Following is an edited transcript of a live event hosted at Asia Society New York on May 21, 2015, “ChinaFile Presents: Does Xi Jinping Represent a Return to the Politics of the Mao Era?” The evening convened the scholars Roderick MacFarquhar and Andrew Walder—the publication of whose new book on Mao Zedong was the occasion for the event—with diplomat Susan Shirk and Orville Schell, ChinaFile’s publisher and the Arthur Ross Director for the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society.—The Editors
Orville Schell: Well, thank you to all of you for coming, and thanks to our panelists. Just by way of setting the stage a bit, I remember very vividly when Deng Xiaoping came back into power. Mao Zedong had died, and there was a period in the ’80s when people thought, you know, the revolution is gone. The whole interregnum of Maoist thinking, of Maoist politics, seemed to have just evanesced from the landscape. But there’s something in me as a sort of historian that thought “Whoa, not so fast.” These kinds of things have a way of lingering in the bloodstream in very complicated and subtle ways. And that really is the topic that brings us together here, and the catalytic agent for the evening was Andy Walder’s interesting new book China Under Mao. And so what we really want to do is first of all let Andy ruminate a bit on what he found out in writing this book, in terms of what Mao Zedong was about, and then to maybe look towards the present a bit with our other panelists on how Xi Jinping, what is it that went into his provenance. What is in his bloodstream as a leader, what toolbox does he reach to when he has a problem? How much, in short, does Chairman Mao endure within this new leadership? Is this maybe more or less than we’ve seen in previous years? So Andy, let’s start with you in sort of setting us up a bit here.
Andrew Walder: Well, when you look at Mao today, you look at him from a perspective of some 35 years of economic reform and opening. But Mao’s image in China today is very different from the image that he had in the late ’70s and early ’80s. You remember there was a big campaign to thoroughly repudiate the Cultural Revolution. The newspapers were filled with horror stories about how people suffered during the period. There’s a lot of implicit criticism of Mao, usually focused on the gang of four. But when they criticized the gang of four, they were really criticizing Mao. So if you look at the Mao period today in retrospect, and in comparison with Xi Jinping and recent leaders, you notice a couple things about what Mao was really committed to that are no longer there in the leadership.
First of all, Mao really believes in disorder. He didn’t talk about stability. He never would have talked about stability maintenance. Mao really believed that disorder was the only way China would progress.
Orville Schell: Permanent revolution.
Andrew Walder: Right. He believed that class struggle was the motive force of history. And he believed that class struggle was embodied within China, even after the creation of the socialist system. Now we often thought in the ’60s and ’70s that this was Mao’s unique theory. But actually it was Stalin’s theory from the 1930s and that’s where Mao learned his Marxism, from Stalinist encyclopedia articles and textbooks. Mao also believed even before he studied Soviet Marxism that violence was necessary to induce real social change. You saw this in his essays on the Hunan peasant movement in the 1920s, and he believed that and continued to go back to that playbook for the rest of his life. The thing that you really see in Mao that really stands out in relation to China’s leaders since the ’80s is that he thought the Party could not reform itself. The Party could not police itself. That you had to open up the political system. That ordinary people speak their mind. He did this in 1957, he did this in 1966-68, and he did it again in 1974 in what we used to call the second Cultural Revolution. Now in other words, Mao thought that if you wanted to reform China, to reign in the Party bureaucracy, to reign in special privileges, you had to let ordinary people say what they thought and criticize officials. The other thing that is really different about China since Mao is that cadres lead a much more secure life than they did under Mao. Even despite the anti-corruption campaign, officials and their families basically were liberated by the overthrow of the gang of four. And they’re not monitored and policed and purged constantly the way that they were during Mao’s life. So they have the security to travel abroad, have their family members engage in business, and they don’t have to worry about being accused of an imaginary crime or imaginary political error. They now have to worry about the anti-corruption campaign. So all of these things together I think make the Mao era really fundamentally quite different from the current era, even though Xi Jinping kind of draws on some of the imagery of Mao and some of the language of that period.
Orville Schell: Okay, so Rod. If we look at Xi Jinping we do see a leadership that is strikingly different than at least the last two decades, sort of the post-Deng period. When you look at what Xi is doing, the recentralization of power, the emphasis on a leader, on discipline, orthodoxy, control, these sorts of things, do you see these as hallmarks of Mao’s era of traditional China and Confucianism? Or how do you interpret them, and how do you . . . I mean, having studied the Cultural Revolution so thoroughly, do you see any sort of blush of that being re-expressed?
Roderick MacFarquhar: I think that Xi Jinping, we’ve seen from the very beginning of his term in office, is obsessed with one historical episode. And it didn’t happen in China, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Communist Party. And he’s absolutely determined not to be Gorbachev. In my view, he’s doing things in China today which could actually be worse than what Gorbachev did in the Soviet Union.
Orville Schell: Like what?
