Mao Wished He Could Upend the World Order. Does Xi?

In his October 18 speech opening the 19th Party Congress, Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping cautiously embraced the future. Eyeing thousands of Party delegates, Xi spoke for three-and-a-half hours about turning China into a “great modern socialist country.” Yet, he claimed China would not get there until sometime between now and 2050.The foreign policy section of his speech was deeply conciliatory: peppered with predictable phrases like “peaceful coexistence,” “win-win,” and “non-interference,” it emphasized trade, cooperation, and joint effort to overcome challenges like poverty and terrorism. Xi, however, shrunk from the central question: should China try to seize global leadership?

Unlike Xi, China’s founding Chairman Mao Zedong had an answer to this question. The Chinese revolution against class enemies and hostile foreign forces, he believed, was only the beginning. The rest of the world would soon rise up against Western domination—and Mao stood ready to take the lead. Sixty years ago, in one of the most important speeches of his life, Mao asserted that the balance of forces on the world stage had irrevocably changed. The new configuration of forces would open China’s path to glory, and Mao’s to global leadership—or so he thought. It did not work out that way. Instead, China succumbed to chaos, misery, and civil strife. By the late 1960s, Beijing’s international influence was at a low point.

Mao’s failed bid for leadership holds important clues to China’s trajectory on the world stage. It shows why Xi publicly errs on the side of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s caution against Mao’s assertiveness. Over the last year, possibly encouraged by ongoing chaos in Washington, Xi has raised his own global profile by speaking internationally on subjects like free trade and climate change. But it’s almost as if he does it in spite of himself, like trying on someone else’s shoes. As Xi said in his speech, “China will continue to play its part as a major and responsible country.” But that was all. Hardly a statement of ambition to lead the world. Xi’s caution is justified.



Why Do We Keep Writing About Chinese Politics As if We Know More Than We Do?

Jessica Batke & Oliver Melton
In the coming weeks, every major Western newspaper and many top China analysts will be making strong claims about Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s political position in the wake of the 19th Party Congress. These reports will build off years of tea-leaf...

Although commentators inside and outside of China often compare the two men, Mao would probably have scoffed at the comparison. Xi is a Party bureaucrat who slowly climbed the career ladder to imperial heights. He values order and control. Mao, though, was a philosopher and a revolutionary who sought struggle and chaos.

Mao brandished those values in November 1957, when he visited the Soviet Union to attend an international conference of Communist parties. It was his second time in Moscow, and unlike his first visit in 1949, when he turned up as Joseph Stalin’s poor relative, this time Mao was the star. He received the best room in the Kremlin. He was wined and dined, and treated to displays of respect and admiration. “Look at how differently they are treating us now,” Mao told his personal doctor. “Even in this communist land, they know who is powerful and who is weak. What snobs!”

The Moscow conference followed a historic breakthrough. On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite. Sputnik 1 shocked the West. Mao, though, was ecstatic. Here was a proof that socialism worked, that the forces of history were on the side of the Communist bloc.

On November 18 in his conference speech, Mao discussed Sputnik at length. The most important thing was not the launch itself—even though it was telling that the Americans “had not launched even a potato”—but that the tipping point had been reached. In celestial terms, America was like the sun at 5:00 p.m., and the socialist camp like the sun in the morning. One would soon drown in darkness; the other was just emerging from dawn.

There was something Manichean about this struggle of winds, a “you lose, I win” type of logic, the opposite of “win-win” policies, which the Chinese claim as a key part of their foreign policy today.

“Our skies are brightly-lit,” Mao said. “Theirs are consumed by black clouds. We can sleep peacefully, and we have become more optimistic but they are in panic.” Then came one of his most famous pronouncements: “The East Wind is prevailing over the West Wind.”

There was something Manichean about this struggle of winds, a “you lose, I win” type of logic, the opposite of “win-win” policies, which the Chinese claim as a key part of their foreign policy today.

Mao was so optimistic that he was willing to risk a nuclear war with the West. As he put it in that speech, should half the world—“or, perhaps, more than half”—die in a nuclear war, “it would not be so bad.” The other half would live, and, in half a century or so, build Communism.

