Nearly five decades after Mao's death, is Xi Jinping looking to take his place?

Statist policies, repression are predicted with Mao as the model for Xi's consolidation of personal power.
By Mia Ping-chieh Chen for RFA Mandarin
Nearly five decades after Mao's death, is Xi Jinping looking to take his place? People stand in front of images of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing , Sept. 4, 2022.

As the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) marks the 46th anniversary of the death of its late leader Mao Zedong, concerns are being raised in some quarters that current leader Xi Jinping is hoping to emulate the Great Helmsman's supreme status in the party hierarchy.

At the CCP's 20th National Congress on Oct. 16, Xi will be seeking an unprecedented third term in office, after amending the constitution to abolish presidential term limits in 2018.

The move comes amid growing fears of a Mao-style personality cult around Xi, as institutions and political figures compete to show the utmost loyalty to Xi and his personal brand of political ideology.

Cai Xia, a former professor at the CCP's party school now living in exile, said Xi has angered many in the ranks of the ruling party, who feel he has abandoned the more collective style of leadership established after the death of late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.

"Xi, a devoted student of Mao and just as eager to leave his mark on history, has worked to establish his absolute power," Cai wrote in a recent analysis in Foreign Policy magazine. "

And because previous reforms failed to place real checks and balances on the party leader, he has succeeded," she wrote. "Now, as under Mao, China is a one-man show."

Cai said she was unable to schedule an interview when contacted by RFA about the article.

Deng Yuwen, a former newspaper editor for a CCP party school publication, said Xi is certainly drawing on Mao's legacy as he consolidates his personal power.

"He wants to portray himself as another Mao Zedong, and portray himself as a kind of god to replace Mao Zedong among the people, but this is actually impossible," Deng told RFA.

"This kind of personality cult is an officially sponsored form of worship, so everyone knows they're just going through the motions," Deng said.

"Just because someone shouts 'Long live Xi!' in public, doesn't mean they're going to be shouting that in private," Deng said. "It's just pretend."

Books by Chinese President Xi Jinping are set out on display at a booth at the annual Hong Kong Book Fair in Hong Kong, July 17, 2021. Credit: AFP
Books by Chinese President Xi Jinping are set out on display at a booth at the annual Hong Kong Book Fair in Hong Kong, July 17, 2021. Credit: AFP
Third term for Xi

Chen Kuide, executive chairman of the Princeton China Society, said Xi's approach isn't without risk, however.

"There is a group of people who have gained political and economic benefits since Xi came to power, but there aren't actually very many of them," Chen said.

"They also lack the political clout of the other factions."

"They just have a lot more power in the party and hold their posts because of Xi Jinping," he said.

Xi is widely expected to secure a third five-year leadership term at the 20th party congress in October, cementing his status as China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

The CCP will amend its constitution next month during a leadership reshuffle held over five years, according to a report on Friday from state news agency Xinhua.

The Politburo of the CCP's Central Committee discussed the draft amendment to the party charter, the agency reported, but gave no specific details.

Reuters quoted political analysts as saying that the amendment could shorten the title of Xi's personal brand of ideology to "Xi Jinping Thought," which would bring it closer in status to "Mao Zedong Thought" in the popular consciousness, the agency said.

Other possible changes could see the establishment of Xi as the "core" of the party, and his ideas as its guiding principles, or the reinstatement of the post of party chairman, which was abolished in 1982, it said.

'Stealth infighting'

The party constitution can only be amended during a CCP National Congress, which takes place every five years.

According to Cai, "stealth infighting" in party ranks will likely intensify, with possible arrests and trials of more high-ranking officials as his critics seek to leak more information unfavorable to the Chinese leader.

She said that, if successful, Xi is likely to take a third term as a mandate to carry out further steps on his "national rejuvenation" plan for China.

"Xi will double down on his statist economic policies," Cai predicted. "To maintain his grip on power, he will continue to preemptively eliminate any potential rivals and tighten social control, making China look increasingly like North Korea."

"An emboldened Xi may well accelerate his militarization of disputed areas of the South China Sea and try to forcibly take over Taiwan," she warned. "As he continues China’s quest for dominance, he will further its isolation from the rest of the world."

She said the most likely threat to Xi’s rule would result from a Chinese defeat in an invasion of the democratic island of Taiwan.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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