Can Xi Jinping succeed where Mao failed?

Kerry Brown says that while Xi Jinping's tough language on tackling corruption has certain parallels to Mao, the party he runs and society today are far more complex, making his task that much harder

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 3:31am

Once upon a time there was a leader of a major country who grew so tired with vested interests and self-serving elites who had their hands on the main levers of power that he decided to launch a campaign to bring them down to size.

He talked of their corruption, of their being remote from the people, of their failing in their historic mandate to be the moral, just rulers of a nation being reborn and rejuvenated. He came out with powerful statements at public meetings to mobilise officials to live more simply and return to their core values, as servants of the people, not those being served.

He found, ranged against him, an array of powerful opponents who were ready to aggressively look after their own particular areas of interest. Some years after he had started this attempt, he admitted that, despite his very best efforts, he had failed.

Placing Mao Zedong next to Xi Jinping would no doubt be an unwelcome thing to do publicly in Beijing these days. While Mao's grandson is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, handling the chairman's legacy is a tough task.

Still popular as a nationalist and supporter of Chinese dignity among certain sections of the population, more information is coming out inside and outside China about the less palatable aspects of his period of rule. The most impressive of these to date is Tombstone, the epic, moving account by Yang Jisheng of the famines of the early 1960s.

Placing the good and bad Mao against each other is still a step too far for politicians in Beijing. For them, it is simply best to look back to the 1981 resolution on party history and the assessment of Mao there (majority good, small part bad) and let the issue sleep.

But Xi's language about fighting corruption and closing the gap between the rulers and the ruled has odd parallels with some periods of Maoism. In 1966, Mao was instrumental in launching the epic Cultural Revolution campaign.

This was the campaign that Wen Jiabao , in his remarks prefiguring the fall of Bo Xilai last year, mentioned during the annual National People's Congress then. He talked of the Cultural Revolution being a disaster for China and its people, and something it could never return to. But there are elements of this epic and complex moment that might not be so simple to brush into historic oblivion.

One of these is the central objective of the campaign then simply to attack the ways in which the party had become an ossified self-serving bureaucracy and the servant of too many vested interests. Mao spoke often of the party being overtaken by mini-barons and overlords who ran particular provinces or ministries as though these were theirs by right.

This notion of some sort of "blood right" to be leaders was the inspiration behind some of the rebellious groups then mobilising and moving in on sections of the elite in order to smash their grip on power locally. Ironically, it was figures such as Bo Yibo , Bo Xilai's father, and Xi Zhongxun , Xi Jinping's father, who figured as victims, taking the blame for allowing the party to stray from its historic and moral mandate and become this way.

Almost half a century on, the Communist Party has perhaps become the very thing that Mao most feared - an enormous semi-autonomous economy, a state within a state, where large areas of its activities are now dominated by elite families or networks, existing to serve their own interests.

The security apparatus in particular, under Zhou Yongkang , became an immense behemoth with a budget of over US$100 billion. This was approximately the same figure imputed to the 90 richest members of the National People's Congress in a recent report from the Hurun Research Institute. In an odd way, the wealth of this group is equivalent to the funding of China's internal security - at least from public figures. This is one of the telling "parallel tales" that contemporary China gives to us, which helps a little in capturing the complexity of the country now.

Xi Jinping is not about to start anything like a Cultural Revolution. China is a radically different place to how it was in 1966. For one thing, it is much richer. But the structural challenge that Xi has been alluding to through his talk of needing to attack corruption is not dissimilar to that which Mao had in his sights five decades ago.

How do you hold the party to account when it is so dominant in society, and where it remains this infuriating mixture of opaque but also ubiquitous? The party needs to reform itself, has needed to reform itself for decades. Since 1978, it has allowed the economy, and in many ways society, to undergo profound processes of modernisation. But it remains at the centre of all of this, perhaps the one significant structure in the country that has changed very little since 1949.

Xi would never invoke Mao, but in his battle with the various self-interested groups who are controlling areas of the party's interests, from the military, to the security services, the state tobacco monopoly, the state-owned enterprises, and so on, perhaps the one lesson he can take from Mao is that his greatest weapon in this struggle is moral pressure.

Like Mao, he has to appeal to a mission which the party is fulfilling, of national greatness, which unites all the disparate communities in China. And, like Mao, he has to appeal to a positive narrative of where all this is going, and how devastating the effect will be if China and the party shift off target in their collaboration to return the country to its historic status as a great and powerful nation.

There is one big disadvantage that Xi has over Mao. The Chinese society he lives in, and the party he runs, are vastly more complex even than the time of Mao.

And so Mao's failure to achieve his aim in the end, to return the party to its roots and the purity of its founding purpose, must give Xi, and the rest of us, pause for thought.

Kerry Brown is executive director of the China Studies Centre and professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney