Is Mao Still Dead?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Comrade Mao, whether he was crossing 'a sea of surging waves' or scaling 'a mountain pass impregnable as iron' always held unwaveringly to his course, setting a shining example for the Chinese Communist Party.” —Xi Jinping

“‘These mountains so decorated / Look even more beautiful today. We have blazed a shining path, and we must continue to press onward.’ This Marxist viewpoint, combined with Chinese ideals and fighting spirit, will fire our hearts as we advance bravely and tirelessly down the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, toward our dream of igniting a renaissance for the Chinese people.” —Xi Jinping quoting Mao Zedong’s poem “Dabodi,” about the landscape after a battle between Communists and Nationalists in 1929.

Strengthening ideological education on university campuses plays a strategic role in consolidating and tempering Party leadership in higher education, thoroughly implementing the Party’s educational principles, and ensuring the continued existence of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is of profound importance for cementing Marxism’s position as an ideological guiding force and as the common ground for the united struggle of the Party and the people of China.” —Yuan Guiren, Minister of Education

It has long been standard operating procedure for China’s leaders to pay tribute to Mao. Even as the People’s Republic he wrought has embraced capitalist behavior with ever more heated ardor, the party he founded has remained firmly in power and his portrait has stared out over Tiananmen Square toward the squat building where his body reposes peacefully at the heart of a country he would scarcely recognize. But since Xi Jinping’s arrival at the helm, Mao’s words have seemed to reverberate more loudly. From the rejection of liberalism that colors the internal Party directive known as Document 9, to Education Minister Yuan Guiren’s recent speech demanding an “ideological campaign,” to Xi’s own speeches which seem to reference Mao and Marx far more often than his predecessors', Chinese politics under Xi seem to have taken a hard ideological turn. How significant is this phenomenon and what does it mean? Is Mao still dead? —The Editors


Mao is dead. Very dead. The indicator of how dead he is happens to be how much he is now cited as an “authority” for the most un-Maoist of endeavors. China is not undergoing a Maoist or even a Mao revival. It is undergoing a tragedy-to-farce progression (Marx, yes): Mao’s first coming was in many ways a tragedy, insofar as he tried to build socialism in China. He failed so miserably that he now can be called upon as an incantation to build a variety of viciously undemocratic capitalism that is so far from his own life endeavor that it would be farcically laughable if it weren’t so depressingly crass. If only, as Yuan Guiren advises, people were induced to read more Marx in a systematic fashion; out of such an historically-situated study, a genuinely critical perspective on contemporary China and the world might in fact be formulated. This, I suspect, is not Yuan’s purpose, however. The invocation and evocation of Mao or Marx in today’s China—whether by Xi Jinping or Yuan Guiren—has nothing to do with Maoism or Marxism, both of which, after all, provide some of the most potent critical positions on capitalism, injustice, inequality, and power. Rather, the invocation and evocation have to do with strengthening a centralized Party apparatus and its political-economic systems of domination, whose waning legitimacy in face of massive and systemic corruption can only be bolstered by ideological contortionism. Mao-era ideological control was about including all who would or could be included into a revolutionary-democratic mobilization that was not merely about the “rise of China” or the renaissance of the Chinese people, as such, but more important, such a mobilization was about the transformation—fānshēn 翻身—of an intertwined global and domestic system of inequality, whose rapaciousness threatened not only the survival but also the ethical, moral, and environmental possibilities of human life. The current nationalist reduction of Mao into a totem of a Chinese dream of national supremacy does as much violence to his systemic socialist project as he intended to do during the Cultural Revolution to the Party-centered hyper-bureaucracy that aspired to a monopoly on truth and social domination. These mutually-reinforcing violences do not cancel one another out; they just speak past each other in a void of ahistorical referencing. The documents in question, just as the quotes above, decontextualize Mao and anything he stood for. This is a hallowed rhetorical procedure by scholars, intellectuals, and politicians alike. It has nothing to do with Mao. He is quite dead.

Mao never died. He’s no more dead than Elvis… or Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet who was spotted by Allen Ginsberg “down by the watermelons” in a supermarket in California in 1955 (Wikipedia claims Lorca passed away in 1936). Yes, in November 1976, the newspaper Renmin Huabao published pictures of the funerary rites performed by the CCP in Tiananmen Square—pictures that Rod MacFarquhar and I reproduced in our book Mao’s Last Revolution—but even a little child can see that those grainy b&w photographs had been doctored. Mao’s wife had been airbrushed out, so who is to say that her husband had not been airbrushed in?