Roderick MacFarquhar: Both men wanted to save Communism. And in fact, I think Gorbachev believed in it far more deeply than Xi Jinping does. I think the point about Xi Jinping is that he agrees with his predecessors, after Deng, that corruption could bring down the Party and the state. So that’s the reason for the anti-corruption campaign. And my view is that this is dangerous, more dangerous than Gorbachev, for two reasons. One is that it is using an instrument far more powerful than Gorbachev had. He just had volunteer intellectuals, editors, writers. He didn’t have the Party machine; they were against him. Xi Jinping is using the Party machine and it’s very powerful. We see it spreading fear high and low. And I think that the second thing is that Xi does not want to go down in history as the man under whom the Chinese regime collapsed. And what he took from the Soviet example is that he sees the rot starting with Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin. And that is why he is saying to the Chinese “There are not two periods in Chinese history recently, a bad period (Mao) and a good period (reform.) It’s all one big historical period.” They cannot afford to get rid of Mao. And so he is reshaping the historical vision of his party, but at the same time he’s vowing to bring down tigers, bigwigs, and he’s already brought down a few. And flies, the small people. This is very dangerous. What’s he trying to do? He’s doing, in effect, a cultural revolution. Mao wanted to make the leaders revolutionary. He wants to make them righteous. I think it’s actually more difficult to make people righteous.
Orville Schell: Do you think if you had the opportunity to ask Xi, “What does Mao Zedong and Mao Zedong’s thought and the Chinese Communist Revolution under him mean to you today?” What do you think he would say?
Roderick MacFarquhar: The first thing he would say is that my father and his colleagues would never have been in power but for Mao. That’s why they were elected; they chose a princeling as a known, the children of the high and mighty, to be the leader. Because they feel they have more invested in this regime than anyone else. And that’s what he’d say. My father helped Chairman Mao win China. That’s why we’re running this country, and we’re going to keep running it.
Orville Schell: Susan, do you think when you look at this . . . I mean, you’ve been working on China a long, long time. Do you think that the proposition that Xi Jinping seems to have adopted, which is to leave Marx but keep Lenin . . . and what I mean by that is a strong party, centralized leadership, authority, correct line, obedience, all of these things. Do you think this is the fundamental plan that he has adopted?
Susan Shirk: I don’t think he thinks about it that way. I mean, I don’t know what’s inside his head. All we can do is really look at his behavior and what he’s doing. And you know, I think it’s reminiscent of the Mao era in two ways. One: He is definitely trying to concentrate more power in the hands of a single leader. After decades of collective leadership that’s more . . . somewhat institutionalized, but in a way showing us how weakly institutionalized it was, that he’s able to consolidate this power again. And of course, yes, this really denies the whole perspective on the Mao era that Deng Xiaoping had. Deng Xiaoping wrote this brilliant essay critiquing the overconcentration of authority in the Mao system. And then recommending retirement ages, regular meetings of collective institutions, age limits, etc. So that you would not have dictatorial rule where nobody dared question it and it could be there forever. And yet Xi Jinping really . . . we haven’t heard much about that essay, have we? Because basically, Xi is trying to live the antithesis of what Deng Xiaoping recommended.
And the other way I think is so interesting . . . Rod mentioned that he takes a more benign view of the Mao era. And in effect . . . the Chinese people always talk about the reversal of verdicts on some important historical event. He’s kind of reversing the verdict on the Mao era by saying that the period in which Mao ruled was just as positive as the 30 years of reform. And reviving a lot of the mass line, a lot of Mao ideological concepts, and organizational practices, which are really surprising, and I’ve been puzzled by this. You know, what’s the logic of doing this for Xi? What’s the political logic for him? People say “Well, Deng Xiaoping always tilted left in order to carry out reform, to move right.” But Deng Xiaoping did that because there were very senior powerful leaders at the time. Chen Yun in particular, almost as powerful as Deng himself, had to be appeased. But there’s no Chen Yun today. There’s no Chen Yun. So one possibility we might want to consider is that the Mao era and Mao’s concepts, Mao thought, actually still has a lot of traction with the public. We would think not because it was such a tragic failure. But maybe more people, ordinary people in China, really still look back on the Mao era positively. With not just nostalgia, but thinking that Mao really knew what he was doing.
Orville Schell: So what about that, Andy? Because this raises a very interesting question of what is Mao nostalgia, if there is such a thing. Is the predilection of China to live in a very authoritarian centralized leadership mode, is this kind of Maoist or does this go back to some earlier way of being that is actually imperial, and dynastic, and Confucian?
Andrew Walder: Well, I think Mao’s China represents a much less corrupt government. There was virtually no corruption under Mao, the kind that we see today. When I interviewed émigrés in Hong Kong in 1979 and people talked about corruption, they talked about bringing a jar of cooking oil to someone to get a permission slip signed. And that was in the mid ’70s. Corruption didn’t exist the way it exists now. I mean, Xi Jinping’s job is fundamentally different from Mao’s. Mao attacked the bureaucracy for largely imaginary violations of something. He suspected they didn’t . . . that they were interested in special privileges, but they really hadn’t . . . what I said earlier, that China’s officials were liberated after Mao died. So I think that Xi Jinping’s job is fundamentally different from Mao’s. Mao had a . . . up to the late 1950s, he had a highly disciplined and unified system, really. And he set about to smash it. He smashed it to pieces in the Cultural Revolution. I think, ironically, he made it possible for Deng Xiaoping to move politically to a market-oriented economy by smashing the planned economy, by destroying the bureaucratic vested interests that stood in the way of Gorbachev. So Deng Xiaoping as a politician could tie the move toward a market-oriented open economy, tie that together with rebuilding the state, rebuilding the Party, as a program that cadres and officials could get behind. And for ordinary people, we’re going to improve your living standards, we’re going to have more security for officials, more clear career lines and so forth, we’re going to stop these mass campaigns. So ironically, the Cultural Revolution basically cleared the ground for the reform and opening. Even though that was not at all Mao’s intention, at all. It’s hard to say what it was he wanted, but he knew what he didn’t want. What he didn’t want was what they’re doing now. But you know Mao’s diagnosis of the Soviet Union was that it was going back to capitalism. And this was under Brezhnev, under Khrushchev. I mean, Mao thought capitalism was offering piece rates to workers and giving them wage raises. Mao’s . . . his theories were kind of odd, but these are two very different eras I think. Mao did not have to worry about the regime being overthrown. He talked about it reverting to capitalism, but Xi Jinping, it seems to me he’s playing defense. I mean, why worry about things like the Ford Foundation and NGOs undermining your political system?
