September 12, 2016 2:30 pm JST
Minxin Pei

Four decades on, Mao's ghost still haunts China

In most countries, a tyrant who has been dead for 40 years is unlikely to continue to haunt the land he once brutalized. But China is not your normal country. If anything, this is a country that has yet to come to terms with the darkest chapter in its modern history.

Mao Zedong, whose policies were directly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of innocent Chinese people, died at dawn on Sept. 9, 1976. His passing was a turning point for China. In less than a month, his widow and closest followers -- "The Gang of Four" -- were arrested in a military-backed coup. Two years later, Deng Xiaoping, both a loyal supporter of Mao and a victim of his purges, ascended to the top of China's one-party state and launched the country's economic reforms.

But four decades of capitalist revolution have not excised Mao's ghost from China's political landscape and psyche.

Today, the late chairman remains an integral part of the Chinese Communist Party's political identity and a vital source of its legitimacy. The portrait of the Great Helmsman as he was known stares down on the vast Tiananmen Square, where his mummified body is preserved in a granite mausoleum for public viewing. Mao's picture also adorns the 100 yuan bill, the largest currency denomination -- a gesture of respect that would have appalled him since he had an intense aversion to paper currency because he thought they carried germs.

Cynics may argue that such respect for Mao, who almost single-handedly brought the CCP to the brink of self-destruction during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, is merely symbolic and superficial. But more attention needs to be paid to how highly China's current leaders think of Mao and his legacy.

For example, in December 2013, the party marked Mao's 120th birthday in a solemn ceremony attended by all the senior leaders. Xi Jinping, the party's general secretary, praised Mao as a "great Marxist, a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist, and theorist; a great pioneer in the 'Sinofication' of Marxism, a great patriot and national hero in China's modern history, the core of the first collective leadership of the party; and a great man who led the Chinese people in completely changing their fate and the look of their country."

Of course, Mao made mistakes, but such mistakes, according to Xi, "were mistakes of a great revolutionary and a great Marxist." Such fulsome tributes, particularly coming from Xi (whose father was purged by Mao in the early 1960s on trumped-up charges), appear bewildering. But further reflection would show that it is no accident that Maoism is not only alive and well, but also continues to exert its sinister influence over many aspects of Chinese politics.

Institutional bulwark

The most direct and important reason why Maoism has survived the death of its creator is that the institutional embodiment of Maoism, the CCP,  remains firmly in power. Although not the true founder of the CCP (despite the exaggerated credit the party continues to give him for its creation), Mao created the political DNA and shaped the collective mindset of China's ruling structure. The CCP largely adheres to the rules and procedures crafted by Mao. In February, as if to underscore the continuing relevance of Mao, Xi instructed that party officials should study Mao's "Work Methods of the Party's Organization," a short essay Mao wrote in March 1949 on the modus operandi of the party's leadership organs.

The CCP's longevity also owes much to the principle of "the party in control of the gun" -- formulated by Mao and implemented during his rule. Today, the CCP has ensured that the People's Liberation Army, though supported by Chinese taxpayers, is primarily the party's instrument of defending its political monopoly.

Another Maoist survival tactic, albeit often a bloody and costly one, is the use of periodic internal purges to rid the party of members suspected of being either disloyal or rivals to the top leadership. Although in the post-Mao era, purges have occurred with less frequency and their victims are accused of corruption instead of ideological treason, it is hard to imagine how the CCP can settle its internecine strife without purges.

The Maoist legacy extends beyond these institutional manifestations. Even casual observers are often struck by the routine use of quotations from Mao and his political rhetoric, even in the public speeches by top Chinese leaders. For example, when Xi met Chinese students during his visit to Washington in February 2012, he praised them as "the morning sun," a phrase Mao first coined in 1957 when receiving students who had completed their studies in the Soviet Union. 

Of course, one can downplay the casual invocation of Mao's many utterings. But it is hard to dismiss as inconsequential the regime's firm adherence to another Maoist political tenet -- the party is above the law and the rule of law is a pure "bourgeois" invention.

The CCP has become politically schizophrenic in the post-Mao era. Economically, its policies have eviscerated Maoism. But on the fundamental question of the party's supremacy, the party has done him proud. Never have his successors veered away from this cardinal principle. In the last few years, they have taken the principle one step further by conducting an unrelenting campaign against the most dangerous un-Maoist idea: the "bourgeois" concept of constitutionalism.

 It is tragic, but not surprising, that Mao's ghost should cast such a dark shadow over today's China, a country physically unrecognizable from the drab and joyless Maoist era. The reason is simple. The post-Mao rulers in China have made a strategic decision to embrace Mao and Maoism even as they abandon most of his self-destructive policies. They understand correctly that the party's historical legitimacy would evaporate should they renounce Mao and his political legacies. Shortly after he became China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping warned his colleagues, "We must never give up the banner of Mao Zedong thought. If we do so, we would effectively repudiate our party's glorious history."

The result is that as long as the CCP maintains its political monopoly, Maoism will define the party's political identity and influence, and its collective mindset.

This state of affairs is undoubtedly good for the party. In the last 40 years, the party has achieved a true miracle: it has jettisoned Mao's craziest policies but successfully preserved his most important ideological and institutional legacies.

The big lie of history

Ultimately, the enduring influence of Maoism is a Chinese tragedy of epic proportions. The preservation of Maoism necessarily requires the maintenance of the "Big Lie" -- a false version of recent Chinese history that whitewashes Mao's worst crimes and, even more insidiously, constructs a narrative glorifying dictatorial rule that has been maintained only with unspeakable brutality.

The 40th anniversary of Mao's death passed without much fanfare in China. But beneath this superficial calm and censorship-enforced collective amnesia is a society that has not had an honest -- nor a cathartic -- accounting of its most traumatic chapter. So long as China's rulers refuse to repudiate Maoism and expunge its lingering influence from Chinese politics, it is doubtful whether the Chinese people can realize their dream of freeing themselves completely from the ghost of a tyrant who inflicted so much misery on the nation during his 27-year rule.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of "China's Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay" (Harvard University Press, 2016).

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