June 23, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1583

The Personality Cult Of Xi Jinping – Part I: Overcoming The Inherent Contradiction In Combining The Approaches Of Mao And Deng

June 23, 2021 | By Chris King*
China | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1583

The following is the first of a series of analysis in English and in Chinese by Chinese dissident and expert Chris King, who is a Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project, on the personality cult of Chinese President Xi Jinping. King was an active participant in the student protests in China in 1989,

Xi Jinping is engaged in a personality cult. He has now lifted his own term limit as head of state, and revised the Party's history to give fundamentally positive credit to the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong – a significant change in direction that is clear and worth watching closely. But I don't think he can reach the level of Mao's cult of personality. The main reason for this is not that the people have been enlightened, but that Xi Jinping lacks authority. At the same time, he also wants to take advantage of Deng Xiaoping's legacy, which is that China's rapid economic development has been achieved through capitalism. At least in the short term, I don't think he will fully implement the nationalization of enterprises and the public ownership economy, because the private sector is efficient, fast-changing, adaptable, and dynamic.

(Illustration by Henry Wong)

Xi Jinping Should Not Have Been Talking About Marxism At All

If Xi is to keep his grip on power and maintain economic growth – the Party's only tenable source of legitimacy – then he cannot kill the goose that lays the golden eggs (i.e. the private sector). However, the private sector must be obedient, and must accept Beijing's control, or business owners will face the same fate of the likes of Jack Ma.[1] Xi Jinping wants to erase the contradictions between the first 30 years of the Mao Zedong era and the second 30 years of the Deng Xiaoping era, seamlessly link the two 30-year periods of history, and take the legacies of Mao and Deng and use them both for his own benefit. He might have been proud of his design, but it is dangerous and nearly mission impossible, especially with his own prestige, vision, and talents.

Even in the view of the Marxist patriarch whom Xi reveres, this would not work. Marxism holds that the economic base is the source on which the superstructure depends, and is primary. The superstructure is the expression of the economic base in politics and ideology, and it is secondary and derived. The economic base determines the superstructure, and the superstructure reacts on the economic base. The superstructure must meet the needs of the economic base and its development; otherwise, it cannot survive for long.\

From this point of view, Xi Jinping should not have been talking about Marxism at all. He is now determined to portray Deng's line as a continuation and development of Mao's line, which is in fact contradictory and precisely anti-Marxist.

This is because a return to the orthodox Mao era means eliminating private ownership, or at least making it very secondary – otherwise, it is not Mao's orthodoxy. But this is something he cannot do right now. On a recent visit to Guangxi province, he once again urged the private sector to grow with confidence: "We encourage the development of private enterprises," Xi said, after visiting a private enterprise in Guangxi province on April 26, 2021. He added: "The Party and the state support private enterprises when they encounter difficulties and provide guidance when they are confused, in the hope that private enterprises can feel at ease and develop boldly."

It is well known that Deng Xiaoping abandoned Mao Zedong's communist ideology. He changed China's direction, embarking on the path of reform and opening up, introducing the capitalist development system, and beginning to implement the so-called Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. China's economy and overall national strength rose rapidly. Deng's reform was bound to adopt a passive attitude of obscurity and avoidance with regard to ideology.

If people do not derive support from the forces of spiritual, moral, and faith under material stimulation, or if they take material wealth itself as spiritual support and an object of worship, then the entire society inevitably becomes corrupted.

In fact, in the early stage of the reform, Deng Xiaoping consciously indulged corruption in order to buy power and the support of the Party elders – which was also the cause and main trigger point of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement.

With the rapid expansion and enrichment of China's material wealth, corruption was becoming an increasingly serious problem. China's rapid rise to the status of the world's second-largest economy under Hu Jintao, Deng Xiaoping's handpicked successor as the CCP chief, was been accompanied by rampant corruption within the Party and in society that was nearly out of control.

Xi Believed That Mao's Dictatorship And Personality Cult Were The Only Way To Keep The CCP Unified

Under Hu Jintao, the CCP was fragmented and corrupt. Facing the growth and resistance of China's civil society, the Communist Party authorities could only maintain a passive defensive position and retreat steadily. Meanwhile, the Communist Party's liberal wing advocated universal values and intra-party democracy, echoing liberal democratic activists outside the Party. Hu was no longer able to control the situation effectively because his supreme power was divided.

At that time, the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP exercised collective leadership, with each member having his own area of responsibility, and the Party's General Secretary lacked absolute authority. The General Secretary's lack of power had created an awkward situation in which decisions made at the highest levels of the Party and the Central Government went unheeded. Local Party committees and governments had different degrees of centrifugal tendencies towards the Central Committee of the CCP and the Central Government in Beijing. The CCP's power and ruling position was in danger.

Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, drawing on the lessons of Hu Jintao's time in power. In Xi's view, if this situation could not be quickly reversed, and was allowed to continue, it would doom the Communist Party and China, and he would not allow himself to be the "monarch of a fallen Party and country." Starting with anti-corruption and military reform, Xi Jinping began to consolidate his power and position with an iron fist. Under such circumstances, how could the organization and thinking of the whole Party be unified? Xi believed that Mao Zedong's dictatorship and personality cult were the only way this could be done.

However, Xi Jinping's attempt to combine the two widely divergent approaches of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping has led him into a vicious circle of antimony. Not only has he created an incongruity, pleasing neither left nor right, but a further development of this situation threatens to cause the collapse of the Communist Party.

So the question is: "How can Xi Jinping, who wants to follow Mao's path on the political side, and Deng's path on the economic side, connect the two?" God only knows. This may reflect the saying "The ignorant are fearless."


*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project.















[1] In late October 2020, Chinese business magnate Jack Ma defied the Communist Party's top leadership, and was subsequently banned from leaving China; additionally, the IPO of one of his companies was suspended, and his Alibaba Group was fined nearly $3 billion for alleged monopoly violations.

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