Orville Schell: But this is an old theme. I mean, every communist leader had a highly evolved sort of paranoid fantasy about the intentions of the outside world. This is not particularly new.
Roderick MacFarquhar: But this is not paranoid of the outside world. I think it is true that Xi Jinping does believe that one of the problems that Deng Xiaoping left him . . . he left him many problems, but one of them was opening up the world to China. So that China has absorbed all these western doctrines, which he’s now telling his officials have to be stopped. And I think Xi Jinping has one other great legitimating factor in his favor. He was chosen by his peers. He wasn’t appointed by Deng like his predecessors. He and Mao are the only two Chinese leaders to be appointed by their peers. And that’s an enormous strength. All the others in the Politburo Standing Committee, the Politburo, they’re all also-rans in the leadership race. And that’s one reason why I think so far, he has been officially and openly unchallenged. But I think he’s taking enormous risks with this campaign.
Orville Schell: Well, do you see him as largely a kind of, in style, a Maoist? Or what?
Roderick MacFarquhar: Well, Andy was saying to me beforehand, more of a Liu Shaoqi. Sort of sea green incorruptible.
Orville Schell: So, he was all about Party organization. And about purifying it, and organizing it, and strengthening a one-party system. Which is really the Lenin side of the Marx-Lenin ledger.
Roderick MacFarquhar: But he is now attacking the wealth of families, the futures, the careers, of top people. Forget about flies for the moment. But the tigers at the top who are being targeted, they could growl back.
Susan Shirk: I think when you redistribute the spoils in this kind of system, you are asking for trouble. I think there is a . . . you know, a small but not zero possibility of a serious elite backlash like a coup. But the problem for a coup maker or a challenger is that he’s so popular.
Roderick MacFarquhar: No, that’s not a problem. The problem for a coup against Mao was they’re all scared stiff of him, and each of them thought they would be the beneficiary if someone else fell. No one is scared of Xi in the same way. So if all this is threatened, all their livelihood and everything is threatened, they can come together. It doesn’t matter what happens in the masses. They’ll learn about it in the paper the next day.
Orville Schell: Let me ask the three of you a question, because this is somewhat vexing to me. We’ve all been around the block a few times. We’ve watched this for many, many decades. Are you surprised by what’s happening now? Let’s start with you, Rod, on this and then move up the line. You are.
Roderick MacFarquhar: Yes. Because I knew nothing about Xi in advance, he seemed like an amiable person. He still seems like an amiable person. Seems from what he is and people who’ve met him that he’s intelligent. His daughter was in my class at Harvard. That must count for something.
Orville Schell: I know in that regard you’re like a psychoanalyst. Can’t discuss the patient, so we won’t probe.
Roderick MacFarquhar: Right. But I knew nothing about him. I didn’t know what to expect. All we did expect, and I think what the Chinese people expected, was something a little bit more lively than what Hu Jintao gave them.
Susan Shirk: Well, I do think it’s very surprising because the trend in authoritarian regimes, and Leninist communist regimes, is that they want to modernize society. They move from strongman dictatorial rule to collective leadership, more rule-bound, more institutionalized, in order to help develop the economy and operate more efficiently. And that’s sort of the modernizing pattern that one sees.
Andrew Walder: Well, at least in our head.
Susan Shirk: No, not just in our head. Empirically, if we look at cases, that’s what happens. To go back to strongman rule at this stage in China’s history, especially given how open it is, and having a basically market economy, that’s a very surprising thing.
Andrew Walder: Well, I had no guess about what Xi Jinping would do. But if you look at our understanding of how the old communist regimes stagnated and then eventually fell apart, collective leadership doesn’t provide a strong enough executive authority to push through unpopular programs. And this was the story of the Brezhnev era. And then they had two very short-lived general party secretaries in the Soviet Union who were only in power for a couple of years. So it’s not at all surprising in terms of what it takes to try to revitalize the system. I’m maybe the only person to say something positive about Xi Jinping here.
Roderick MacFarquhar: I’m against corruption too!
Andrew Walder: The previous ten to 15 years, you got a sense that the system basically had a weak collective leadership, they weren’t facing up to the kind of reforms. . .
Orville Schell: But Andy, many people might extol that as a kind of step to greater openness, democracy, consultative . . . you know. Thinking this is one station of the cross.
Andrew Walder: Right, but if you think about collective leadership, it’s leadership by a committee. And you know, prior to Xi Jinping they didn’t have someone at the apex who could make a decision that not everyone could agree upon.
Orville Schell: So you see this as forward motion?
Andrew Walder: It could be positive. In the sense that you do need someone to take a system that’s drifting, especially one where the elite is really taking over things and reaping enormous wealth. And you have these state-owned firms that are sucking resources away from the private economy, and this is one of the things that Xi Jinping claims he wants to do. So from the perspective of a functioning government, they had a kind of gridlock that we have in a very different context, have had in the last ten years. And this is one way of getting out of it. So in a way, this is the last chance I think for the Party to revitalize itself.