And who trusts the Communist Party media anyway? Ah, some of you may say, but Mao’s passing was also reported on NBC—the Network of America! Well, excuse me, shouldn’t we all know by now how to judge the credibility of our nightly news anchors? I’m not au fait with the credentials of Brian Williams’ predecessors, but here in Sweden those of his counterparts on what, prior to the 1980s, were our only two (state-owned) television channels never rated highly with my generation. I remember being devastated by the news of Bob Dylan’s death in a motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966 and confused but relieved when the poet, shortly thereafter, reappeared among the living.

Not surprisingly, when reports that Mao was not dead first surfaced in China in September 1976, they were immediately suppressed. Neither the state-run Xinhua News Agency nor the foreign media mentioned them. The author of a big-character poster entitled “Chairman Mao Is Really Not Dead!” put up in downtown Nanjing on September 28 that year was swiftly spirited away by the police and pronounced insane. (A declassified transcript of Wang Yilin’s big-character poster is available here.)

So let’s admit the obvious: we still do not know the full story behind the “death” of Chairman Mao and the simultaneous so-called “end” of his Cultural Revolution. Already in the winter of 1970–1971, as the tumultuous movement Mao had launched in 1966 was approaching its half-way mark, a news presenter with the BBC went on air speculating about “whether Mao Zedong is alive or not” and noting, with reference to the ten-year Cultural Revolution, that “Lin Biao has a stranglehold on the central committee which Liu Shaoqi can't break, so it remains to be seen whether Zhou Enlai can really get his finger out and get going in the second half.” (A full transcript of the broadcast is available here.)

There is plenty of evidence suggesting that Mao did indeed die in 1976. I would be happy to concede as much. Then again, in today’s charged atmosphere, when an offshoot of a serious educational organization such as the Asia Society asks “Is Mao Still Dead?” it just shows that there is still no total consensus among China watchers, scholars, and students. Some people—we have no way of knowing how many, or how few—continue to assert that Mao never died in the first place, while others now provocatively suggest that while he may well have died in 1976, he has since with the help of Xi Zhongxun come alive again! As a mere historian, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m happy to share what I know about those who believe Mao never died. Of those who believe we are witnessing Mao’s revival, I ask only in all fairness that you come forward and tell us what you know!

I interpret the revival of Maoism as a sign of Xi Jinping’s political vulnerability. He is engaged in the risky political endeavor of attacking corruption, meanwhile (and not so incidentally) cleaning house of political enemies and centralizing power. We don't know what his ultimate goals are for using this power - whether to make the political system more democratic, make it more authoritarian, open up the economy further or move it back toward greater state control, make the military less politicized, or more politicized. But in order to do any of these things, Xi has to face the risk of disruption from those inside the political and economic elite who will be hurt by the changes.

At such a sensitive moment, I see the revival of ideology as a rear-guard action to protect his flank against the liberal intellectuals, whose ideas are dangerously attractive. Such a rear-guard action is necessary precisely because nobody believes in Maoism. If the arguments of people like Liu Xiaobo or Xu Zhiyong were permitted to circulate, if the “seven topics that cannot be discussed” were to be discussed, they would gain adherents, because they make sense. This would present Xi with fires to put out that would distract him from his battles on the main front, against rivals within the elite. The message of ideology today, therefore, is not the ideology’s content, which is null, but its political signal, which is that this is not the time for intellectuals to challenge the regime.

Last I saw it, the line of visitors waiting to get into the Mao Mausoleum in Beijing was extremely long, thousands of people standing in the grimy air of Tiananmen Square waiting for a glimpse of their embalmed Great Helmsman. Nations need heroes and, for better or worse, Mao is China’s—never mind the capricious megalomania that was among his chief characteristics and that he destroyed literally millions of Chinese people.

And never mind also that China, as Rebecca Karl eloquently puts it, has become something that Mao would have abhorred—a deeply corrupt, greedy, and cynical oligarchy. The capitalist-roaders, as Mao and his Red Guard enforcers would have called them, are in power, even as they claim, for purposes of legitimacy, to be Mao’s heirs. And, moreover, it can’t be forgotten that among the changes that remain in place since Mao’s death is a far greater degree of personal freedom than Mao would have allowed.

China changes, becomes unrecognizable in so many ways, but it hasn’t relinquished everything of the Maoist period, especially the one-party state’s jealously guarded monopoly on power, the cult of the ruler, the deep suspicion of Western influence. In this regard Mao, though dead, lives on. Most of all, he stands for the repudiation of liberal ideas, for the perpetuation of a kind of imperial authoritarianism that goes back to Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor, the one who burned both books and buried scholars and was a shining model for Mao himself.

In other words, China not only doesn’t change entirely from the recent Maoist past; in important, fundamental ways, it doesn’t change from the distant imperial past either. Qin Shi Huang banned the use of history to criticize the present. Mao’s opening blow in the Cultural Revolution was Yao Wenyuan’s attack on Wu Han, whose play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office did exactly that. Now, among the many subjects banned by Xi Jinping is exactly the use of the past to comment on the present. Call it China’s culture wars. On the one side are those who wish to perpetuate the country’s three thousand year-old illiberal practices, as Mao himself so emphatically did. On the other are the journalists, the scholars, the students, the artists, and even, probably, officials in the government who yearn for something different, that something being a dose of western-style liberal-democracy. At the moment, Xi jinping and the forces of illiberalism have the upper hand, and Mao lives on through them. But if you believe, as I do, that the long arc of history bends, however slowly, toward freedom, their days are numbered, and so are Chairman Mao’s.

Mao’s China has contradictory legacies. Mao’s party-state copied a lot of techniques of power from Stalin’s Soviet Union, heavily relying on the repressive and bureaucratic apparatus to silence intellectuals and destroy careers and lives. But Mao’s party-state also departed from Stalin’s one in significant way. Besides top-down repression, Mao also resorted over and over again to mass mobilization to achieve social control, letting the zealous and even hysterical masses to help the Party exterminate its enemies. While the kulaks in the Soviet Union were taken care of by firing squads, China’s “landlords” and “rich peasants” were humiliated in public trials, many of which led to mob violence and death.

Mao’s preference for mass mobilization, added to his suspicion of a state bureaucracy over which had lost personal control, ignited the Cultural Revolution that created an unintended legacy yet to be fully understood. The experience of underprivileged kids, including those previously persecuted as bad elements, being encouraged to assault cadres and seize power from local party organs, must have generated a lasting impact and formed collective memories in Chinese society. Cadres' and their chindren's experience of being attacked by rebellious Red Guard factions must have planted the seed for a long-lasting nightmare of the party-state elite.

The big character posters and Mao portraits held up by workers during the 1989 uprisings, Cultural Revolution slogans chanted by laid-off workers in the 1990s, and the ferocity and agility of today’s grassroots protesters in seizing local government buildings and beating up hated cadres, must, on the one hand, trigger a sense of Cultural Revolution nostalgia. On the other hand, the deep fear of mass mobilization among all China's leaders after Mao, from Deng forward, can be traced back to that same period from 1966-1976.

China’s economic boom has now ended, and the ruling elite who have been tied their legitimacy to the buoyant economy appear to be extremely anxious about any social and political upheaval that a faltering economy could unleash. They invoke the totem of Mao as a desperate, traditional source of legitimization. But what they are doing—increasing bureaucratic control of ideology in media and universities and tightening the screw on civil society—manifests a Stalinist impulse rather than one echoing Mao’s mass mobilizations. Hu Jintao’s admiration of the North Korean model is no less than his praise of Mao. What the new generation leaders are reviving is Stalin disguised as Mao.

Or, if the supreme leaders are serious about reviving Mao, I would challenge them to do the following: instead of putting Zhou Yongkang, et al., in orchestrated courtroom trials, why not put them in popular trials at the now deserted Birds’ Nest stadium and mobilize all Beijing citizens to go and critique them in public? Instead of relying on the party disciplinary organs to take on corrupt officials, why not encourage the people to form civilian groups to investigate, question, and critique cadres at all levels? It surely would be interesting to see what would grow out of such genuinely Maoist approaches, if the leaders dared use them.

As a repertoire of leadership mechanisms, Mao’s political doctrines and techniques are alive and kicking among China’s cadre elites. They were never dead. They have only been ignored by many Western scholars and journalists who preferred to focus on purportedly unavoidable convergence with democracy, markets, civil society, or rule of law, as we understand them.

Xi Jinping is currently punctuating our Western confirmation biases by making explicit how starkly the trajectory and repertoire of governance techniques in China differs from Western expectations. The push-and-seize policy style that Elizabeth Perry and I tried to capture in the volume Mao’s Invisible Handhas become much more forceful under Xi Jinping than under any of his post-Mao predecessors. Mao era leadership experiences form the core of a “sinomarxist” (as the Swiss sinologist Harro von Senger calls it) methodology that has been openly reinforced under Xi Jinping. It consists of at least the following imperatives that are derived from the experience of Mao’s rule and guide Xi Jinping’s approach to party leadership:

  1. Identify the politically most-pressing contradictions and set the priorities for leadership work accordingly: from resolutely recentralizing domestic decision-making to patiently undermining U.S. leadership in international relations. Thinking in clusters of contradictions and using them as opportunities for political action was shaped by Mao. It still is the hallmark of Chinese “cadre dialectics”. Xi Jinping repeatedly explained how he uses this dialectical approach to make sense of the volatile world around him and set his priorities.
  2. Build up personalized autocratic power and even cultivate or tolerate a personality cult around the party chief. Concentrate power in informal, leader-driven organs of the Party Center. Principles of collective leadership must be cast aside to facilitate maximum decisiveness and flexibility. Launch forceful top-down policy pushes and campaigns to make it clear to everybody where the center of initiative and control is located.
  3. Push and seize resolutely:Do not work within or around existing institutional constraints and vested interests. Rather eliminate these constraints successively. Your agenda must be agency-oriented, not rules-based. It must be geared to overcoming the status quo through visible institutional and policy “breakthroughs”.
  4. Expose powerful comrades to sudden shocksby way of purges among their peers. Keep them all under the shadow of uncertainty and fear. Lightning from the party center can strike anyone at any time.
  5. Crush bureaucratic inertia and vested interests: Unsettle entrenched bureaucratic, regional and industrial interest groups through abrupt interventions and campaigns. Launch recurrent rounds of rectification and restructuring. Avoid it at all costs to become the captive of the administrative apparatus.
  6. Update the mass line: Harness social forces and manage social tensions actively. Create new supportive popular coalitions. Appeal to national pride, public morality and the popular longing for strong leadership. Never attack opposition elements all at once. Crush potential opposition through carefully targeted, successive waves of repression.
  7. Benefit from international hostile forces: Benefit from their strengths through selective cooperation, then push them back patiently one by one. Be always aware that your enemies work to subvert Communist Party rule. Use their expertise, investments and technology as long as you need them. Squeeze them out as soon as you have the means to do without them.
  8. Use all available technologies to shape and control public opinion actively.

For present-day Communist Party leaders, Mao still is the source to turn to in the face of a fast moving, fragile, and risky political and economic, domestic and international environment. A Mao-inspired dictatorial leadership style is based on secrecy, versatility, speed, and surprise. It exerts irresistible pressure and creates pervasive anxiety. The traditional risks of Mao-style leadership techniques are aggravated by novel technological means of mass control. The masses in Xi Jinping’s China are not anymore the "poor and blank" anonymous crowds that Mao saw as the ideal foundation of Communist Party rule. Xi Jinping’s reign tackles the many challenges it has to face through a combination of forceful push-and-seize leadership with novel information and communications technologies (ICT), instruments of mass surveillance and cyber control. Welcome to the Mao-inspired, ICT-backed Communist Party rule of the 21st century.

Mao lies a-mouldring in his tomb, but his soul and his body of work will keep marching on as long as the C.C.P. remains in power. In his attempts to keep out Western ideological influences, Xi has no rival ideology to use as a shield. Confucianism and Marxism-Leninism cannot be revived. Only Mao as hero-leader and leftist ideologue can withstand the sugar-coated bullets of the foreign bourgeoisie. A pox on the criticisms of him in the 1981 resolution on party history! Xi believes that attacks on Stalin and Lenin undermined the Soviet Union well before Gorby came to power, so there will be no tolerance for attacks on Mao. His life and legacy are surer legitimators of C.C.P. power than economic success which cannot always be guaranteed.

Is Mao dead? That we even feel the need to ask the question betrays part of the answer. Yes he’s dead, but more importantly, his legacy still exerts a profound influence on China, both in his continuing grassroots popularity and in the instruments of governance that the C.C.P. still uses—most of which have Mao’s fingerprints all over them.

While the recent uptick in Maoist sloganeering by Xi Jinping may be a calculated and cynical move to revitalize the moral legitimacy of the C.C.P., that he even believes it might work, speaks to Mao’s symbolic purchase with some sections of the Chinese population, even if it is “ahistorical referencing,” as Prof. Karl rightly points out.

And so, to me, a more important question is: how many people in China would like to see Mao return from the dead? I suspect that it's a larger portion of the population than we outside of the country realize. In the past decade, a large and expanding network of websites, independent intellectuals, members of the academy, aging cadres, and disaffected workers have been looking to Mao (the man, the thinker, and the politician) for solutions to China’s current dilemmas. Since the rise (and fall) of Bo Xilai in Chongqing, this network has gained strength, and now represents one of the strongest non-C.C.P. political movements in China. Travel around the United States and ask “Is Thomas Jefferson dead?” and you’re likely to find some who think yes, but I suspect an even larger number who think that the U.S. needs him now more than ever. And so I believe that with Mao’s legacy in today’s China we’re likely to see his oversized shadow loom for decades to come.

I just wanted to second something that Jude Blanchette raised in his comments. We may be underestimating the extent to which Mao retains considerable, even growing, popularity and mystique among the general Chinese population. As anyone who spends some time in certain Chinese Internet circles will realize, to many netizens—some rich, some poor—Mao represents national power and dignity, socioeconomic equality, and industrial progress, rather than the political witch-hunts, disastrous economic policymaking, and destructive ideological zeal that tend to occupy the Western intellectual imagination. The romanticizing of the Great Helmsman is particularly epidemic among younger Chinese, who, as many studies have shown, tend to indulge in greater doses of nationalism than their somewhat more disillusioned and jaded elders.

To say that they have got their history wrong is both somewhat true and largely beside the point. Most human societies, but especially nationalist ones, need glorified founding myths, and, for better or worse, the PRC is stuck with Mao (and perhaps Deng). So long as nationalism retains its ideological grip on large parts of Chinese society, the “idea of Mao” will live on, if only through increasingly distorted reincarnations. It is not merely the Party that constantly reinvents and re-imagines Mao, but the people as well.

China continues to wrestle with fundamental issues of governance and development! Deng Xiaoping took the risk of overthrowing Mao’s “great leader,” Party-controlled, top-down, ideological leadership through pragmatic policies of economic development and opening China to the world. The result was China’s dramatic economic takeoff, along with unwanted issues of corruption, pollution, and the younger generation’s growing alienation from Communist Party rule. The consequence: the shock of the Tiananmen demonstrations. The Party leadership split. Reformers led by Zhao Ziyang were out.

Deng’s use of force to maintain Party control was offset by the effects of continuing economic growth—but with more corruption, pollution, and further public alienation from the Party. The public acquiesced to the political discipline of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in the context of higher living standards. The Party sustained frantic efforts to maintain annual growth rates above 7%.

Then, a second shock to C.C.P. control: The collapse of the demoralized Soviet Communist Party and dissolution of the U.S.S.R. This shock, along with the not-to-be-spoken of legacy of Tiananmen, continues to haunt and shape Xi Jinping’s approach to governance. Mao still lives to the degree that Xi is working to re-establish the discipline and morale of the Party through his personalized anti-corruption efforts, ideological education, and the “seven nos” campaign to stigmatize Western values and conceptions of governance.

The other dimension of Xi’s leadership is “Maoist” to the degree that he is trying to regain control of the Chinese “masses,” who have been mobilized “from below” for more than three decades through economic activity and openness to the world. The information revolution—the Internet, cell phones— has been central to this mobilization (as in most other societies around the world). Xi now seeks to constrict this openness and regain political control through censorship, ideological education and nationalist appeals (of which the territorial assertions in the East and South China Seas are a part).

Where does this leave China under Xi Jinping. He is pursuing internally contradictory policies: On the one hand he is trying to regain political control and discipline through a “Maoist” political effort that promotes hostility to the outside world even as he needs sufficient international stability and engagement to sustain the country’s economic growth. He wants creative intellectuals and an innovative economic system even as he restricts intellectual openness at home and to the world. He wants political discipline from a population that has enjoyed the economic and intellectual benefits of international engagement.

How these “contradictions” will be resolved will be the great drama of China’s politics and economic development in the coming decade or two. Xi’s “China dream” is of an ancient empire regaining past glories of a materially well-off society that is politically stable under “great leader” rule; an imperial country that is the preeminent power in its region. Yet today’s “masses” are not illiterate peasants, and the countries of the Indo-Pacific region are unlikely to pay acquiescent tribute to a resurgent China. Xi Jinping’s dream may become a nightmare of another cycle of repressive rule, economic instability, and confrontation with its neighbors.

