“It’s Too Convenient to Say That Xi Jinping Is a Second Mao”

A Q&A with Chun Han Wong

The Chinese Communist Party, an organization of over ninety million members, remains opaque to many outsiders, even within China. Wall Street Journal reporter Chun Han Wong spent years in Beijing documenting social, political, and economic changes as General Secretary Xi Jinping consolidated his power over the Party and country. Last year, Wong published Party of One, a portrait of the organization that rules China, and the man who rose to its top. Xi emerges in the book as a prisoner of the Party, and its history, as much as he is its leader. Wong spoke with Nick Frisch, a research fellow at Yale. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Nick Frisch: What misconceptions were you hoping this book would address?

Chun Han Wong: Talking about what kind of person Xi Jinping is, what he is trying to do, many people reach for this easy and simplistic reference to Mao Zedong. They just say Xi Jinping is doing a Mao. This comparison needs to be qualified. We do see some of the slogans, some of the tactics that we saw in the Mao era. But it’s too convenient to say that Xi Jinping is a second Mao, or Xi Jinping took this or that out of the Mao playbook. Of course there is some truth to the Mao comparison. Xi had little real education. His true education, throughout his early life, was political education. As a child, he had a front row seat to political drama, to Communist Party intrigue. He consistently learned up close how power was exercised, how power struggles evolve, the impact they can have on people. His own family suffered the negative consequences of such events.

But there are also important influences that not many observers note, and in my book I want to highlight those. Xi’s tactics have other influences. For example, [Mao’s rival Party leader] Liu Shaoqi, who was the arch Party-builder. Liu really believed in internal discipline, internal propaganda, internal political education. Liu wanted to ensure the Leninist hierarchy of the Party remained strong. Mao, by contrast, mobilized normal people to destroy the Party from the outside. This is something Xi Jinping would never do. The Party is his one true vehicle of power, the one instrument he has for implementing his vision. Xi is only powerful if the Communist Party is powerful. Xi’s internal purges, the internal Party inquisitions, emphasis on discipline, that’s from Liu Shaoqi. Xi Jinping doesn’t proclaim that theme loudly in public, but you can tell from the way he does things. Mao wouldn’t have done it that way.

Xi was born when the Party was a revolutionary movement that had just taken power. Now the Party has been a ruling institution for decades. How has the Party evolved over his lifetime?

It all goes back to Xi’s upbringing during the Mao era. Mao’s mobilizational approach, leaning heavily on ideology and messages, caused a lot of internal discord, dysfunction, violence. It was not good governance. We all know the worst excesses of the Mao era: the anti-Rightist campaign [in 1957], the Great Leap Forward [starting in 1958], the famine that resulted [killing an estimated 30 million people]. For the first two or three decades of the People’s Republic, Party rule was not conducive to nation-building, to what was envisioned before 1949. Much time passed between then and when Xi took power. His ideas of good governance would have been shaped by seeing what didn’t work during his childhood.

The years after Mao, the boom years, the Reform [and Opening] era [under Deng Xiaoping, from 1978], also had problems. Xi Jinping was reacting to those problems, trying to strike a balance between the two extremes. There was too much revolution in the early years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and then, in the decades before Xi took power, things went too far the other way [with corruption and disorder accompanying fast economic growth]. Party policy had swung too far towards development. Problems festered, to the point where the Party was struggling to control them. Xi wants to find an in-between: delivering good governance and economic results, but also with effective Party structures so top leaders can effectively execute their vision, rein in vested interests, and get all organs of the Party pointed in the same direction. That means ramping up the Leninist aspects of internal Party management.

You will often see [Xi’s] administration promulgating new rules and regulations, laws, Party guidelines. In the National People’s Congress, we haven’t historically seen such levels of legislative work. They have put down in black and white a lot of these things that might not have been considered necessary to say explicitly before, prescribing exemplary behavior for both citizens and Party members. Dangji [党纪, Party discipline] is stricter than guofa [国法, national law]. Party regulations are far more restrictive as a code of behavior. Some of the biggest changes introduced under Xi include new disciplinary regulations, clarifying processes, and penalties. In 2015, for example, he introduced this regulation against wangyi Zhongyang [妄议中央, speaking out of turn, or rashly, against the Party Center]. There is no room for freelancing when discussing matters of the Party Center.

How important is ideology today? 10 or 15 years ago, Marxism in China was considered a bit passé, almost a joke.

If you mean ideology like Marxist-Leninism, Party members have to be conversant with that, at least superficially. In 2018, on the [200th] anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, Xi led a propaganda push to study the Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital, those early communist writings. People said, “Xi Jinping is leaning into the hardcore stuff.” He was, it’s true, the first leader in a long time to invest so much public effort in getting people to read such things. But in my experience, talking to people within the system, looking at the reading materials for their mandatory political study sessions, the people themselves are not necessarily ideological. They’re not studying it like academics, not engaging like a graduate student. That is not required. What is required is that people show their willingness to study. What really matters day-to-day is not so much Marx, but Xi Jinping Thought. That is the number one thing for these regular political study sessions that Party members must attend, whether ordinary SOE [state-owned enterprise] Party members or senior Politburo members.

Reading Xi Jinping Thought, there’s nothing essentially Marxist or Leninist about it. A lot of it is just about what makes China a strong country, and the things we must deliver to make China the great nation that we know it is. The student’s ability to regurgitate the mantras is key. Xi’s ideological emphasis is not so much making people good Marxists, it’s making people good cogs in the Leninist machine, showing willingness to participate in these rituals.

What are Xi’s economic policies? For decades, the Chinese state prioritized growth. Now, there’s concern that has changed.

