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Minxin Pei: Mao needs to be a warning, not a template, for Xi's use of power

Strongmen rule often results in weak leadership at best, disaster at worst

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets representatives attending the award ceremony on ethical role models and pioneers in Beijing on Nov. 17, 2017.   © Xinhua via AP

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 -- authority will let him realize his ambitious vision of making China a global superpower by mid-century.

Despite the ongoing official propaganda blitz aimed to persuade the Chinese public that this goal is within reach, success is by no means guaranteed. 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, megalomaniacal 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. 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 it back to the dark days of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

Yet 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.

NO GUARDRAILS In August 1980, Deng Xiaoping gave an important speech on the need to reform the political system and avoid the overconcentration of power. Subsequently, he pushed through 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.

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 is that it has dramatically raised the odds that the underlying dynamics that led to the policy mistakes and power struggle in the Maoist era will be reproduced in today's Beijing.

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. His loyalists would report only the good news. This can compound 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.

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

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, 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.

There is also the danger of paranoia and insecurity at the top. A paradox about dictatorial regimes is that overconcentration of power seldom brings a sense of security to the strongman himself.

Mao was obsessed with plotters and conspirators hidden among his colleagues. One inevitable result of such paranoia was the constant purge of senior leaders seen as disloyal or threatening. Another outcome is the deliberate manipulation of factional political warfare. Mao purposefully fostered power struggles among competing factions to ensure his own 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 Lastly, there is the cyclical nature of a leader's prestige. Typically, a strongman like Mao starts with sky-high political support because he promises bold reforms and displays a refreshing leadership style. But a dominant leader's personal prestige tends to peak within one decade of rising to the top, and then declines precipitously.

Mao's prestige began to erode in 1957, when he had to reverse course in an ill-conceived attempt to make the CCP more responsive to criticism. The abortive end to this "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, he tends to take even greater risks to recover it.

Highlighting these dangers does not mean that they will actually happen in today's China. Given its global importance and the aspirations of China's 1.38 billion people, we should all wish China well, even as we worry about its future. By revisiting some of the causes of the disasters of 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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