Susan Shirk: But it’s very risky because you know, one reason the Party elite wanted to move in the direction that Deng Xiaoping laid out for collective leadership is because they had seen from the Mao model how unchecked power in the hands of a dictator can take the whole country off a cliff. It’s very dangerous.
Roderick MacFarquhar: Deng was very brave in doing what he did, and then the fact that he did not take the top leadership position himself, but when it came down to it everyone knew who was boss. And we found out when anyone didn’t know in 1989.
Susan Shirk: Right, but so I think you know, it’s risky because Xi . . . on the one hand, he could do great things. And I think there is definitely some evidence of a reform, serious reform agenda here, that Xi is trying to push forward.
Orville Schell: Especially economically.
Susan Shirk: Yeah, but even . . . you know, there’s a new directive on transparency in central government, and some really quite good things happening. But on the other hand it’s kind of risky, especially perhaps in foreign policy. Where he could act out, make threats, and feel that he had to follow through.
Orville Schell: Well, we should get to foreign policy for a quick drive-by. But before then, let me ask you, Rod, and maybe others will have some thoughts too: What’s happened to the conventional wisdom by which we used to operate, that open markets lead to open societies, you know? Francis Fukuyama land, the end of history, just keep educating them at Harvard.
Roderick MacFarquhar: I miss that.
Orville Schell: Yeah, you miss that. But in fact, that was really common wisdom and the presumption of almost everything that the Western countries were doing in regard to China. Have we come to the end of that?
Roderick MacFarquhar: I hope so. It was common foolishness. It wasn’t common wisdom. And it was a justification by the government of various countries to explain why they didn’t raise things like human rights, because they wanted to get their businessmen in there. And it was a justification by businessmen who said they want to make money, and they wanted to say they were part of the process of changing China. They were, but not changing it in the way that they claimed.
Orville Schell: So in other words, perhaps there isn’t this sort of ineluctable connection between economic reform and political reform. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the next.
Roderick MacFarquhar: Absolutely not.
Orville Schell: Andy?
Andrew Walder: It might take another generation for us to see the effect.
Orville Schell: I’ve been hearing that for how many generations?
Andrew Walder: No, no, no. Think about what was the China that Xi Jinping grew up in?
Orville Schell: Well, that’s the subject of our topic tonight.
Andrew Walder: It’s what was described in my book. And you know, his education was disrupted. He never finished high school, sent down to the countryside, went back to Peking University before it had really been reopened and gave students a serious education. And then he went immediately into the Party system. One or two generations down the road are people who grew up in the ’80s or the ’90s, and for them a normal society is a much more open place. So I don’t think it’s a tight connection but I think in the long run, as these generational experiences percolate up to the top of the political system (assuming it stays coherent and stable until that point in time) you’ll see different attitudes. I think Xi Jinping’s view of the world is really shaped by the China that he grew up in, especially his fear of disorder, his fear of instability.
Roderick MacFarquhar: But he’s also, I think one has to emphasize, he also did not grow up or mature in a settled system like Hu Jintao did, like Jiang Zemin did. He was much more like the revolutionaries of the first generation. He was attacked by the red guards because his father was a purgee, and he was sent down to the countryside, where according to an official biography, he arrived a sort of mixed-up kid, and ended up as a man who wanted to go and help the people seven years later.
Andrew Walder: Well, I mean the other part, to answer your question Orville, is that these trends aren’t unilinear. Things can fall backwards for a period, look at Russia. Things can start out looking quite open, and then you can have a strong man that clamps down for a period.
Roderick MacFarquhar: But you said something about Confucianism in the beginning. Why did you say that?
Orville Schell: Well, I’m wondering if the sort of tendency for the respect of a leader, willingness to submit, be obedient, be genuflect to strong leadership, does have some kind of Confucian echoes, as well as Leninist echoes.
Roderick MacFarquhar: I think that one of the good things that Mao did, in a terrible way, was to destroy that respect. Because he trashed the Party. And that’s why you have an estimated 500 uprisings of some kind every day in China. Because people no longer respect the local leaders. In fact, they hate the local leaders. Because of what they’re doing to their locality. Now, there may still be respect for the whole thing, the emperor is good but he’s far away, the central government may be respected, but I don’t think there’s respect for leaders any longer in China.
Orville Schell: Well if that’s the case, Susan, where does the tolerance for strong leadership and the willingness to, so far, I mean, yes, there are many, many protests, but there’s also a lot of nationalist sentiment, a lot of very patriotic Chinese who are willing to submit to this sort of regime, for some greater goal.
Susan Shirk: I think people in all countries sort of like having a strong leader. Certainly look at all the criticism of our president. People especially in big, powerful countries like the United States and China, people like having a strong leader. Now, obviously we have a lot of checks and balances on our executive authority compared to China, but I’m not surprised that people like having a strong leader at all. And Xi is a much more attractive figure than Hu Jintao. You know, he gets out with the people, with all the television cameras behind him, and that part is really right out of Mao.
Roderick MacFarquhar: Oh, the technology now is fantastic. The number of books, and Dada Xi and Mama Peng, his wife.
Andrew Walder: Now, Barack Obama wrote two books. It’s not that different.
Susan Shirk: But I think the anti-corruption campaign is hugely popular. And remember, we did have a major reform agenda announced at the third plenum. Even rule of law in the fourth plenum. So people have a hopeful attitude that this strong authority will result in some very positive changes.
Roderick MacFarquhar: But don’t you think that the anti-corruption campaign is in fact undermining the reform agenda, the economic reform agenda? Because the bureaucrats are frightened of doing something in case they are accused?
