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Celebrating Mao's 123rd birth anniversary in Shaoshan, Hunan province in December. Photo: Reuters

Analysis Disruptive, intolerant and populist icon: why Trump is seen as an American Mao

Several China watchers in the US see similarities ­between the incoming president and the late Chinese leader

Donald Trump

As a political leader who knows how to overturn tradition and established order through populism, US president-elect Donald Trump could be the true heir of Mao Zedong, according to several China experts in the US who see many identical traits ­between the two men.

Orville Schell, an old China hand and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, said Trump bore many similarities to the late strongman.

One analyst said that like Mao, Trump is bent on overturning the old order. Photo: AP

“Mao Zedong was a revolutionary, he was a populist. He could take aim at anyone and turn over order,” Schell said.

Mao believed that you had to destroy the old before you could build the new, Schell told a workshop organised by the Asia Society in New York forecasting Trump’s China policy during his first 100 days in office. Schell pointed to Mao’s push to destroy China’s ideological system by staging the Cultural Revolution, which saw elites replaced by peasants and workers in an “absolutely upside down situation”

Kerry Brown, a China expert at King’s College in London, also drew parallels between the two leaders. Writing in the online magazine The Diplomat, Brown said both Mao and Trump disliked scholars, and Mao brutally retaliated against anyone who even “slightly opposed him”.

“Brutal attacks on the media, constant direct appeals to the public to support him in taking on the vested interests of the elite, and a policymaking ethos dominated by contradictions seems to be what America and the world can expect in the coming years,” Brown wrote, warning the United States could see its own version of the Cultural Revolution.

However, Daniel Rosen, founding partner of research company Rhodium Group who also attended the Asia Society event, argued that Mao believed in revolutionary moves as a core “political tactic”, and it was too early to know if Trump was “a real revolutionary”, given the discordant message coming out of his transition team.

But mainland-based Chinese experts said America’s complex system of governance would prevent Trump from carrying out any “significant subversive reform”.

Chen Daoying, an associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said both Mao and Trump were skilful in using populism to bypass bureaucratic systems dominated by elites, to directly engage with the people. Mao used the Cultural Revolution to canonise his image among the grass roots, while Trump solidified his popularity via Twitter.

But Zhang Yuquan, a researcher of American studies at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said Mao and Trump were only similar in so far as both had subverted some traditions in their countries.“Trump’s businessman nature makes him believe that everything can be negotiated, even including human rights and ideology. Mao’s political sense is much more lofty than his.”