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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Verna Yu

Xi Jinping’s pilgrimage to ‘red Mecca’ brings back the Mao factor

Xi Jinping talks to villagers in an orchard in Yan'an, north-west China's Shaanxi province.
Xi Jinping talks to villagers in an orchard in Yan'an, north-west China's Shaanxi province. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

Xi Jinping’s next decade in power will see China increasingly revert to Mao Zedong’s ideology and Communist orthodoxy, a trend confirmed by his pilgrimage to a remote city known as the cradle of the Communist party’s revolution, analysts say.

Days after the president secured an unprecedented third term as the chief of the Chinese Communist party, he took his newly appointed politburo standing committee – China’s top decision-making body, now filled with his allies – to Yan’an in the north-western province of Shaanxi, where the Chinese Communist party retreated and rebuilt its strength amid civil wars from 1935 to 1948.

Yan’an is where Mao established his supreme authority in the Communist party while it was struggling to survive under the ruling Nationalists. Xi was quoted by state television as stressing how the party survived military siege and economic blockade in rural Yan’an under Mao’s self-reliant policies.

Analysts say that in propagandising his visit to the “red Mecca”, Xi is asserting his status as a political heir of Mao Zedong and proclaiming China’s return to Communist ideologies.

“He was demonstrating his ‘red’ gene and that he is the heir of the orthodoxy,” said Chen Daoyin, a former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

Hu Ping, an US-based political commentator who lived through the Cultural Revolution, said: “Yan’an was where the ‘red sun’ rose, it was where Mao established his supreme authority. Xi’s trip was not only a salute to Mao, but was to show that Xi, the [new] red sun, has risen.”

Building a cult of personality

The visit to Yan’an was in stark contrast with 10 years ago when Xi first came to power. He visited Shenzhen, the boomtown that borders Hong Kong, in what was widely interpreted as a tribute to the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” policy. After the Tiananmen massacre, Deng used his 1992 southern tour to indicate his commitment to economic reform.

Yan’an was where Mao carried out his “rectification” campaign of 1942-44, to “purify” the ranks through purging his political rivals and indoctrinating members with Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. Party members were subjected to “thought remoulding” exercises and iron-fisted party discipline.

Xi visited the site of the seventh party congress in 1945. He said that congress marked the party’s establishment of political, ideological and organisational “maturity” and credited the rectification campaign for “uniting the party under the banner of Mao Zedong”, according to state television.

Prof Michel Bonnin, from the Paris-based École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, noted the congress was the first in China to be based on a Stalinist, totalitarian model: united under one leader with a god-like status, whose “thought” is the only guiding ideology of the party.

“It is exactly what Xi’s propagandists have promoted for many years,” he said, noting that Yan’an was the cradle of Mao’s personality cult and Xi had been building his own in recent years.

Aportrait of the Chinese President Xi Jinping next to a picture of the former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at Dongfanghong Theatre in Yan’an
Aportrait of the Chinese President Xi Jinping next to a picture of the former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at Dongfanghong Theatre in Yan’an Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Xi’s positive assessment of the rectification overlooked that it “took the most extreme forms of brainwashing, witch-hunting, mental and physical torture” and resulted in “a unity based on sheer terror”, Bonnin said.

For clues about the future, look to the past

Analysts say Xi’s pro-Mao stance has been building over the course of his decade in power but became increasingly evident in the past few years.

A few months after he took power, an internal party edict known as Document No 9 ordered cadres to tackle seven supposedly subversive influences. These included “western constitutional democracy”, “universal values” of human rights, western notions of media independence, and civic participation.

Xi raised eyebrows in 2013 when he declared that “the 30 years of reform and opening cannot negate the previous 30 years” – indicating his endorsement of the Mao era, and scepticism over Deng’s reforms.

Xi Jinping’s reign has also seen the tightening of ideological control and sweeping crackdowns on hundreds of dissidents, activists, liberal scholars, journalists and rights lawyers on subversion or public security charges.

Chen said that to understand Xi’s aspirations and goals for the future, one should look for clues in the past five years.

“In the past five years, he has been repackaging Mao’s [policies] and affirming the 30 years under Mao,” Chen said. “In the 20th party congress, Xi thoroughly established his absolute power and paralleled himself with Mao.”

In the same way that Mao asserted his supreme position in the party through eliminating rivals in the rectification campaign, Xi expunged his enemies in the anti-graft campaigns. In the recent party congress, Xi stacked the politburo standing committee with his allies and excluded all his rivals from the Communist Youth League faction.

While Mao attacked his predecessors to assert his own authority, Xi made similar gestures, from veiled attacks on his predecessors’ reform policies to the ejection of the former party chief Hu Jintao from the congress.

He even showed that he was bothered by the same issues that faced Mao in Yan’an: how the Communist party could avoid the fate of collapse in the cyclical pattern of dynastic rise and fall. Whereas Mao’s answer was “to let people supervise the government”, Xi provided a new solution: the party’s “self revolution” to maintain its “purity” and guarantee its eternal rule. “The key issue that occupies Xi Jinping’s mind is ‘how to build a long ruling Marxist political party’,” said an article in the People’s Daily in June.

Along this trend, Xi will only “increasingly revert to [the ways of] Mao” in the coming years, Hu Ping said.

Although Xi mentioned “modernisation” as a goal in his congress speech, analysts say Xi’s would rate national security over economic concerns.

Willy Lam, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, noted that Xi has classified 11 types of national security, including political and territorial: “If economic development could endanger any type of national security, then the latter has the right of way.”

Wu Guoguang, a China expert at Stanford University who was, in the 1980s, a member of the Communist party’s central policy group on political reform, said the 20th party congress marked the end of “reform and opening”.

“Economic development could be still important to the Xi leadership, but only with the preconditions that wealth is controlled by the regime and that foreign economic connections will serve the regime’s non-economic – such as political, ideological, military, nationalistic – goals,” he said.

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