really believed in the ideology he preached, while the latter is more of a pragmatist.
Experts believe that Mao was more ideologically driven than Xi Jinping.
“Xi is just trying to find the right mix of policies that will allow China to become strong and I don’t think he has the same ideological baggage as Mao. Xi just a Chinese nationalist and my best example of this is Xi talking all the time like Marxist and communist, but when you look at what he’s really proposing in terms of economics it’s supply-side reforms. He’s basically taking a page from Ronald Reagan’s or Margaret Thatcher’s script and trying to apply it to a Chinese situation,” he says.
“Marx and Lenin, they would all roll over in their graves if they read what Xi Jinping is doing and tried to call it communism,” he adds.
This difference between being guided by ideology or by pragmatism is also reflected in the way in which each of these leaders has carried out purges within the CCP.
“Mao purged friends and enemies alike. Xi only purged his enemies. Mao destroyed the bureaucracy, Xi is shaping it to serve his purposes,” Shapiro wrote in a 2018 text comparing the two leaders.
Rebecca Karl warns that trying to equate Xi with Mao is making a mistake that has consequences, as it leads to misanalyzing reality.
“The worst consequence of claiming that Xi is a new Mao is to gloss over all the newest facts about what Xi is trying to do and how he is leading his nation into these new territories. The idea that China is still trapped in the Maoist period only leads to a very bad analysis of the moment we live in,” she says.
“In the past, the United States and the capitalist world could marginalize China because it did not participate in capitalism. Today, the US cannot marginalize China. It cannot pretend that China does not exist. It cannot try to beat China by the force of arms. And an understanding of China as a Maoist country contributes to this idea that China is still some kind of subservient socialist country. And it’s not. It hasn’t been for decades and it’s a fundamental mistake.”