What are we talking about when we talk about ideology in China?

Stein Ringen, author of the forthcoming book The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, published a recent op-ed in the South China Morning Post arguing that Xi Jinping is "reverting to ideology." He writes:

Ideology is a dangerous force. Political leaders make their own ideologies, but then, when they take hold, become the prisoners of their own creation. Ideologies become belief systems and make people, both leaders and the led, believers. The destructive force of ideology has been seen in Hitlerism, Stalinism and Maoism. When powerful leaders turn to ideology, there is always danger and others must pay attention.

Xi's emphasis on national greatness and Chinese tradition and history is, according to Ringen, "the stuff of ideology."

I've seen similar arguments, and I've found them all a bit confusing for the following reason: ideology isn't just something nationalists or authoritarians or socialists do. Liberalism is ideology. So too is pacifism. If you've read your Ayn Rand, you know that capitalism is also an ideology. 

Frankly, I think the good old dictionary definition helps clear up a lot of this confusion:

i·de·ol·o·gy ˌīdēˈäləjē,ˌidēˈäləjē/ noun noun: ideology; plural noun: ideologies  

1.  a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

But for a moment let's pretend that "ideology" only means the bad stuff -- fear of outside ideas, belief that the best power is centralized power, etc. Even if we take this as our operating definition, I still think it's hard to argue that Xi is doing something totally unknown in the post-Mao era. Put another way, if you think that Deng Xiaoping didn't believe in "ideology," then I think you're drastically misreading China's recent past. Although Deng told the CCP and China's intellectuals to stop all this talk is "isms", what he really meant was "stop all of this talk of other 'isms' that aren't the new official ideology: developmentalism (发展主义). The program of "reform and opening" was not some ideologically-neutral cookbook from which Deng plucked a pragmatically-chosen recipe for wealth accumulation. Rather, it was a highly ideological program that attempted graft economic reforms onto a highly centralized political system. It was also ruthless towards alternative ideological narratives that stood in its way.

Read through the speeches of Deng during the 1980s and early 90s (his Collected Works stop at 1992) and you see a leader incredibly concerned with ideology and ideological deviation. This was not only a concern with what he called "Left mistakes" but also ideological confusion coming from the Right as well. Consider a speech Deng gave in 1983 where he said that "workers fighting on the ideological front should serve as 'engineers of the soul'" and that while most of these workers are toeing the line, others are promoting "mental pollution" which is "the spread of the corrupt and decadent ideas of the bourgeoisie and other exploiting classes and the spread of distrust of socialism, communism and leadership by the Communist Party." 

In 1987, Deng warned that "Certain individuals [on the Right], pretending to support the reform and the open policy, call for wholesale Westernization of China in an attempt to lead the country towards capitalism. These people don’t really support our policies; they are only trying vainly to change the nature of our society. If China were totally Westernized and went capitalist, it would be absolutely impossible for us to modernize."

Sound familiar? If you're still not convinced, Google "Campaign to Eliminate Spiritual Pollution."

But returning to my original point, ideology is not just for the bad guys. Heck, I have an ideology. I bet you do too. The question is which ideology and at what intensity. While the post-Mao era certainly saw a de-amplification of official ideology, it's not as if it disappeared. Can we really say that Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents" was not ideological? This would be news to neo-Maoist organizations such as Utopia, many of whom were founded in and around 2003 after they felt that the CCP had lurched too far in the neo-liberal direction. After seeing a massive SOE restructuring beginning in the late 1990s, entrance into the WTO in 2001, and then opening of the CCP to capitalists in 2003, many of them said enough is enough.

So I think it's incorrect to say that Xi Jinping has suddenly "reverted" to ideology as if the past three decades in China have been devoid of it. Ideology was always there, just as it's there in just about every other country.  The real issue is, as I mentioned above, the intensity, which is clearly increasing in its importance to political and economic decision making. Perhaps we can say that if it was turned up to 6 or 7 during the Hu-Wen era, it's now up to 11. I think that we stopped noticing certain types of ideology as we became preoccupied with the country's economic rise and its integration into the global trading system. When someone starts agreeing with you, you stop calling them ideological and start calling them pragmatic.




No, xi jinping has not built a cult of personality.