From Xi’s perspective, he is not saying that we should not have growth, but he would argue that the growth China had was too focused on raw numbers, the blind pursuit of more GDP that doesn’t take into consideration distribution of wealth, benefit to the majority of people. You can argue there are elements of his Maoist upbringing that influence him: He frequently cites Maoist slogans about “common prosperity,” making sure that Chinese society is more egalitarian. He calls upon that spirit and nostalgia.

What Xi is trying to do is steer China closer to what it professes to be: a socialist state. It aspires to be a modern socialist power. Socialism, he’s actually serious about it. It’s not cynical. He believes China should be a more equal society. He thinks China has gone too far in one direction over the last few decades, and wants to recalibrate. He’s not an economist, so he sets the direction and entrusts delivery to his underlings. Xi Jinping doesn’t want to destroy the economy. He has gone to lengths to offer reassurances to the private sector, but signals that the private sector cannot blindly pursue its own narrow interests.

Because of how this message was implemented, a lot of private entrepreneurs and foreign investors are scared. They are realizing he’s serious. Private entrepreneurs are now rounded up for doing things that in the past the authorities would have tolerated or even actively encouraged. For a long time, foreign investors were welcomed with open arms. Now, they are expected to recognize that foreigners are guests of China, they’re on China’s terms. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic [and Xi’s draconian pandemic management policies], where we saw the extent to which he’s willing to ride roughshod over private sector interests, many people are finally thinking they can’t work with this.

In China’s foreign policy, observers have noted a shift from Deng Xiaoping’s low-key “hide and bide” stance to a more assertive “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Is this one of Xi’s signature policies?

That shift started before Xi. Even under Hu Jintao, there were signs that China was trying to assert itself more abroad. In terms of economic statecraft, we saw use of trade pressure to exert leverage before Xi, for example with Norway [the suspension of salmon imports after Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010]. Elements of “wolf warrior” diplomacy were visible in moments when Chinese diplomats were truculent and brash about “core interests” like Tibet, when the Dalai Lama was at the peak of global prominence and influence. Under Xi, you see these displays more often on a wider range of issues. Chinese diplomats are taking up Xi’s spirit of struggle, using harsh language.

In diplomacy broadly, Xi himself is also leading from the front. He is the most traveled PRC leader ever, and he has welcomed the most foreign visitors to Beijing, at a greater frequency than any predecessor. He has invested more money in diplomatic outreach. The foreign affairs budget has increased; there are more Chinese embassies and consulates around the world than before. It flows from Xi’s core political agenda.

What kind of legacy does Xi want to leave?

Only he truly knows. I think you can take him at face value when he talks about things like the “China Dream” and the “Two Centenaries” goals [for certain policy achievements by the 100th anniversaries of the Party’s founding in 1921, and the PRC’s founding in 1949]. Often, these slogans are vague and amorphous goals, so you can never really fail, you can always redefine them.

Xi probably wants to be remembered as someone who restored China to its rightful place in the world, whatever that might mean in terms of concrete achievements. The general vibe—and he has already delivered on this part—is a China that gets global attention, a China that is recognized by governments around the world as an important political and economic power, and that is dealt with as such. You could even spin the perceived negatives of “wolf warrior” diplomacy as positives, because if the West is taking China seriously, then you know China is strong, because China is seen as a threat.

There are other issues where the legacy might be more mixed, domestic issues where Xi has set expectations of delivery and hasn't quite gotten there. Poverty alleviation, anti-corruption—those are as close to being clear victories as he has.

Then there are other things that you can’t dress up despite best efforts, like the Xiong’an economic region [south of Beijing], which hasn’t really taken off. The Belt and Road Initiative is not exactly a failure, but is not the resounding achievement that Xi would have liked. It will persist, but the limits of these projects, the limits of Xi’s ambitions, are becoming apparent. Some things you cannot will into reality.

There is a saying that Mao Zedong achieved jianguo [建国, founding the new Chinese republic], Deng Xiaoping fuguo [富国, enriching China], and Xi has presided over qiangguo [强国, strengthening China]. If we say Xi’s objectives are for China to be economically powerful, militarily powerful, internationally respected, you can argue he’s done much of these three elements, especially the last two.

A major part of legacy is succession. How much more time does Xi want on the job? When will he feel satisfied he did his best? It’s a dynamic problem, it’s not just about what you achieved, it’s about whether you can find someone to carry forward your vision. Xi has seen himself what happens when succession is botched.

Then there is Taiwan. This is one of those things everyone has an opinion on, but only Xi himself can answer. We’ve heard many anecdotes from people who have been in meetings with him, talked to him about Taiwan. He seems to hold this issue more closely and passionately than his recent predecessors. The language he uses creates a sense of urgency. But the realities of the situation are difficult. There’s a reason why Mao Zedong didn’t do it. There’s a reason why Deng Xiaoping didn’t do it.

The gap in relative strength of militaries across the Taiwan strait is big and probably going to grow bigger [in Beijing’s favor]. The sense of identity among people on Taiwan is drifting far from being “Chinese” or identifying with the mainland. This drift is a trend you can’t really reverse without taking military and political control of Taiwan. It’s not something you can change by force of will. Many issues in Taiwan now are seen through the lens of Beijing influence, so the more Xi does, the more it’s perceived negatively. In this respect, I don’t think Xi and the Party are better positioned than before. It’s arguably worse. You could put some of this on Xi himself. Can you resolve that peacefully? It’s hard to see. Is the alternative plausible? If you use force to take Taiwan back, that’s jeopardizing your achievements for 1.4 billion people on the mainland. The conditions for a war of choice undertaken by Xi are, at this moment, hard to foresee. You could end up in a war by accident, the lesser option of seizing Taiwan’s outlying islands [closer to the mainland China coast], or a blockade, to take political control by force.