TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping ushered in the new year with a strikingly unfestive message at a meeting of the Central Military Commission: "Enhance combat capability."
Addressing military leaders on Jan. 4, Xi, who is also general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission, instructed all forces and all resources to "focus on military preparedness" and to ensure marked progress.
It is not unusual for China's top leader to call for military readiness, but at one point in the speech, Xi mentioned "military preparedness" three times in one sentence.
Xi's remarks came amid intensifying frictions between China and the U.S. over trade and other issues. At first glance, Xi might have looked as if he were ordering his troops to prepare for combat with the U.S.
But that does not seem to be the case. Since last December a "top secret" foreign policy strategy has been circulating on China's social media.
"Do not oppose the U.S. Do not lead Sino-U.S. relations into a Cold War. Open up the market. Do not yield on core interests," it said.
The strategy is said to have been set by China's top leadership. But it was blatantly leaked online, and mysteriously not stopped by China's strict censorship.
The facts on the ground suggest that this strategy is authentic. While still entangled in a row over the arrest in Canada of Huawei Technologies' Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, China and the U.S. have held trade negotiations in Beijing this week.
The conflicting messages may seem hard to follow. While ordering the military to step up combat preparedness, Xi also signaled a conciliatory approach towards the U.S. What does he actually mean?
A Communist Party source gave a short answer when asked how to read the situation. "Recall Mao Zedong's way of thinking," he said.
Mao, the founding father of "new China," expounded a theory of "protracted war." Avoid major decisive battles and employ "mobile warfare" over an extended and fluid front to gradually break the morale and combat effectiveness of the enemy, Mao preached during the Sino-Japanese war that began in 1937.
The same strategy is discernible in the current clash with the U.S.
A protracted war with no end in sight puts China at an advantage, thanks to its large population, according to the theory. It also buys the country time to modernize its military. Waging a protracted war is said to require internal stability and strong leadership.
Mao also advocated a "people's war," where guerrilla units of ordinary people would surround Japanese troops and assist the trained army.
In Communist China, a nation born out of an armed revolution involving the people, the line between professional soldiers and the people was blurred. During a revolution, supporters pour into the front lines to fight for their freedom. In peacetime, people stay outside the military, serving as a reserve force. The bonding of the army and the people is at the heart of "Mao Zedong thought."
That philosophy took a disastrous turn during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when Mao mobilized radical student supporters, calling them "Red Guards," as he sought to defeat his political foes in a power struggle.
Deng Xiaoping and his two successors as China's top leader -- Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao -- criticized Mao's mistakes. Unlike them, Xi prefers to quote Mao instead, using phrases such as "zi li geng sheng," or self-reliance.
Xi's order to prepare for a military struggle, therefore, can be interpreted as being directed at not only the military but also at ordinary Communist Party members and the people, calling on them to share a sense of crisis.
Hints about Xi's intentions also lie in a key meeting last year: the Politburo's Dec. 25-26 Democratic Life Meeting.
While the name might suggest a relaxed get-together to talk about democracy, the reality was quite different. Politburo members gave speeches one by one, and were "asked to conduct criticism and self-criticism," over how they have taken the lead to implement Xi's instructions, according to a Xinhua News Agency report of the meeting.
"Party officials, especially the leading Party officials, should maintain their fighting spirit and enhance their competence," Xi said, noting "officials should be put on the front lines to hone their abilities."
This is more than a mere metaphor. Around this time, discontent with Xi's high-handed leadership style was mounting within and outside the Communist Party.
While most complaints were whispered in hush voices, Zheng Yefu, a former sociology professor at Peking University, bravely published an article contending that the Communist Party, having neglected political reform, should exit the stage of history.
Xi's comments, like Mao's before him, sound like a threat to crush whoever crosses him to protect the party's authority.
There is another noteworthy point. The Politburo Democratic Life Meeting repeatedly confirmed that Xi was indeed "worthy of the core" of the whole Communist Party. That he is the "core" is hardly necessary to say, after countless speeches by party members stating this over the past few years. The need to say so again only suggests discord within the party.
The Dec. 25-26 dates of the Democratic Life Meeting were also significant. Not because they fell over Christmas, but because Dec. 26, the closing day of the meeting when details were reported, was the 125th anniversary of the day Mao, the "red star over China," was born.
That was no coincidence. The 2017 Democratic Life Meeting also began on Dec. 26. The choice of timing is connected with the first publicly reported Democratic Life Meeting under Xi, in September 2013, and how it marked the launch of an anti-corruption campaign that sought to emulate Mao's "political struggle."
The 2013 meeting was held in Hebei Province, outside Beijing. Zhou Benshun, then the province's top official, was pressured to self-criticize by Xi. Zhou was eventually purged, and his confession provided an opening to ensnare his old boss Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee and one of the anti-corruption crusade's biggest catches.
Xi has little room for a political fight at home amid trade negotiations with the U.S. and a rapidly slowing Chinese economy. But Chinese leaders have faced domestic fights amid troubles before.
In the early 1970s, as China's economy crumbled during the Cultural Revolution, Beijing sought to reestablish diplomatic relations with Washington and Tokyo. During that process, Deng Xiaoping was purged from the leadership, but bounced back after Mao's death, and grabbed power from Mao's designated successor Hua Guofeng to become China's paramount leader.
While Deng's economic reforms introduced in 1978 were highly acclaimed, they were also part of a battle for power. They even triggered a foreign conflict. The following year, Deng launched a war against communist neighbor Vietnam -- a clash that had little justification from a security standpoint -- in a bid to take full control of the Chinese military.
At a gala celebrating the 40th anniversary of China's economic reforms in December, Xi treated the era of Mao-style struggle, which Deng so heavily criticized, as of equal weight to the era of Deng's reform and opening-up. Soon after that celebration came the Democratic Life Meeting.
Politburo members were told that corruption would not be tolerated, and were urged to discipline themselves, their families and close aides at work. If history is a guide, they must have shuddered.
The chain of events since the end of last year -- the warnings issued at the Democratic Life Meeting, the order to prepare for a military struggle, and the policy to avoid a cold war with the U.S. -- all stem from an unprecedented sense of crisis that Xi is feeling.
Should he fail to navigate China's challenges, the continuation of his rule will be in danger at the next National Congress of the Communist Party in 2022. Much is at stake in 2019.