“Every historical event begins with a struggle centered on naming.” - Milun Kundera

Since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012-13, academics, diplomats, journalists, think tank researchers, and most of the Chinese nation have been struggling to make sense of who Xi Jinping is, and where his vision for the country will lead. Sure, we can read about the China Dream, the Four Comprehensives, the Two 100 Year Goals, the Moderately prosperous society, etc., but these don't tell us much about where China is really headed. Will it continue down the bumpy and uneven road of economic openness (two steps forward, one step back)? Will political reform ever be put back on the table, as it was in the years before Tiananmen quashed talk of political liberalization? These are all very important questions; perhaps they are the most important questions.

And while I'm not sure how to answer them, I am pretty sure of a few dead ends. Perhaps the most unhelpful heuristic floating around right now is that Xi is reconstituting Mao's cult of personality. indeed, this seems to have become the mainstream consensus.  The Economist recently published a striking cover of Xi-as-Mao with the headline "Beware the cult of Xi." In early March, the indispensable ChinaFile ran a conversation under the headline "Xi Jinping: A Cult of Personality?" The Nikkei Asian Review ran a piece entitled "Xi's burgeoning personality cult stirs controversy," while the venerable HK-based China watcher Willy Lam spotted the emergence of Xi's cult more than one year ago. In fact, the latest cover story by The Economist shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as they ran a piece in September 2014 that argued "A cult of personality is growing around China’s president."

I respect these publications, but I think they're wrong: we're not seeing the return to a cult of personality, but rather the outcome of a authoritarian-communist system trying to get media savvy, which has the effect of looking like an incipient cult without actually being one. We're also seeing foreign observers grasp for historical analogies to make sense of a rapidly changing political situation, but instead of finding the best analogies, we're all too often reverting to the easy ones.

If we rewind back to 1978-1982 period, we see that Deng Xiaoping and the CCP faced a series of challenges, or more accurately a series of questions about the role and function of the Party moving forward. For the decade prior to his death in 1976, Mao essentially was the Party, and as a result there wasn't a whole lot of public soul searching about the right way forward, as that had been outsourced to Mao and his near-unchallenged authority. When he died just after midnight on September 9th, an ideological and power vacuum suddenly appeared wasn't meaningfully filled until the early part of the 1980s after a series of important plenums, conferences, and pronouncements. If we lump these all together, the basic gist was this: let's deleverage ideology (primarily leftist), dethrone Mao {but not too much), restore the authority of the government/State council (to begin making and implementing rational policy), and finally let's get to work on economic development, the "second revolution," in the words of Deng Xiaoping. In 1982, the Party Constitution was amended to include a prohibition on personality cults ("党禁止任何形式的个人崇拜"), following on the heels of the momentous "Resolution on Certain Questions in Our Party's History since the Founding of the PRC", which for the first time offered an official assessment of Mao Zedong. Mao, it concluded, bore "chief responsibility for the grave 'Left' error of the 'cultural revolution', an error comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration." (Incidentally, it did not make any statement about Mao being 70% right/good and 30% wrong/bad, a point I'll touch on in a later blog post).   

And this was all well and good, for China under Mao, especially during the "later years", really had become an ungovernable place. It's worth dwelling for a moment on the heights of the Maoist cult of personality, as I think when we compare it to what's happening today, it's pretty evident Xi has a long way to go if he wants to match Mao. Andrew Walder's wonderful recent book China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed highlights some of the absurdities of the Mao era:

"Virtually every home had its portrait of Chairman Mao on the wall or a bust of the Chairman on full display. Failure to display Mao paraphernalia could put one under political suspicion. In public spaces, large statues of Mao were erected on university campuses, in front of government office buildings, and in city squares. Carefully orchestrated parades with marches displaying scores of large Mao portraits or mobile floats with statues of the Charmin in a heroic pose were a common event during public holidays. Large stadiums were filled with thousands of performers who engaged in synchronized displays designed to glorify the Chairman and express loyalty. Individuals who inadvertently defaced portraits or the Chairman or who discarded newspapers with his photograph or writings could become targets of harrowing loyalty investigations. Families saved virtually every item with Mao's image because it was politically dangerous to discard them." (Pg. 277-278)

We could go on and on: the loyalty dance, the mango craze, the frenzied crowds of Red Guards who packed TIananmen Square to get a glimpse of the Great Helmsman in 1966, the omnipresence of the "Little Red Book," etc. As Daniel Leese writes in his book on the Mao cult, "by its sheer extent surpassed every other twentieth-century leader cult," and while Stalin was no slouch when it came to cult-building, Mao had no equal. This was a nation-wide phenomenon driven by both fear and faith; the public and ritualistic nature of it made it nearly impossible not to join in, but it's also clear that the frenzy was heartfelt as well. Wang Shaoguang, in his book on the Cultural Revolution in Wuhan, stresses that participants in the excesses of the Mao craze were "rational true believers," in that while "the majority of followers really believed in Mao's natural talents and identified with him, others accepted his initiatives because they feared punishment if they deviated.  Still others were neither mesmerized by Mao's personal mystique nor subjugated by their fear of punishment, but followed him because they perceived his positions, skills, and information to be most appropriate for their own situation."