Susan Shirk: For sure. I mean, people are mobilizing. I mean, the officials are mobilized. They don’t want to stick their necks out at all. And so that is a problem. It’s also slowing down growth, even more than the growth would normally slow, because officials are not making purchases of luxury goods, and you know real estate and everything. The anti-corruption campaign is very bold, it’s a combination of both a real crusade to restore the integrity of the Party and it’s clearly a purge of potential rivals.
Roderick MacFarquhar: So far, no princeling has been attacked. None of his possible faction.
Orville Schell: So how do you all read the rather odd fact, when you consider that since 1979 when Deng and Carter had that wonderful exchange about immigration to America and Carter was berating Deng for not letting Chinese travel abroad, and Deng said, “how many do you want, 10 million?” Now we’ve basically had our 10 million. And why is it that after all—
Susan Shirk: And we want more.
Orville Schell: We want more?
Susan Shirk: Yeah, I just want to make clear that we don’t want to stop it, we’re happy to have all these Chinese people.
Orville Schell: Why do you think it is that none of these people have matriculated into the top levels of leadership?
Andrew Walder: They’re kept out.
Orville Schell: But what’s that all about?
Susan Shirk: Loyalty.
Roderick MacFarquhar: The vice president of China was a Kennedy School student.
Susan Shirk: For how many weeks? Not a whole year.
Andrew Walder: If you stay too long abroad, especially if you get your B.A., but if you get a real graduate degree. . .
Orville Schell: Alright come on you two, let’s keep with the crowd. . .
Andrew Walder: If you’re abroad too long, you can’t enter into the top of the political system.
Orville Schell: But where does that sentiment, that concern of the outside, that you will be infected if you study outside, and you’re not fit for service. . .
Susan Shirk: It’s loyalty. It’s loyalty. That’s why now, officials of Bureau head and above, their wives and children cannot live abroad. Including state owned financial institutions, banks, sovereign wealth funds, state-owned enterprises. And that has resulted in a lot of resignations of people whose wives don’t want to come back. And a lot of it is about air pollution and other things, education, but I think that part of that rule has to do with loyalty. Which goes back to what Rod was saying about preventing the fall of communism in China just like the fall of communism in the Soviet Union.
Roderick MacFarquhar: And remember, they’ve had one experience which was a near one: Tiananmen.
Orville Schell: Okay, so if this is the reality, let me sort of segue into a little foreign policy side of the equation. If in fact the Party does believe that the West is, through its various mechanisms of peaceful evolution, out to influence and finally overthrow the one-party system in China, and I think it’s sort of undeniably true that that is more or less what these many, many people both in government and civil society sort of intend. How do we get along when we have that presumption standing in the way of cooperation?
Susan Shirk: Well, I think we’ve done a really great job over the years—since Nixon went to China and normalization—of trying to find a way for the U.S. and China to get along, despite our very different political systems. And you know, you can either talk a lot about the differences in the political system, or you can talk about common interests that we have on issues like climate change, like North Korean nuclear problems, like Iran nuclear problems. There are a lot of things where our interests really overlap substantially. So if you want to accentuate the positive, that’s what diplomats do and they manage to overcome the big differences in the political system.
Orville Schell: I have to say, do you think it is the general intention of American foreign policy to sort of change the political system of China?
Susan Shirk: I don’t think in the near and medium term anybody thinks about regime change in China as an objective of U.S. policy. That is not true, we have different values, we care deeply about human rights and we are very concerned when things are going in a negative direction in China, but regime change? Absolutely not. I mean, it’s one thing to think about regime change in other, smaller, more shaky countries. I mean, in previous administrations people have thought about that. But I don’t think nowadays anybody thinks about regime change in China.
Orville Schell: So Andy, how do you think people in China, leaders in China both over the past few decades and presently, how do you think the outside world and America occur to them in terms of our intentions politically?
Andrew Walder: They seem to be quite paranoid, and they seem to be playing defense. It’s a mystery to me after the record of progress since Mao left China in more or less a smoking ruin in 1976, how much progress the Party and the government has made since then. It’s amazing to me that they still seem to be so paranoid about losing power. It seems to me that there’s an objective basis for more public support for this regime now than there has been at any time in the last 40, 50 years within China. So I really don’t understand the seeming paranoia about the objectives.
Susan Shirk: Tiananmen.
Orville Schell: Now, Rod, how do you analyze this sort of ongoing lack of confidence in their own success, which is stunning?
Roderick MacFarquhar: Well, I think first of all that they know the success was done by the people. Deng Xiaoping’s great gift to China was to unleash the people. To get rich is glorious, and they fueled the economic drive that we’ve all witnessed in amazement. I think that one of the problems was exemplified at the time of Tiananmen, when one of the journalists at the People’s Daily cycled to Tiananmen Square on May Fourth and said they wanted press freedom.
Orville Schell: And they actually got it for a while.
Roderick MacFarquhar: Briefly. And the point I think is that if you speak to Chinese professionals, whether journalists or lawyers or civil servants or foreign diplomats or whatever, they want respect for their professional prowess. And they know that it can be obtained by having the respect of their foreign colleagues. And they know what the standards are. I think that revolution in terms of world standards for professionals in China is something which Xi must worry about. Because the journalists are looking outside. They know.
Orville Schell: And academics I think are similar.
