As China Readies for Leadership Handover, How is Chairman Mao Faring?

Marxist ideas, which normally enjoy public celebration before major political events in the People’s Republic, have been curiously diminished on the eve of China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Feng Li / Getty Images

Xi Jinping attends the banquet marking the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on Sept. 29, 2012 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

*UPDATED: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Karl Marx was mentioned only one time in an article in the Chinese Communist Party’s Qiushi journal. In fact, as readers have pointed out, he was mentioned multiple times. We based our incorrect assumption on only a partial reading of the Chinese-language version of the Qiushi article and regret the error.

Poor Chairman Mao. China is still ruled by the Communist Party, which will undergo a once-a-decade changing of the guard next month. But the founder of the People’s Republic, who normally enjoys public celebration in state media before major political events in the People’s Republic, may be somewhat diminished on the eve of the Nov. 8 Party Congress during which President Hu Jintao is expected to begin handing over power to Vice President Xi Jinping.

In the Oct. 16 issue of Seeking Truth (求是 or Qiushi), the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship magazine, an article appeared entitled Sparing No Effort to Push Forward Reform and Opening Up. Like many articles about the Communist Party in Seeking Truth, the editorial was notable for its comically authoritative language, with gems like: “Its direction and path are absolutely correct, and its effectiveness and contributions cannot be denied. Any standstill or regression will find no way out.” Given that this is the last issue of the journal to be released before the Party Congress, the contents of the piece were dissected for ulterior meanings. One curiosity was quickly noticed: Where was the Great Helmsman?

(MORE: The Next Leader of the Unfree World)

Chinese political cant is like haiku or limericks in that it rarely deviates from a set form or number of syllables. The rough recipe goes like this: Glorify the Party and give proper due to a certain German philosopher and each of the People’s Republic’s four leaders. Karl Marx (often along with Lenin) gets his props, then the litany of Chinese honchos begins, in diminishing order of importance: Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the “important Three Represents thought” (that would be former President Jiang Zemin’s brainchild, although he doesn’t get his name stamped on it) and “the scientific concept of development” (current President Hu’s attempt at securing his place in the Communist pantheon).

But in the Oct. 16 article, the Great Helmsman was missing in action. Mao’s name was not mentioned once. Here’s the section in question from Seeking Truth:

“We should adjust ourselves to the recent domestic and overseas changes, satisfy the expectations of the masses, strengthen our confidence, uphold the guidance of Deng Xiaoping Theory and Three Represents, implement the scientific development outlook, further deepen our understanding of the regular patterns of socialism, the rule of the Communist Party and human society’s development.”

Maoism enjoyed a comeback in China over the past couple years, as the booming economy spurred by the country’s capitalist embrace has been accompanied by less welcome trends like income inequality and corruption. A renewed commitment to socialist thought was supposed to bring about a more equal society, according to these neo-Maoists. But the political downfall earlier this year of its star proponent, former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, has blunted brand Mao. Among Bo’s many alleged misdeeds are graft and violating Party discipline—precisely the kind of ills a renewed Socialist ideology were supposed to combat.

It’s difficult to divine Xi’s personal politics, since he has risen so high in part because of his ability to bridge various Party factions. But it’s pretty safe to say that China’s heir-apparent has little patience for any Maoist revival. Could the latest Qiushi article be a signal of his coming power and his antipathy toward an ideology that upended his own family during the Cultural Revolution? Could it also signal an effort by President Hu to cement his legacy at the expense of his neo-Maoist rivals?

Interestingly, when anti-Japanese rallies erupted in China last month, portraits of Mao (identical and new, indicating some sort of concerted effort) were carried aloft by some of the protesters. Several sources have told TIME that it was People’s Liberation Army bigwigs who called for Mao’s very public presence at the rallies. Images of Hu and Xi, by contrast, were nowhere to be seen.

(VIDEO: Four Chinese Leaders That Will Shape the Next Decade)

People who study the volume of state-media issuances in China have pointed out two more important instances in which Mao (and Marx) didn’t make the roll call. Both stories were from China’s official Xinhua news agency and both were published on Sept. 28, the day the Chinese government announced that the 18th Party Congress would be held on Nov. 8 and that Bo would be expelled from the Party because of his alleged infractions. Here’s an excerpt from one of the stories:

“All the Party members, all the peoples of China and the masses will unite with the Party Central Committee that has comrade Hu Jintao as General Secretary to hold high the banner of socialism using Deng Xiaoping Theory and Three Represents to direct ourselves, implementing the scientific development outlook sincerely, and advance along the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

But it would be foolhardy to assume an erasure of Mao and Marx from the propaganda narrative quite yet. On Sept. 1, Xi delivered a speech at the Central Party School in Beijing in which he mentioned both Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought several times. In late June, the Vice President gave another talk brimming with praise for the socialist duo:

“History has repeatedly demonstrated that no matter what risks, crises, difficulties and obstacles we face, our Party can overcome them and lead the people from victory to victory. This is because ours is a Marxist Party that by consistently fighting for the truth, wholeheartedly serving the people and maintaining close links with the masses, has developed its own unique strengths. These unique strengths are of decisive importance and are the secret of our Party’s advanced nature and purity.

We must stick to Marxism, while constantly modernizing, enriching and popularizing it with Chinese insights. We must constantly improve the theoretical level of rank and file Party members and cadres so that, from a theoretical perspective, we maintain and develop the Party’s advanced nature and purity.”

Xi may not win style points for his rhetoric, but his defense of Marxism and its relevance to China today was clear enough. It is also apparent that China is facing social problems that its hybrid socialist-capitalist model has not been able to fully address. One of the easy explanations given in China today is that its citizens are somehow genetically predisposed against democratic governance. The theory goes like this: Chinese consider democracy too inefficient a style of government for a diverse country of 1.3 billion people. Democracy breeds a society that is too chaotic (乱 or luan). How can a civilization based on Confucian-style values, such as stability and order, embrace this unsteady form of government?

Yet more than half of 3,177 Chinese surveyed earlier this year said they like American ideas about democracy, according to a poll by Pew Research Center released on Oct. 16. Another interesting tidbit from the Pew survey: half the respondents considered corrupt officials a major social problem, up from 39% four years before. Mao was supposed to cleanse the country of graft. But reality proved otherwise, as the Bo case most recently shows. Xi and the new Chinese leadership will have to figure out how to purge the government of this scourge and still keep its grip on power, with or without state-media adulation of the Chairman.

with reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing

MORE: Murder, Lies, Abuse Of Power And Other Crimes Of The Chinese Century