Are we seeing something analogous with Xi JInping today? Let's look at the evidence for a cult offered by several of the recent indictments.

1. "Official media are filled with fawning over 'Uncle Xi' and his wife, Peng Liyuan, a folk-singer whom flatterers call “Mama Peng”. A video, released in March, of a dance called “Uncle Xi in love with Mama Peng” has already been viewed over 300,000 times. There have been rumours recently that Mr Xi feels some of this has been going a bit far. Some of the most toadying videos, such as “The east is red again” (comparing Mr Xi to Mao), have been scrubbed from the internet." (The Economist, "Beware the cult of Xi")

2. "By some accounts, Chinese Presdient Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader the country hashad since Mao Zedong. One arrow in his quiver that echoes Mao’s armory is Xi’s embrace of popular song, listened to these days not on the radio or over a loudspeaker so much as via the Internet, where some 700 million citizens are connected to China’s heavily censored version of the world wide web. Dozens of these songs about Xi have gone viral. What is behind Xi's efforts to cultivate a cult of personality? How significant is it to the shape of Chinese politics going forward?" (ChinaFile, "Xi Jinping: A Cult of Personality?")

3. "As Xi moves into his fourth year as president of the world’s most populous nation, the two musicians are part of a growing chorus of Chinese minstrels singing the praises of the man they call “Xi Dada” which translates as Uncle or Big Daddy Xi..... Part of the fast-growing Xi repertoire seems to be genuinely spontaneous tributes to a leader whose high-profile anti-corruption campaign has won him many fans.  Other works – such as a big budget television song and dance extravaganza that was reportedly bankrolled by the government of Hunan province – appear part of a coordinated propaganda push to bolster Xi’s standing.... Some detect a troubling attempt to build a Mao-esque personality cult around Xi.  ( Tom Phillips, The Guardian, "Singing Xi's praises: chorus of Chinese pop songs celebrate president")

4. "Debate is heating up among ordinary citizens as well as intellectuals in China -- albeit not publicly -- over President Xi Jinping's personality cult.  A Tibetan delegate attending the annual meeting of the National People's Congress is interviewed in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5. The two pins he is wearing are noteworthy.  A controversy was recently sparked by Tibetan delegates at the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, during the opening session in Beijing on March 5. During their appearance at the Great Hall of the People, the Tibetans were all wearing pins bearing Xi's picture. Actually, they were each sporting two pins -- one picturing Xi alone, and the other featuring the past five Chinese leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi." (Nikkei Asian Review, "Xi's burgeoning personality cult stirs controversy")

A Xi Jinping pin. A song and dance routine. Some homemade (and official) viral videos. Taken together, these don't seem to me to be a cult of personality, or even the beginnings of one. They may be creepy and a break with the recent experience of the Hu-Wen era, but the official promotion of the leader is not the same thing as the deification of the leader.  This is not to deny the full-throated assault to bring Xi Jinping to the front and center of social and political discourse. From the proliferation of Xi-themed official websites and Wechat channels to the intra-Party campaigns to "Study the important Speeches of Xi Jinping,"  we're seeing much more of Xi than we did of Hu Jintao or even Jiang Zemin. Yet the key attributes of Mao's cult -- it's mass scale, it's ritualistic nature, it's penetration into the deepest levels of society, are clearly lacking. Given Xi's concentration of power and the assault on intellectual (and actual) freedom, we're right to be on guard, but let's make sure we're making the right diagnosis.

So for now, I think we should put aside the easy analogies (Xi is the new Mao!) and get to work on the much harder question: what the heck is Xi Jinping doing, and what will this mean for China and the world? I suspect the answer to this question, if we ever find it, will both surprise us and teach us much about how the CCP operates in the 21st Century.

