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A couple take a selfie in front of a giant portrait of Mao at the Tiananmen gate in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

What would Mao have made of Xi Jinping’s China?

Jeffrey Wasserstrom says notwithstanding his fondness for quoting Mao, the current chairman’s enthusiasm for Confucian values, for one, would not have impressed

Xi Jinping

If Mao came back to life, what would he think of a People’s Republic of China filled with mega malls, millionaires and multiplexes?

Many commentators, myself included, have explored this question, but it seems worth asking again as we find ourselves having just passed the 50th anniversary of the start of the chairman’s last campaign and nearing the 40th anniversary of his death. More specifically, given how different President Xi Jinping (習近平) has proved to be than his immediate predecessors, it is worth asking what the first leader of the People’s Republic of China would make of the current one – and, better yet, asking not what a single Mao would think of him but rather how a young Mao, a middle-aged Mao and an elderly Mao would react to the man now in charge.

Some biographers treat Mao Zedong (毛澤東), who was born in December 1893 and died in September 1976, as a figure who changed little over time. I find more persuasive, however, works that see a Mao of the New Culture Movement era as separable from a Mao of the Long March, the Civil War and first years of the People’s Republic, and distinguish both this young Mao and middle-aged Mao from the older figure responsible for the disastrous Great Leap Forward and chaotic Cultural Revolution decade.

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Tourists and students look at a Confucius statue at a temple in Beijing. Mao would find it strange that Xi claims to be carrying forward the ideals of the Chinese revolution yet also treats Confucius as a sage to be revered. Photo: Reuters

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So, starting with the youngest Mao, what would the New Culture Movement intellectual think of Xi? He would find it strange that Xi claims to be carrying forward the ideals of the Chinese revolution yet also treats Confucius as a sage to be revered. Some of Mao’s first writings, after all, criticised Confucian ideas about marriage and the family, presenting them as backward notions that needed to be jettisoned if China were to progress.

A young Mao would also object to the way current government propaganda warns of the pernicious quality of “Western ideas”, since he felt, like other New Culture Movement intellectuals, that China would be best served by being open to novel notions coming from any part of the world.

A Mao circa 1950 would be heartened to discover that the Communist Party, which in 1949 had driven the Nationalist Party into exile on Taiwan, was still in control of the mainland. He would, though, like his earlier self, find Xi’s appeal to traditional Confucian values peculiar, feeling this made the latest Communist Party leader seem like an old Nationalist one. In the early 1930s, Chiang Kai-shek had launched a “New Life Movement” predicated on the idea that Sun Yat-sen’s goals and Confucian virtues were compatible.

Portraits of five women’s rights advocates arrested on the mainland are shown during a protest against their treatment, during a rally held last year in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters

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This middle-aged Mao would also wonder why China’s current leaders had moved against the “Five Feminists”, simply because they were calling for increased attention to harassment of women in public spaces; the first campaign Mao led after taking control of the mainland was a drive to promote a “new marriage law” putting wives on an equal footing with their husbands.

What, then, of the last Mao, a paranoid and power-mad figure?

His feelings about the current scene would be decidedly mixed. On the negative side, Xi’s pro-Confucian statements would bother him – just like they had his imagined younger selves. He would be distressed that Xi shows no interest in promoting class struggle, something he always emphasised. And he would find it curious that so much emphasis is put these days on harping on the terrible things that Japan did to China in the 1930s and 1940s, for late in life Mao had sometimes said that the two countries should try to put past enmities behind them and figure out a new way to interact in a world that was very different.

On the plus side, he would like it that Xi is so fond of quoting him. Even more gratifying to this elderly egotist would be his discovery that, despite all the ways that China has changed, his mausoleum still stands in a place of honour in the centre of Tiananmen Square.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and the author, most recently, of Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo, which was the focus of a talk he gave at the Royal Geographical Society of Hong Kong this week