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Mao's one-man rule offers uncomfortable lessons for Xi Jinping

Achieving strongman status could endanger China's global ambitions

| China
Concentration of power seldom brings a sense of security to the strongman, resulting in a constant purge of senior leaders and failure to correct policy errors.   © Reuters

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping emerged from the Chinese Communist Party's 19th congress as the country's most powerful leader in the post-Mao era, the biggest question is whether his unrivaled -- and unconstrained -- political authority will enable him to realize his ambitious vision of making China a global superpower by the middle of this century.

Despite the ongoing official propaganda blitz aimed to persuade the Chinese public that this lofty goal is within reach, success is by no means guaranteed. Among other things, Xi will need to radically restructure China's state-capitalist economy, reduce the country's soaring socioeconomic inequality, cope with deteriorating demographics, and overcome the dreaded middle-income trap (a feat no dictatorship has managed in history except in oil-rich petrostates).

His most daunting challenge, however, is political, not economic. The concentration of power in the hands of one leader, as demonstrated by China's tragic experience under Mao Zedong, could be a recipe for disastrous policy mistakes. If Xi wants to succeed, he will have to learn the painful lessons from Mao's one-man rule.

To be sure, the circumstances between the Maoist era and Xi's China are vastly different, if not incomparable. In terms of personality, Mao was a brutal, megalomaniac and paranoid ruler driven by a radical utopian vision. He was willing to sacrifice millions of innocent lives in trying out his grandiose social experiment. With the Cultural Revolution, he showed that he would not hesitate to destroy his closest colleagues and imperil the rule of the CCP itself in order to protect his power.

Of course, China's impoverishment and near-total isolation from the international community also made it easier for Mao to embark on one disastrous course after another without encountering serious pushback from internal or external forces. Today, after four decades of dizzying socioeconomic modernization and integration with the world, China is a totally changed country. It is inconceivable that even a Mao-like figure could take China back to the dark days of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

Yet, despite all these important differences, the political dynamics that produced most of Mao's catastrophic mistakes remain essentially unchanged because the CCP has failed to restructure fundamentally the organization of elite politics in the post-Mao era. This is not to say that the senior CCP leaders who survived Mao's purges did not understand the perils of one-man rule or did not try to prevent the return of a Mao-like figure.

In August 1980, Deng gave an important speech on the need to reform the political system and avoid the overconcentration of power. Subsequently, he pushed through a series of organizational changes that gradually established a set of rules and norms on collective leadership, security for senior leaders as well as term and age limits.

No guardrails

But these reforms had two fatal flaws. First, none of them were explicitly spelled out or enshrined in the party charter or other legal documents. Second, there were no institutional mechanisms that would allow a third party (such as a court or an independent political entity) to enforce them. As a result, what appeared to be an elaborate institutional edifice quickly crumbled in the last five years when Xi's efforts to re-concentrate power encountered negligible resistance.

One of the logical consequences of the re-concentration of power in the hands of one single top leader is that it has dramatically raised the odds that the underlying dynamics that led to the policy mistakes and elite power struggle in the Maoist era will be reproduced in today's Beijing.

The most notable and obvious dynamic is one that favors loyalty over competence. Although Mao relied on competent generals and colleagues in winning the Chinese civil war in 1949, he began to increasingly favor loyal sycophants after his Great Leap Forward scheme in the late 1950s produced humanity's worst famine and undercut his authority among his pragmatic colleagues.

Once surrounded by yes men, a strongman is unlikely to be challenged with facts and alternative ideas. His loyalists would report only the good news while concealing evidence of policy failure. In the worst case, this dynamic is capable of compounding relatively minor policy errors with even bigger mistakes as loyalists, in currying favor from the dominant leader, double down on the initial misstep. As detailed in "Tombstone," the monumental history of the Great Leap famine by Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng, the provinces ruled by Mao's closest allies recorded more deaths than others because his loyalists continued to pursue radical policies instead of taking remedial measures to save their starving people.

Toward the end of his rule in the early 1970s, the poor health of Zhou Enlai and economic and civil chaos resulting from the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s forced Mao to appoint Deng Xiaoping, one of the party's most competent leaders who was purged during the early days of the Cultural Revolution, to manage the regime's day-to-day affairs. But Mao quickly purged Deng again because he was politically disloyal.

Another political dynamic responsible for vicious political power struggle under one-man rule is the political paranoia and insecurity that permeate even the top echelons of the ruling elites. A unique paradox about dictatorial regimes is that overconcentration of power seldom brings a sense of security to the strongman himself.

In the case of Mao, he was obsessed with plotters and conspirators hidden among his colleagues all the time. One inevitable result of such paranoia and insecurity was the constant purge of senior leaders seen as disloyal or threatening. Another outcome is the deliberate manipulation of factional political warfare. In the case of Mao, he purposefully fostered power struggles among competing factions so that he could ensure that none of them would threaten his power.

While such Machiavellian tactics benefited Mao immensely, they were directly responsible for the viciousness, brutality and treachery of elite politics during much of his rule.

Wavering respect

The last dynamic known to increase the odds of policy mistakes under one-man rule is the cyclical nature of the leader's prestige. Typically, a strongman like Mao starts with sky-high prestige or political support because he promises bold reforms and displays a refreshing leadership style. But based on historical experience from many countries that experienced varying versions of strongman rule, the dominant leader's personal prestige tends to peak within one decade of rising to the top and begins to decline precipitously soon after.

In the case of Mao, his prestige began to erode in 1957 when he had to reverse course in an ill-conceived attempt to make the CCP more responsive to criticisms from the masses (the so-called "Hundred Flower Movement"). The abortive end to his "Hundred Flower Movement" quickly prompted Mao to launch the "Great Leap Forward." By 1962, 13 years into his rule, his authority had suffered irreparable damage when the magnitude of the calamity of the Great Leap became clear to his colleagues. Fearing that he was being sidelined, Mao responded with the Cultural Revolution to oust his opponents.

Since a strongman's personal prestige is his political capital, this cycle has real consequences. Historical experience suggests that when a dominant leader's personal prestige starts to fall, either because of policy mistakes or failure to deliver on his promised changes, he tends to take even greater risks to recover his lost prestige.

Highlighting such dangers generated by the political dynamics of a one-party state under strongman rule does not mean that they will actually happen in today's China. Given its global importance and the aspirations of the 1.38 billion Chinese living in the country, we should all wish China well, even as we worry about its future. By revisiting some of the deeper causes of the disasters that marked the Maoist era in China, we only hope that China's current leaders will heed the lessons of their own history -- and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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