Roderick MacFarquhar: Of course. I think that’s a key issue. The other thing that I think Xi knows and the Party leaders probably all know is that, ultimately, no matter how much diplomats like Susan and others do the kind of thing that she just described, that ultimately there will be no fundamental respect in America for a Chinese regime which is not in some form democratic. And that respect is what they’ve been groping for, for the past 150 years. And that is enormous frustration, and I think that what Xi must have decided is: well, if that’s their attitude I’m going to keep them out. I’m going to keep out these intellectual influences, I’m going to stop this academic conference, I’m going to stop these NGOs. If they don’t give us respect, well, too bad. Go.
Orville Schell: It is a terrible paradox, isn’t it? I think you’re absolutely right, that China has gained wealth, it’s gained power, it’s had tremendous success in its development, but the missing element is that thing they talk about all the time, which is respect. Mutual respect. But if they can’t get respect having the political system they had, how do we get over that? How do we vault over that fact, that the thing they want most is what we can’t afford to them even if we wanted to, without fundamental changes?
Susan Shirk: Well, I think the sensitivity to the human rights problems in China is greatest in the United States. And I’m not sure that you’re right, that China is not respected around the world. I think certainly the soft power is a challenge. Although I must say, the dramatic economic miracle of China does translate into quite a lot of soft power. And so I’m just not sure that you’re right, that China does not have respect around the world.
Roderick MacFarquhar: I said just the United States.
Susan Shirk: In the United States is where there’s the greatest sensitivity to this. I mean, in Europe, Europeans are concerned about Tibet, it’s concerned about a few issues, but basically they don’t have the same kind of dissonance over the value differences that we have in the United States.
Orville Schell: How do you view this sense of whatever it is, that China has still not accomplished by way of attaining parity in the world, even after its extraordinary successes?
Andrew Walder: Well, if we’re talking about political trends within China, why Xi Jinping is taking the direction that he’s taking, I think he sees that he has a huge mess to clean up. And he is taking risks by going after some fairly high-level people for corruption. And he’s only started nibbling away at the problem. But if you’re going to do that, a common theme in the PRC history is that officials can permit dissent, to criticize leaders that they’re against. If you’re going to go after members of the elite, the last thing you want is for people to start criticizing about the environment, about women’s rights, about any of these things. Because if local officials can start fires in various provinces and then basically criticize Xi Jinping for throwing China in disorder, let’s call off this anti-corruption campaign. So in a way there’s a certain logic. It may not simply be the lack of respect from foreigners; it may simply be that he is trying to defend his rear in a sense, to prevent people from trying to stir up trouble that will undermine him politically. So as long as this campaign is going on, I would be very surprised to see any kind of opening up.
Roderick MacFarquhar: But he’s attacking the base. You talk about the Party officials who may stir up problems for him and undermine him. Of course they will, because he is attacking them. He's going to demoralize them like they were demoralized in the Cultural Revolution.
Andrew Walder: Well, actually, I think I do disagree on this point. Because many, many more, a much higher percentage of officials were attacked in the Cultural Revolution. They were attacked for things that they actually did not do, these were imaginary causes.
Roderick MacFarquhar: This is much worse, they did do it.
Andrew Walder: Well, actually, it’s better because they’re attacking people for things they actually did do. But the scope of the campaign is tiny compared to things that happened in Mao’s time.
Orville Schell: Well, the whole Party was under attack.
Andrew Walder: Right. And ordinary people could attack them. Let’s keep in mind that there are 80 million Party members. 25-30 million officials in China, and I’ve heard that maybe 2,000 officials have been removed. This is a drop in the bucket really. And it’s mainly a warning to everyone else. So I don’t think it’s as destabilizing as the kinds of things that Mao did.
Roderick MacFarquhar: It depends on who the 2,000 include. And if they are the top people, as they have been in the past, both the army and the Party, that’s very dangerous. And people may cheer at the downfall of these bigwigs—they probably all will, because they hate corruption. They’re the victims, ordinary Chinese. But if he stops the campaign, thinking “well I’ve frightened them now,” then his popularity will disappear, because this is a major reason for his popularity. That and the South China Sea.
Andrew Walder: Well, his life would be made a lot easier if the Party itself wasn’t sending out these discipline inspection commissions.
Roderick MacFarquhar: He’s sending them out.
Andrew Walder: He is sending them out, but someone in Singapore once told me when we’re discussing Singapore’s ability to wipe out corruption, he said the problem is in Singapore, you give it to this independent commission and they take people out.
Orville Schell: Hong Kong did this.
Andrew Walder: And Hong Kong did the same thing. But he said in China, you go after corrupt officials until you bump into somebody who’s really connected. Or someone who’s connected to you. Or someone who’s connected to one of your relatives. And then you have to back off. So my friend in Singapore who was in the government said it’s like Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill. And it goes back down again.
Roderick MacFarquhar: Absolutely right.
Andrew Walder: And so, this is why I think that the dialogue about political reform in China emphasizes too much elections and a multi-party system. They really need to redesign the bureaucracy, to depoliticize anti-corruption, have an independent prosecutor. Which could be destabilizing in and of itself.
Roderick MacFarquhar: That’s the rule of law for god’s sakes! You’re not gonna have that.
Andrew Walder: There we go. But that person would also be a Party member, and I would assume a Party official, right?
Roderick MacFarquhar: Then it wouldn’t be the rule of law.
Orville Schell: Okay, now listen it is half past, so why don’t we turn to some questions from you all. I’m sure there are many, and there are microphones.