Mao was dead but is enjoying a resurrection in China.

While former Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao walked a fine line, paying homage to Mao as patriarch without championing Mao-style governing practices, President Xi Jinping has looked to Mao for inspiration to manage the country. He launched rectification and mass line campaigns to fight corruption and restore grassroots support and revived the tradition of self-criticism sessions in which cadres pillory each other's failings. Describing Mao as “a great figure who changed the face of the nation and led the Chinese people to a new destiny,” Xi wants not only to emulate Mao's vigorous style to sweep away corruption but also become a strongman like Mao in Chinese history.

Xi’s reiteration of Mao’s practices has helped him consolidate power partially because many Chinese still hold dear Mao’s ideals. While many Westerners judge Mao as a despot of the 20th century like Hitler and Stalin, Mao still enjoys primarily positive popularity in China. Mao is printed on China’s currency (RMB) and appears regularly in Chinese TV dramas and movies. His ginormous portrait overlooks Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and his huge statue features the city center of Shengyang. His favorite dishes are flogged in popular restaurants named after him.

Because the government has rigorously guarded Mao's legacy by banning publication about and teaching of the parts of P.R.C. history under Mao that led to human suffering and disasters, Chinese youth typically know little or nothing about how many people were sentenced to hard labor in the anti-rightist campaign, how many people died of starvation in the Great Leap Forward, and how many people were wrongly accused, beaten to death, or were driven to committing suicide during the Cultural Revolution. Mao is a national hero who founded the People's Republic, stood up to foreign imperial powers and ended a century of humiliation.

The feeling is shared by some older people. Amid today's chronic corruption and widening income disparity, Mao as a megalomaniac who launched the Cultural Revolution and other violent political campaigns during their youth seems very distant from China’s present-day reality. Many of China's elderly, especially those from the bottom social strata who did not benefit much from the country's economic boom, miss Mao’s reign and have become nostalgic for the Mao era, which they have romanticized as more socially fair and morally pure. Mao represents a simpler time before China became so money-obsessed and people began to believe in nothing but personal gain.

In a strange twist of fate, although Mao eliminated all form of private capital in China, he now enjoys a deified status among many of the self-made rich elite because, according to one account, they admire Mao’s tenacity and his ability to turn weakness into strength. They worship Mao as a God. In a visit to Mao’s hometown, Shaoshan, in 2014, I was amazed to watch local wealthy Chinese in flashy Mercedes hire uniformed guards to march with them to lay flowers and wreaths in front of a giant copper status of Mao.

Mao is not dead—his ghost continues to haunt China.

The stamp of the Maoist era still weighs heavily on China’s “political-legal” system—police, procuracy and courts. All are intertwined with the party hierarchy, party officials are embedded in each, and at every level of jurisdiction a Political-Legal Committee operates to assure that party policy is carried out.

As President Xi Jinping calls for loyalty to Marxism and to the memory of Chairman Mao, Party dominance is being asserted by a vigorous campaign to punish activists who endorse political reform.

Xi is speaking, however, to a Chinese society that has outgrown Marxism, while other voices have begun to press for legal reform. Despite the rhetorical bombast of neo-Maoist jargon, there is movement around the edges of policy to carry out legal reform. Documents issued by the Central Committee of the party have endorsed some improvements that include the following:

  • Local government and Party officials must be prevented from intervening in the work and decisions of the courts, which should no longer be financed locally, but rather by higher levels;
  • When judges’ performance is assessed, the criteria used will be revised to make evaluation more appropriate for their profession than the current system, which is much like the one used for administrative cadres;
  • New circuit courts have been created to hear cross-provincial administrative and commercial cases, thereby aiming to reduce the influence of “local protectionism;”
  • Litigation procedures must be changed to improve procedural justice, as by increasing the role of lawyers and witness testimony in open trials;
  • The internal procedures used to decide cases which are deemed to be important or difficult should be revised, because currently trial judges do not decide the final outcomes, which must be approved by a more senior judge who did not participate in the trial or the court’s “adjudication committee” of senior judges.
  • In addition, a new Administrative Procedure Law broadens the grounds on which plaintiffs can challenge administrative acts and makes it easier for plaintiffs to sue.

These are examples of proposed or actual changes that have been made to improve the quality of justice, which remains threatened by corruption, guānxi (personal connections) and leadership anxiety about threats to “social stability.” It is impossible to predict whether and to what extent these reforms will be effectively implemented. The task is all the more difficult because it is necessarily touches on political reform.

