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Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken steps similar to Mao Zedong to solidify his power. (Nikkei Montage/Getty Images/ Reuters)
China up close

With whiffs of Cultural Revolution, Xi calls for struggle 50 times

Fierce battle with factions supporting Deng Xiaoping-style reforms rocks China

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- No word conjures up memories of China's Cultural Revolution like "struggle."

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that Mao Zedong launched in 1966 called on the masses to "struggle" against and "crush" the people in authority taking the country down the capitalist road. Unleashing the country's youth against established figures and historic relics, Mao succeeded in regaining power, but ended up paralyzing China until the movement ended in 1976.

On Sept. 3, when Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech at the Central Party School, a training facility for Communist Party cadres, and mentioned the word "struggle" over 50 times, nobody thought it a coincidence.

Xi, who doubles as party chief, ordered party officials to "maintain a fighting spirit and strengthen their ability to struggle."

His extraordinary use of the word is almost public agitation.

A retired party official shared his astonishment. "This is not ordinary," the official said. "Something is happening."

Said another source: "This is on par with the recent reference to Xi as 'the people's leader.' Both are highly symbolic. Quite a few people are feeling uneasy."

Youngsters of the Red Guard cut the hair of an official during the Cultural Revolution.   © Kyodo

These party sources grew up in the 1980s, when China was beginning to rebound from the Cultural Revolution under Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening-up" policy.

"When we entered junior high school," one of them said, "we were repeatedly taught the theory of 'why a comprehensive and thorough denial of the Cultural Revolution conforms to the Dialectical Materialism of Marxism.'"

He then lamented: "Now schools don't teach the basic theory that has built today's affluent China. The critically important denial of the Cultural Revolution is becoming a thing of the past. This seems to be what Xi's 'new era' is all about."

Xi appears to be conscious of Mao's political style. In fact, since becoming China's top leader in 2012, Xi has occasionally acted as if he values Mao's Cultural Revolution.

"The 30-year historical period after reform and opening-up cannot be used to deny the 30-year historical period before it," Xi once said, referring to the Cultural Revolution.

If anything, this was clearly a different stance from that taken by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who categorically rejected the Cultural Revolution.

In the old days, when China's global influence was limited, an intraparty struggle was nothing more than a storm in a teacup. Now one could change the course of the global economy.

More recently, elements in the party have recast the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution as an "era of great exploration."

In May 2016, an all-girl pop group portrayed by some as the Chinese version of Japan's AKB48 sparked an uproar by allegedly singing the praises of the Cultural Revolution during an event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, in violation of party rules.

Xi's speech last week is being taken by some as "going a step further than his past words and deeds." The theory of struggle is none other than the Mao Zedong theory, and the speech has excited the party's remaining left-wing radicals.

If history is a lesson, what is destined to come next is known as the Rectification Movement.

In the 1940s, while setting up base in the party's stronghold of Yan'an, Shaanxi Province, Mao accelerated a campaign to purge anti-mainstream factions. This was the Rectification Movement. Later, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Mao embarked on a similar campaign again.

Recently, the People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece, caused a stir by running a front-page article that referred to Xi as "the people's leader," a title that recalls "the people's great leader," which was how Mao was sometimes described.

That was Aug. 25. Xi's "struggle speech" came next. The newspaper's wording and president's speech started people talking about a new "struggle-style Rectification Movement."

In China, political campaigns can have devastating consequences. Shortly after coming to power seven years ago, Xi kicked off a political study campaign called "mass line educational practice activities" in a bid to enhance his unifying power within the party.

The political study campaign evolved into Xi's fierce anti-corruption drive, which snared many of the president's political foes.

This month, the campaign filtered down to the local level, where every day, newly promoted party officials are given more study material about Xi's new era than they can read.

Earlier this year, the Xi administration embarked on a new political study campaign under the theme of "remaining true to the Party's original aspirations and keeping its mission firmly in mind."

This has the whiff of a Rectification Movement.

Yet, some believe it has not gotten that far. "Xi is only trying to consolidate his power base by emulating Mao's style, to overcome the country's immediate crises ahead of the all important 70th anniversary of the foundation of the nation," one party source said. "It remains to be seen if [the new political study campaign] will lead to actual political strife."

One such crisis is Hong Kong, where protests show no sign of letting up despite last week's olive branch from the city's chief executive. There are other crises as well: the U.S.-China trade war and a domestic economy that is losing steam.

The crises are such that Xi could gradually lose his grip on the party if his administration does not act quickly. In Hong Kong, Xi's trusted right-hand man Wang Qishan has visited the south in what was seen to be an effort to calm the situation down.

The struggle order in Xi's speech was another such defensive measure, according to the party source. 

Along with the message content, there was another important element to the Xi speech. Appearing together with Xi at the Central Party School on Sept. 3 was Wang Huning, one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, and a towering figure when it comes to shaping the party's ideology.

Three successive top Chinese leaders -- Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi -- have leaned on him for important party theories and polices.

But Wang has come under scrutiny over the past year, seen as being the chief architect of Xi's controversial moves, including abolishing term limits from the country's president in 2018, and spearheading a subsequent propaganda campaign praising Xi like Mao, which struck many as the building of a personality cult.

Wang Huning, left, has served under three rulers, which makes him a rare figure in Chinese politics.   © Kyodo

These moves placed the party in an unfavorable atmosphere, and Wang has recently maintained a low profile.

His return to the spotlight is seen as highly symbolic.

Within the party, there are persistent calls for Xi to comply with the party constitution, which clearly bans personality cults and respects intraparty democracy.

These calls are emanating from the so-called "second-generation reds," children of revolutionary-era party leaders. The reds originally were supporters of Xi but have recently distanced themselves.

Said another party source, "Once a Mao-style struggle breaks out, it will not stop until the Communist Party's next national congress in 2022." The source predicts that the final showdown, one that either ensures Xi truly becomes "president for life" or ends that bid, remains a long way off.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

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