Winston Lord: Winston Lord, International Rescue Committee. Nice to see some old friends here. Do you see a contradiction between China’s desire to move to a new kind of economy based on more dynamism, innovation, risk-taking, etc. and simultaneously cracking down on information in an age of globalization and information? Western ideas and textbooks, NGOs . . . can he pull this off? It seems to me there’s a certain contradiction.
Roderick MacFarquhar: Absolutely.
Orville Schell: But what’s the connection between the need to crack down, control information and the ability to reform?
Susan Shirk: I agree completely. I mean, it’s all so hard for companies, for foreign companies based in China and Chinese companies themselves, to communicate with branches and other businesses abroad. Say you want to do some collaborative work, and you want to go on a G+ platform or something, because there is no Chinese platform that’s similar. Well, you can’t. You have no way of doing collaborative work with people overseas. That’s a problem for Chinese companies as well as international companies. And then having to use VPN to get over the firewall, and then some of the time they even slow down and crack down on the VPNs? I mean, when you’re behind the great firewall like that, it really is like a blockade between China and the rest of the world.
Orville Schell: That raises the question of whether we’re heading into a series of intranets, rather than Internet. And with China pioneering the model.
Susan Shirk: Lets acknowledge that Xi Jinping is pushing this Internet sovereignty idea in international discussions of the governance of the Internet much more strongly than previous leaders have. It’s not a new idea, but he and his appointee Lu Wei have been hammering at this very strongly.
Nina Huang: My name is Nina Huang, I’m a reporter for the Chinese social media website The Paper. So my question is about foreign policy and Confucianism. Recently, an article on Xinhua.net said that president Xi Jinping during the last two years mentioned 60 times about his view of the world, which is a community of common interest. This is a concept derived from Confucianism, all under heaven. So my question is: How should the United States respond to this new combination between Confucianism and China’s foreign policy? Especially now, China thinks that the notion of the equality of nation states has led to a failed world.
Susan Shirk: Well on this, can I just say that I think that’s a nice notion.
Orville Schell: Now, describe what notion is nice.
Susan Shirk: What you said, the community of shared interest, of common interest. You know, we definitely see that Chinese foreign policy is more activist under Xi Jinping, not the “we don’t want to be a leader.” China’s willing to take on a more active leadership role. Which can be very positive, if it is helping provide public goods for the international community. And there are advisers to Xi Jinping who are advocating that kind of foreign policy. And I think that from the standpoint of the United States, we should welcome it and support it.
Nina Huang: Do you think it’s challenging the world order of the U.S.?
Susan Shirk: Why is this challenging the U.S. world order? This is what the U.S. believes too.
Orville Schell: Well, I think she’s pointing not to humanitarian efforts and things like that, but those areas where China is sort of challenging the order.
Susan Shirk: Well, I think that of course the relationship is more competitive than it used to be. But not all competition is equally bad. And I think that competing diplomatically, competing in proposing new initiatives with your neighbors, I think that it’s a mistake for the U.S. to criticize and overreact to that. I think that kind of competition is much more benign than competition that involves military buildups and could lead to military conflict.
Roderick MacFarquhar: I think that question perhaps should be posed in other contexts and in other countries. If there’s a community of interests, which Xi Jinping wishes to promote, then there has to be more talking and less action between China and its neighbors to the east and to the southeast.
Orville Schell: Less unilateral action and more discussion prior to taking action.
Yao Ling: Yao Ling, Ph.D. candidate at the Political Science department in Columbia. So actually, I think that the Confucianism stuff is a good point, because I was wondering, well, actually Xi Jinping in the past two years talked about Confucianism and traditional values in a way that Mao would never have. Right? So for example, last year in the Women’s Day Celebration he said, “Well, China has such good traditional values in which women strive to be good wives and mothers, sisters, and husbands.” So, see, this is something Mao would have never said. Right? So it seems like Xi used Mao to boost the nationalist foundation of legitimacy, because he tries to combine everything that’s nationalistic, rather than because of his attachment to Maoist ideology per se. Whether or not you agree with that, thank you very much.
Orville Schell: So is nationalism really the distinguishing feature of Xi Jinping’s policy facing out? Andy?
Andrew Walder: Yeah, well he’s talking about the contrast with Mao, and Mao is seen rightly as the founder of China’s first unified modern national state. And that’s the way he’s remembered, that’s the way he’s being deployed. He’s an icon, really.
Orville Schell: Unifier.
Andrew Walder: Unifier, yeah. And he made China stand up. Up through 1957, most of what he did went through very successfully and according to plan. It was only after ’57 that things started to go wrong.
Orville Schell: This is when comrade MacFarquhar’s researches begin, with the Great Leap Forward.
Roderick MacFarquhar: I advocate you buying his book.
Andrew Walder: That’s alright, I took all the best parts out of his book and put it in my book.
Helen Goodkin: I’m Helen Goodkin, and I wondered if you could comment on how you think Xi will make decisions about Hong Kong and the need, the desire for greater democracy in Hong Kong.
Orville Schell: And I might add, what sorts of repercussions will that have on Taiwan?