If reform was not attractive to some, “constitutionalism” would not be first on the list of the “seven topics that cannot be discussed,” as Andrew Nathan has noted. Advocates must proceed cautiously amidst the present barrage of Maoist rhetoric, which sooner or later must yield to concrete policies to reform Chinese governance.

One would have to be comatose not to see reflections of earlier days in some of today’s emanations from China. The Works of President Xi Jinping packaged in apparent duplication of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong; the ghastly echoes of the Cultural Revolution in recent calls for the ideological cleansing academia and the think tanks; the obsequious protestations of fealty to the leader from some prominent figures, e.g. in the military; the thundering music and machined choreography of numberless TV entertainments on patriotic themes. And so on.

But the rhetorical question “Is Mao Really Dead?” doesn’t really provoke answers as much as broader reflections.

First, which Mao? The Mao of the New Democracy? The Mao of the Cultural Revolution? The Mao of collectivization and communization? For each example, each reader can look at the China of Xi Jinping and decide yes or no.

Second, are we today seeing Mao redux or something broader? Perhaps a more generalized effort by present-day leaders of the successor states to collapsed empires? See, for example, Turkish President Erdogan’s decision to require the teaching of Ottoman Turkish in all schools. “Erdogan defended the move by explaining that learning Ottoman, an older version of Turkish written the in Arabic script and used in the Ottoman Empire up into the early twentieth century, would help citizens ‘reconnect with their past.’”

Third, are we looking at Mao or Lenin? It doesn’t require lengthy analysis to remember how much of C.C.P. behavior still derives directly from Lenin and the U.S.S.R. (Oh—I forgot; Lenin was a Westerner; oh, well, maybe Lenin provides “principles” and “tactics,” not “values.” But then, uh, there’s Marx…) In any event, Mao and Maoism, in spite of its suffocating self-reference, didn’t exist in a vacuum.

Fourth, do we see other key elements of what we think of as Maoism.?. Class struggle? Uh-uh. The peasantry as a political base? Nope. An assault on private ownership? No again.

Fifth, what about history? Mao and the CCP came out of the early 20th century upheaval against the incubus of China’s historical and cultural tradition. Though he once wrote “Use the past for the present,” most of Mao’s energies were spent blasting at deeply entrenched—and degraded—patterns of thinking, of social behavior, and of governance. And, whatever else we might excoriate Mao for, it’s hard to deny that China by 1949 was buried in accumulated cultural and political rubble.

President Xi Jinping’s approach to the past, at least from what China displays to its people and to the world, is very different. He points the populace to China’s Classical Era, and especially to his regime’s conjured vision of Confucius himself, not so much for a complete corpus of contemporary behavioral rules as for a taproot of a 21st century living civilization undergoing tumultuous rearrangement. Backed by his Party’s immense propaganda apparatus, he invokes the approved version of the past, with no sign of Mao’s heaving rejectionism.

But the embrace of China’s past as the rallying point for China’s modern identification has its limits. Unlike President Erdogan, for example, there is no sign of an intention to restore the use of the original, complex characters in China’s traditional written language, which defined Chinese civilization itself until the mid-20th century and are still in use in Greater China outside of the P.R.C.

Sixth, the world. Mao linked up with the U.S.S.R., in spite of the early disillusionments of the 1920s and 1930s, when the C.C.P. took power in 1949, and the imprint of the U.S.S.R. remains vivid, though diminished, even today. But the love affair (or, perhaps, marriage of convenience) with Moscow was over by 1959—only a mere decade, a moment in time as we now look back on nearly seven decades of P.R.C. history. Thereafter, Mao’s China pretty much went its own way, supporting armed revolution here and there, claiming leadership of an amorphous Third World, but primarily pursuing autarkic “Self Reliance.”

That bears little resemblance to the China of Xi Jinping—or, for that matter, of Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, or Deng Xiaoping himself. Xi Jinping’s China might be throwing its weight around in its neighborhood, but Xi directs at other states none of the universalist ideological claims that Mao and his acolytes regularly launched. A continuum of Chinese leaders since Deng have integrated China into global institutions, at times forcing the amendment of domestic behaviors to comport (however imperfectly) with externally-prescribed standards and norms.

