Few countries commemorate historical milestones with the zeal of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and 2019 offers a bonanza of celebratory opportunities: 40 years since Deng Xiaoping launched the economic reforms that opened China to the rest of the world; 40 years since China and the United States established diplomatic relations; and, on October 1, 70 years since the founding of the PRC. These events provide the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opportunities to laud past achievements, legitimize the course it has set for the country, and rally support for challenges yet to come. And as Chinese President Xi Jinping surveys the country’s progress, he can point to any number of extraordinary economic, social, and geopolitical achievements.
Outside observers tend to credit the Deng-era reforms for China’s meteoric rise. But Xi and the rest of the Chinese leadership are more focused on the earliest years of the PRC—when Mao Zedong sat at the helm of the Communist Party. Like Mao, Xi has prioritized strengthening the party, inculcating collective socialist values, and rooting out nonbelievers. Like Mao, who invoked “domestic and foreign reactionaries” to build nationalist sentiment and solidify the party’s legitimacy, Xi has adopted a consistent refrain of unspecified but “ubiquitous” internal and external threats. And like Mao, Xi has encouraged the creation of a cult of personality around himself.
Yet Xi has revived the methods and symbols of Maoism not in service of a return to the past but in order to advance his own transformative agenda, one that seeks to ensure that all political, social, and economic activity within, and increasingly outside of, China serves the interests of the CCP. He is creating a model that reasserts the power of the Communist Party; progressively erases the distinction between public and private in both the political and economic spheres; and seeks to integrate foreign actors, including private businesses, more deeply into a system of CCP values and institutions. Xi also aspires to accomplish what Mao and his successors could not:
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