Roderick MacFarquhar: None. Taiwan wrote off the kind of Hong Kong solution for themselves. The one country, two systems was originally devised for Taiwan, and Hong Kong was merely a way of showing Taiwan the water was warm. And they never accepted that. I think that the opening up that Deng Xiaoping promoted, and which has led in large part to the kind of economic success that China’s had so readily in the last 35 years, I think the opening up as we’ve discussed already is one of the Deng legacies which Xi Jinping wishes had been moved more in the direction of Deng’s critics at the time, like Chen Yun. But I think the other thing which he—during the Umbrella Revolution last autumn in Hong Kong—he must regret is the one china, two systems for Hong Kong. Because Hong Kong still, despite rumors of a journalistic push in the last couple days and so on, Hong Kong still has an incredible amount of freedom in terms of rule of law, in terms of the press, in terms of people being able to speak their minds, and demonstrate and so on. And I think Xi hates that. Because it’s not what he wants for China, and I think that what we are seeing in Hong Kong today—I spent the month of January in Hong Kong—is a gradual erosion. It has to be gradual because Hong Kong is still very important economically to China, Shanghai does not rival it in many ways. But a gradual erosion of what the Hong Kong people think they were given when they were promised Hong Kong people would run Hong Kong and it would be two systems and theirs would be different.
Angela Chou: Thanks. Angela Chou. I just had a quick question. In relation to the territorial waters around China, there seems to be a lot of clinging to the U.S. on security, in relation to regional countries around China. Yet at the same time, what’s stopping China from cooperating with these countries in relation to those territorial waters? Especially when it’s also established the Infrastructure Bank at the same time, trying to collaborate there. So where do you see the collaboration going in relation to the regional countries?
Orville Schell: So why create tension with your neighbors if you’re trying to collaborate? Susan that has your name on it.
Susan Shirk: Well, I mean most of Chinese foreign policy in the post-Mao era has been pretty successful in reassuring its neighbors that it is not a threat, it is growing more powerful but its intentions are benign. And of course China has become the hub of an increasingly integrated Asian region, economic region. So it’s the major, the top trading partner for almost all of its neighbors. So it’s really these sovereignty disputes that have triggered the tension with Japan, the tension in the South China Sea with the number of ASEAN, Southeast Asian claimants. There was a lot of tension with South Korea when China did not criticize North Korean attacks on South Korea, but they seem to have worked their way out of that problem, and have quite good relations with South Korea. So I’d say most of China’s regional diplomacy has been pretty successful, but by elevating these sovereignty disputes to be the number one consideration, looks like it’s a way to do several things domestically. One, keep the military loyal. You know, this is this kind of fiery, nationalist mission that the military really likes, and Xi Jinping right now is trying to get control over the military. The second is the nationalist public. You know, they really care a lot about this. Well, they didn’t actually in the South China Sea until just 2008, 2009, when a lot of bureaucracies thought they would build up their budgets by making trouble in the South China Sea and getting a lot of the public to pay attention to this issue. But now, it’s a hot button issue. And that’s something that whenever . . . if Xi Jinping could stabilize the situation, of course it would be really good for China. But would it be good for him as a politician?
Roderick MacFarquhar: The other foreign policy issue which I’ll just bring up because it’s been in the news very recently, the Indian Prime Minister’s visited China. It is noticeable that both when the Chinese Prime Minister visited India a couple years ago and when Xi Jinping visited not so long ago, there were major border incursions. And in my view, those border incursions do not occur because some major or colonel decides ‘Oh, I’m going to have a little fun with the Indians today.” It happens because China is saying to India “you’re not going to straighten this border out without some concessions.”
Orville Schell: So maybe just finally, why don’t you give us some thoughts about what you think, what you hope readers will take away from your book, that will help them kind of understand what’s going on now, and how the legacy of Mao continues to work its way out in China.
Andrew Walder: Well, I hope they’ll take away from it how utterly different China today is from where it was at the time Mao passed away. And how utterly different actually the political system, which looks the same on paper, how utterly different the way in which it operates. That was an era of revolution, where revolution did not end in 1949, it had just begun. And Mao continued to behave like a revolutionary. The most distinctive thing about Mao, as a communist, he’s the only 20th-century communist that called upon his own people to attack the system that he had created.
Orville Schell: The Communist Party.
Andrew Walder: Yeah, he’s the only one. And that was a legacy that the current leadership is trying to bury, and paper over, and cover. And he’s become an icon for patriotism, stability, and national strength. But that’s not what he was about. Mao was very willing, he said, “There can be no construction without destruction,” and he acted on that throughout his life. And so one of the reasons that I’ve written the book . . . I mean, it’s based on a course that I’ve taught over the years starting in . . . the first time I taught this course was in 1983, at Columbia. And at least half of the students who have taken my classes over the years have been students from China. And I’ve seen several generations cycle through. The first generation, I couldn’t teach them anything about China because they’d all been sent down to the countryside and many of them were Red Guards. But as the decades have gone, you said we’ve been around the track a few times, as you’ve seen maybe two or three generations, some of them, the most interested students in my classes are the ones from China. I tell them a story about a period which is well before they were born that they don’t hear in full color in their education courses in China.
Orville Schell: It’s interesting that you have to come to Stanford to learn Chinese history.
Andrew Walder: Well, they could get into Harvard too, but . . . To my mind, it’s exploring the darkness, the pain that was created in that period doesn’t do anything in my mind to undermine what the system has accomplished since then. You can take it both ways. Anyway, I just hope to restore . . . Mao is now, his face is on the national currency. When he was alive, workers and farmers were on the national currency.
Orville Schell: Is that progress?
Andrew Walder: I don’t know, but you can go to China now and I go to these theme restaurants where the red guards are singing and dancing, and I’m sitting here thinking this is like “Springtime for Hitler” in a way. And if people knew what was actually going on then . . . they need to be reminded.
Orville Schell: Well okay, I think we'll have to leave it here. So thank you all for coming, and thank you three for joining us.
—This program was transcribed by Gavin Cross.