A visitor looks at porcelain figures of Mao Zedong at a private museum in Sichuan Province, China, May 2016. 
KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

For a number of years, Chinese liberal intellectuals have divided their country’s history into two periods. The “two 30 years,” as they have come to be known, comprised the era of Mao Zedong’s rule and the period of post-Mao reform and opening that followed, starting in the late 1970s. The former period was characterized by dictatorship, class struggle, and the traumas of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and the latter was dominated by economic modernization and a turn away from personalized rule. Chinese liberals have argued that today’s leaders should hew closer to the policies of the second period than to those of the first.

But Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have opposed this thinking. To Xi’s mind, the Mao era, like the period that followed it, also offers lessons for the Communist Party’s leadership in contemporary China. Xi is right, but not in the way he intends. Mao’s excesses—his cult of personality, concentration of power, and purging of so-called anti-party elements in the government and media—seem to have reappeared on a smaller scale since Xi took power in 2012. 

Busts of former Chinese leaders on display at the Revolution Museum in Jiangxi Province, China, September 2012. Xi Jinping has taken some cues from Mao in his consolidation of power.
Busts of former Chinese leaders on display at a museum in Jiangxi Province, China, September 2012.
Carlos Barria / Reuters

The fiftieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, which began on May 16, 1966, offers an opportunity to consider these echoes. They are perhaps most apparent in the tactics used by Chinese leaders, past and present, to disempower rivals within the Chinese Communist Party. Consider the case of Liu Shaoqi, whom Mao considered a major rival and who was China’s president and the party’s vice chairman when the Cultural Revolution began. Mao sought to oust Liu, but Liu was so popular that Mao believed he would have to secure popular backing for his purging. So Mao set a trap: he left Beijing early in the summer of 1966, allowing Liu to manage the chaos that was erupting in the capital. After Liu sent party work teams to quell the unrest among young agitators at universities and high schools, in July, Mao returned to Beijing and accused Liu of suppressing the masses. Those whom Liu had sidelined were eager to support his downfall. In this instance, as the Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans has pointed out, Mao urged the population to attack government officials he sought to destroy, obscuring the fact that those officials and their misdeeds were the product of a political system of which he himself was the founder and guardian.

Beijing’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign has made use of similar tactics. China’s corruption problem is, in part, a product of a political system that does not adequately protect the rule of law: the absence of checks on the power of party officials encourages abuses. But instead of addressing the underlying issue, Xi appears to have taken a cue from Mao. By pinning systemic failures on the individual errors of his rivals in the party, Xi has directed widespread popular anger about corruption toward the consolidation of his own power. Thus the arbitrariness of the anti-corruption campaign mirrors that of the Cultural Revolution–era purges: whether an official is deemed deserving of punishment depends to a great extent on the utility of his survival or downfall.

At the elite political level, China still lies in the shadow of the events of a half century ago.

It is perhaps because the anti-corruption campaign has been turned into an instrument of personal ambition that some of the Chinese citizens who have called for its institutionalization have been suppressed. Xu Zhiyong, one of the founders of the Chinese New Citizen Movement, a civil rights group, is just one example. After urging the Chinese government to require officials to publicly disclose their assets in 2013, Xu was arrested, and the next year, he was sentenced to four years in prison. Similarly, although an open media would be an effective check against official misdeeds, in recent years, Beijing has cracked down on free expression, and many journalists who have uncovered instances of official corruption have been fired, threatened, or arrested.   

Just as Mao’s Cultural Revolution–era purges resulted in a toxic legal arbitrariness, so has today’s crackdown undermined the rule of law. Mao punished his targets without a rigorous legal process; the officials handling cases and making convictions worked not in the Chinese judiciary but in the Central Cultural Revolution Group and its various special investigation teams. In the absence of strict procedures for handling cases, injustice prevailed. Today, the situation is similar. The anti-corruption campaign has been spearheaded by the Communist Party’s Central Committee for Discipline Inspection, and as such, the party’s decisions have superseded those of the judiciary.

Today’s leaders seem also to have learned a great deal from the promotion of Mao’s cult of personality. Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, another high-ranking party official, played a central part in promoting Mao as infallible, only to become victims of Mao’s purges in the years that followed. Although Xi has managed to build up a substantial cult of personality thus far, today’s officials seem to recognize that elevating him to the point of popular worship could endanger their own positions. Consider the apparent intraparty skirmish between Xi and Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan earlier this year. After Xi visited state media outlets in February and called for them to “speak for the party’s will,” Ren Zhiqiang, a Beijing property developer and a close friend of Wang’s, took to social media to advocate the opposite position: that China’s media should speak for the people, rather than for the party. Ren’s Weibo account was promptly deleted by censors, and some media outlets, under the likely direction of Xi, attacked Ren, insinuating that his criticisms had been backed by Wang. But in March, the attacks stopped—a likely sign that other Standing Committee members opposed Xi’s push against Ren and Wang and viewed Xi’s consolidation of power with some wariness. 

A man rides a electric bicycle past a Cultural Revolution–era poster in Shanghai, April 2016. May 16 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
A man rides a electric bicycle past a Cultural Revolution–era poster in Shanghai, April 2016. 
ALY SONG / REUTERS

Many foreign observers are confounded by the admiration that some party leaders still seem to hold for Mao, despite the fact that some of their own family members were persecuted by his government. The source of their reverence lies in a political calculation: that criticizing Mao would undermine the political system that they have inherited from him. In this calculation, too, China’s current leaders are following Mao’s example. After Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev criticized the late Joseph Stalin in 1956, Mao resolutely defended Stalin, claiming that he was among the “flags and knives” of “proletarian dictatorship”—that is, that he was both a symbol and a weapon of communist rule. To criticize Stalin, Mao believed, would require abandoning the legitimacy apparently offered by his legacy. Similarly, Mao is the “flag and knife” of today’s Chinese regime, and his successors are not willing to abandon his political heritage. As for why the Chinese authorities do not permit popular criticism of the Cultural Revolution, the reason is clear: to criticize that episode in Chinese history would be nearly equivalent to criticizing the party itself.

Of course, China’s current political situation is hardly a full repeat of the Cultural Revolution. The party’s preference for stability means that the kind of social unrest and mass violence that China saw in the 1960s and 1970s is now out of the question. Nor are today’s Chinese citizens as easily controlled by the state as they were during the Mao era; economic opening and the spread of digital technology have made them more independent than ever before. Whatever comes of these two opposing trends, it is clear that at the elite political level, China still lies in the shadow of the events of a half century ago.