After he returned to Beijing in late November, Mao launched an unprecedented crusade to prove he knew better than the Soviets how to build Communism. Known as the Great Leap Forward, this hare-brained campaign aimed at catapulting China into the ranks of the world’s foremost industrial powers, which Mao understood squarely in terms of steel production. Publicly, Beijing proclaimed the goal of overtaking Great Britain. Privately, the Chinese leaders indicated that their real aim was to best the United States. “The Chinese people do not want to stop at what they have achieved,” Mao said in his Moscow speech. “They are striving to turn their country into a great power.”



Could Xi Jinping Stay in Power After He Retires? Here’s How Deng Xiaoping Did It

Julian B. Gewirtz
It was the worst kept secret in Chinese politics. From 1978 until his death in 1997, Deng Xiaoping was Beijing’s ultimate decider, even though he never held any of the top official titles in this period: not general secretary of the Chinese...

The new world China would lead would be a world of plenty for all, while the old world would be destroyed, Mao told his arch-rival in the socialist camp Khrushchev when the two met in Beijing in August 1958. The new United Nations would be built on a floating city in the middle of the ocean, which Mao himself would grace with his presence.

By contrast, Xi, in his speech opening the 19th Party Congress, stuck to constructive tones. The key words he used were “peace” and “development.” He showed no interest in blowing anything apart, perhaps because he knows how difficult it is to build things in the first place.

Mao found that out the hard way. In 1958, Chinese constructed crude backyard furnaces across the country with no regard for the availability of coal or iron ore, never mind technical expertise. Local Party cadres fabricated harvest figures, boasting of increasingly absurd yields. Public kitchens at hastily created communes served free food, depleting rice supplies. Tens of millions of people died over the next few years in the ensuing famine. Mao’s hope of overtaking the U.S. proved wildly unrealistic, and his bid for leadership in the socialist bloc failed. Mao blamed his domestic opponents for the failure of the Great Leap Forward and, in 1966, unleashed the greatest purge of his career: the Cultural Revolution. As China descended into chaos, its international influence collapsed. The East Wind died away.

By the turn of the decade, facing a possible war with the Soviet Union, Mao sought the friendship of the Americans whom he had once disdained. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972 brought China out of its isolation and into a world that Mao had sought to overthrow. Here, China was a follower, not a leader—until now.

China today is the world’s second largest economy, on track to become No. 1. It produces more steel than Mao could imagine, and few go hungry. China plays an increasingly prominent role as a rule-setter, a “shaping force” in global politics, as Xi said in his speech.



What to Watch at China’s Party Congress

Ho-fung Hung, Taisu Zhang & more
The Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress, a hugely important political meeting usually held once every five years, will begin on October 18 in Beijing. Like many events involving China’s ruling party, the most important decisions and...

Today, Xi could shape the world in ways Mao would never have thought possible. Xi told his bored audience of Party members that China would always oppose the “subjection of the weak to the will of the strong.” That said, Beijing has acted more like a bully than Xi is willing to admit. Beijing has used economic and political sanctions to bend countries like Mongolia and Norway to its will. It establishes bases on foreign soil and sends its Navy to far-off destinations to demonstrate China’s might. Aimed at fostering connectivity between China and the world, Xi’s grand infrastructure dream of “One Belt, One Road” speaks volumes of Beijing’s growing global ambition.

It is still a far cry, however, from Mao’s vision of a world overturned, of the unstoppable East Wind, of the coming revolution. Xi is a timid bully. He has no intention of overturning the delicate world order for the sake of creating something more Sinocentric. Maybe this is in part because Xi, only four years old when Mao aired his vision, grew up with the pain of humiliation born of unfettered, uncontrolled ambition.

In his speech, as is customary, Xi referred to “Mao Zedong Thought.” Chinese Communist Party officials cling to Maoism because of Mao’s centrality to the discourse of rising China. But much like his predecessors, Xi prefers to paper over the Chairman’s dangerous philosophy. Indeed, Mao’s megalomaniacal pronouncements are out of line with nearly everything that today’s China strives to represent.

Sixty years on, Mao’s grand vision of the triumphant East Wind remains unclaimed. In 1957, Mao had the ambition but did not have the means. Today, Xi has the means but, perhaps, not the ambition, to assert global leadership. All the better. The world is safer because of it.