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Mao Statue

I think the events of the past week, in which a massive 120-foot tall statue of Mao was unveiled and then quickly destroyed, are a nice microcosm for the larger discussion/debate on Mao Zedong's place in contemporary China. These are some preliminary thoughts, but I think we can tease out some conclusions even from the fragmentary information that's come from early reporting and online commentary.

Sometime around January 4th, photos emerged online showing the construction of a 36.6 meter tall statue of Mao Zedong in the village of Zhushigang (朱氏岗), Henan Province. According to reports in the Chinese media, the statue was built with RMB3 million ($465,000ish) in donated funds from local villages and several entrepreneurs (企业家), and was constructed out of steel-reinforced bar and cement with a gold paint job for an added flourish. Further reporting by the New York Times revealed that the idea of, and the funds for, the statue came from a Sun Qingxin, the head of the Lixing Group, and someone described by a local resident as "crazy about Mao."

This news was quickly picked up by the foreign media and a pattern emerged in their coverage: first the irony of a statue costing nearly half a million USD being built in one of China's poorest areas. Many pieces quoted one Weibo user who complained "They can do whatever they want with their own money. It is worth commending if they built a statue of their ancestors. But if the money was from the public pocket, a thorough investigation is needed." Second, and as captured by a headline in the Huffington Post's "Weird News" section, "Giant Chairman Mao Statue Erected Where Millions Died." The BBC noted "The province was the centre of a famine in the 1950s resulting from Mao's policies."

And then, just as suddenly as the statue had emerged, it was gone. Sometime during the late hours of January 7th, men in olive-colored coats arrived to begin the dismantling of the statue. Grainy photos emerged on Weibo and Wechat showing Mao's covered head and partially-destroyed legs. Hu Yanglin (胡杨麟) of the website 正声网 supported the dismantling of the statue in a post on Weibo, stating "...with a statue this big, safety can't be assured if it's not approved, and it's destruction is for the safety of everyone...." The well-known Maoist commentator Sima Pingbang (司马平邦) argued that if the 老百姓 weren't able to build their own Mao statues, they would be forced to carve his visage into the side of cliffs, as had been done with Buddhist images for centuries in Henan Province. "Do you [stupid officials] think you're tearing down one mere Mao statue? What you're doing is digging your own grave," he warned.

It's to some extent curious why this one particular statue elicited such controversy, as the absolute number of Mao statues has been fluctuating for decades. For the first few years after his death in 1976, untold number of Mao statues were brought down as the country officially purged itself of Maoism to clear the way for economic modernization. Perhaps the most poignant episode was the nighttime destruction in 1988 of a four-story-tall Mao statue at Peking University, the country’s most prestigious educational institution and young Mao Zedong’s former employer. One professor, who had helped originally erect the statue in 1967, told an AP journalist it was “a symbol of an era, and that era is over. Taking it down is only natural.” 

Yet after two decades of official "de-Maoification" (去毛化), the statues began to reappear. First, at Chongqing Medical University, where a 20-meter high statue was erected in 2008.  In 2009, the southern city of Changsha, where Mao attended primary school, erected a 32 meter-high statue of Mao, the then-largest ever constructed. This was followed by metropolis of Shenzhen, which unveiled a $16 million gold statue of Chairman Mao to commemorate his 120 birthday. According to a 2011 piece in the China Daily, “Mao statues fashionable again after four decades.”

So what's different now? For one thing, we're in a "Maoist Moment" -- interest in Mao, his legacy, his influence on Xi Jinping's governing style, his rehabilitation in the Party's propaganda apparatus, etc. have all contributed to the heightened interest in the Chairman. As we try to figure out where Xi is taking China (is he Deng? Mao?), both Chinese and non-Chinese are extra sensitive to seemingly isolated data points such as the Henan statue and its subsequent disappearance. We saw something similar in the 2009-2011 Bo Xilai era, when we in the West were again surprised by the outpouring of "redness" -- spontaneous or otherwise -- emanating from China. In the early 1990s there was the brief-lived "Mao Fever" (毛热), when, in the wake of 1989, the CCP was again forced to drag Mao out from the dustbin of history to revive its flagging legitimacy. Visits to Mao's hometown of Shaoshan, near Changsha, soured as cadres and employees at SOEs were "encouraged" to make a pilgrimage.

But second, I think this incident tells us something important about the complicated relationship between the CCP and its most important founding father, Mao Zedong.  Mao is at the same time the most important long-term guarantor of the CCP's legitimacy, but also its greatest threat. I think the oft-heard claim from the neo-Maoists that "without Chairman Mao there is no New China" is indisputably true, and one can hold this opinion without minimizing the atrocities that occurred during Mao's reign. The CCP knows that it can't part ways with Mao, given how integrally he's grafted onto the PRC's founding myth/narrative. To put it another way, don't expect Mao to disappear from China's currency anytime soon.

But perhaps more importantly, if the Chinese people begin to take Mao and Maoism too seriously, things begin to get tricky for the CCP. Maoism, if it is nothing else, is a philosophy that disdains stability and authority. 维稳, or stability maintenance, is decidedly not a Maoist concept. Rather, think of Maoism as 造反有理, or as he put it in a letter to Red Guards in 1966, "You say it is right to rebel against reactionaries; I enthusiastically support you." Fear of bureaucratic capitalism infiltrating the Party and government lay at the heart of Mao's governing vision, but for those wielding the reigns of power today, this "permanent revolution" can be more like a permanent threat.

So think of the today's CCP as trying to find the Goldilocks Theory of Maoism. Too cold and it looses one of its most important ideological and historical legitimators. Too hot, however, and it risks a grassroots movement where Mao's radical vision for society -- the absolute primacy of the human will to tear down any obstacle -- threatens the existing power structure.

So back to that pile of rubble in Henan. My hunch is that the statue was unpalatable to the CCP precisely because it was unsanctioned. This is not a matter of regulator approval (imagine how much would have to be shut down if that concept were to be taken seriously), but rather it was not part of the official narrative on Mao that the CCP is trying to create/guide/control. If an entrepreneur can join forces with peasants to erect the largest Mao statue in the country, where does it go next? Right now in Maoist circles there is a concerted and quite energetic attempt to have December 26th (Mao's birthday) classified as an official holiday and renamed "People's Day" (人民节). For the same reason I believe the Henan statue could not be allowed to stand, so too I think the People's Day campaign is doomed.

In today's China, Mao Zedong is just too important to be left to the people.

Photo from Imagechina

Mao: Perpetually Rolling in His Grave

In the midst of the stock market slump, several news organizations have taken the time to note that China now has more stock traders than CCP members. A story in Bloomberg opens with "Stock investors of the world unite! For the first time in modern China, you outnumber the Communists." 

The Washington Post picked up on the Bloomberg lede: "There are now officially more stock market investors in China than there are Communist Party members, Bloomberg reported this week. But if capitalists definitively rule China, they have had a very rough few days."

And then there's this video report from CNN:  "Here's something Chairman Mao probably wouldn't approve of: China now has some 90 million stock trading accounts. There are current around 88 card-carrying members of the Communist Party. That means there are officially now more capitalists than communists in China."

The BBC found the comparison too good to pass on: "...an even bigger club than the 88-million strong Chinese Communist Party is the 90-million strong army of individual investors on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets."

Two things stand out to me here. The first is the common trope of comparing the size of Group X to the membership of the CCP and using this as a proxy for party legitimacy. There are many such reports about the size of the Christian population in China overtaking CCP membership (here, here, and here).

Two things strike me as interesting about this framing device. The first is that it's hard to see what comparing the size of the CCP to Group X accomplishes. The premise of the above reports is that "stock traders > CCP members =  end of history." Yet by definition, as an elite governing party, its membership will always be limited. If it wanted to, the CCP could  expand its ranks to 91 million, thus overtaking the stock traders, but would this mean that communism has retaken the high ground?

But more interesting to me is the way that Mao Zedong still looms large in the reporting of journalists and writers. Moves of repression or power centralization are often compared to the Mao era. Moments of liberalization or "Westernization" are similarly juxtaposed with the heady days of Maoism when Activity X wasn't permitted. The phrase "Mao would be turning in his grave" is one of the most jarring manifestations of this posture. In fact, it's almost a boilerplate for any piece on Chinese politics to reference Mao or the Mao era.

My book is making the case that Mao still matters for China, but perhaps I'll need to add a chapter on how Mao still looms large in the US as well.


Here goes...

"Craft" is a word I typically associate with beer, largely because I really like craft beer. But now that I've started to work on my book, I've come to appreciate the importance of "craft" in writing, and the absolute necessity of doing more of the thing I want to get better at. An obvious thing, no doubt, but something I've struggled owing to laziness. In order to both stimulate ideas and do more writing, I'm going to use this space to think out loud about the issues and ideas that I come across in the research of my book, Resurrecting Mao. Comments, thoughts, and criticisms welcome.