HONG KONG -- As the People's Republic of China celebrated its 70th anniversary Tuesday, President Xi Jinping reached into history for inspiration for dealing with its rivalry with the U.S. and the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.
"Seventy years ago on this day, Comrade Mao Zedong solemnly declared here to the world that the PRC was founded," Xi said in a speech in Tiananmen Square, where Mao had once stood.
Xi had visited Mao's tomb the day before, bowing to modern China's founding father.
Mao maintained an iron grip on China until his death in 1976. His mixed legacy includes the Cultural Revolution, the decadelong movement launched in 1966 that nearly tore the country apart.
To rescue the economy from the brink of collapse, successor Deng Xiaoping embarked on sweeping reforms in 1978. His introduction of market principles pushed China into a period of rapid growth.
But Deng also attempted to change its political system. Having witnessed the consequences of his predecessor's cult of personality, he created checks aimed at keeping a future leader from amassing so much power.
Xi decided to maintain the economic system with capitalist elements when he took over as general secretary of the Communist Party in 2012. But in politics, he seems to be moving the clock backward. Xi has concentrated more power into his own hands and those of the party, which scrapped presidential term limits in a 2018 constitutional revision, undermining Deng's vision of collective leadership.
Discrepancies between Xi's economic and political strategies underlie the Chinese rift with the U.S., as well as the protests in Hong Kong. Opinion in the U.S. and Hong Kong is that it is time for China's politics to change, given how much the country has benefited from global free trade.
Beijing has made its stance as clear as day. Xi stressed Tuesday the importance of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" -- a tacit message that he has no plans to loosen the Communist Party's control.
This would have been less of an issue in the relatively isolated China of Mao's time. But now, the country wields great influence globally. Hong Kong's protesters refuse to back down, because they feel that Beijing is trying to spread its views. Xi's return to Mao-style politics could challenge the international community as a whole.