Here again, of course, outsider observers peer nervously into the crystal ball, in the face of certain trends in Xi Jinping’s China that could augur for a darker Chinese encounter with established global practices in the future. But leaping to the dark conclusion is more than premature; it is, at present, unwarranted. To take one example, while the persistent campaign (predating Xi’s ascendance) for “indigenous innovation,” and Xi-era calls for the rejection of certain Western technologies in favor of substitutes developed within China, unquestionably manifests a growing tendency toward “techno-nationalism,” it would be ludicrous to suggest that this, or any other economic trend in today’s China, represents a return to the almost mystical economic isolationism of a Maoist China that is, in fact, gone forever.

Note From the Editors of ChinaFile: The following contribution was sent us by a Chinese reader of ChinaFile in Chinese and is a tongue-in-cheek offering written as if it were from the brush of the Great Helmsman himself. Mao’s "thought," as many of those who have contributed to this discussion acknowledged (each in their own way), has had a far more durable, if not immortal presence in contemporary Chinese political life than many who initially fell under the influence of Deng Xiaoping's reforms might first have been inclined to acknowledge.

Note From the Source of this Email from "Mao": Some ChinaFile followers may question the authenticity of our source text and insist that it is merely a clever forgery. In support of our decision to regard it as both authentic and genuine, we wish to cite no less an authority on Mao than the late Stuart Schram, who wrote in a “Note on the texts” in his now classic anthology Mao Tse-tung Unrehearsed: Talks and Letters 1956–71 that Mao’s writings “in their scope, pungency, and verve… are beyond the powers of any forger to invent.”

Today the celestial edition of Reference Materials carried translated extracts from your ChinaFile Conversation 'Is Mao Still Dead?.' The content [of the conversation] is very vivid and touches on matters of principle. The issue of how, in 1976, I came close to not dying [sic]* has so far never been discussed in this fashion. Roderick MacFarquhar and young Schoenhals are particularly perspicacious, and their analysis is not bad. Li Gu of the Han dynasty said 'A great reputation is truly hard to live up to,' and that’s just how I see myself.



Letter to the Editor from ‘Mao Zedong’

美国纽约《中参馆》:今天天堂版《参考资料》载贵馆所编 “毛还是死了的吗?” 的笔谈摘译,内容很生动,又带原则性。我于一九七六年差点没死的问题,像你们现在这样讲法,过去还没有过,特别是马若德和小沈两个人很能看出问题,分析得很不错。汉人李固说“盛名之下,其实难副”,这两句,正是指我。我收到马克思的请帖,已经三十九年了。天堂消息很灵通,每天参阅材料、情报,都是很有兴味的。看样子,我党经过多少错误路线的教育才逐步走上正轨,并且至今还有问题,即对内对外都有大国沙文主义,仍须加以克服。...

Thirty-nine years have passed since I received my invitation from [Karl] Marx. Here in heaven, we are quite well-informed. Every day, I study reports and intelligence [from earth] and find them quite engrossing. It would seem as if our party had to learn from innumerable mistakes in line before gradually managing to get on the right track. To this very day, problems remain. We still have to overcome our domestic and international great-nation chauvinism. Back in 1970 I told my American friend [Edgar] Snow: 'You keep saying all these positive things about China, but I don’t agree. Two things are locked in struggle, one is progressive, and the other is backward.' I’m not happy with China’s progress and I never have been. Of course, I have also said in the past that it’s not as if there hasn’t been progress. When we compare the present to what things were like thirty some years ago, we have to admit there has been some progress. After all, more than thirty years have passed!

My revolutionary comrades-in-arms, including comrade [Xi] Zhongxun, and I have always shared the same attitude toward the 'death' mentioned in your [rubric] 'Is Mao Still Dead?.' But I did point out early on with respect to the word [death/dead/to die–Transl.] that death can vary in significance depending on changing historical circumstances and conditions. In my sentence 'to die for the exploiters and oppressors' [in Serve the People, (1944)–Transl.] the word as such carries no other meaning than human death. However, in my 1971 instruction, to send China’s table tennis team to a competition in Japan, in which I said 'Our team should go, and we should be prepared to see some players die, though for none to die would be even better,' the same word implies something different altogether. This truth is one I ask you to note. The mastery of language is not easy and requires painstaking effort. We are all equal in the eyes of the God of Death. How could I be any different?

*Translator’s note: I have in the present extraordinary context translated what "Mao" is saying literally. Normally, the native speaker’s idiomatic turn of phrase chà diǎn méi sǐ (in which the negation méi serves no other purpose than to mitigate a linguistic taboo attached to explicit references to human death) should be translated as “came close to dying.”