Seventy years ago, as his troops were completing their victory in the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, which he ruled until his death 27 years later. It was one of the greatest humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophes of modern times.
The three great tyrants of the twentieth century – Hitler, Stalin and Mao – are a study in contrasts. Hitler overthrew a (badly) functioning democracy; Stalin took over an already established dictatorship; Mao won a civil war against a corrupt authoritarian regime. But all proceeded to concentrate power in their own hands, at the price of almost unimaginable bloodshed.
Of the three, Mao had the hardest time of it within his own party. Once established in power, neither Hitler nor Stalin ever faced a serious internal challenge (although Stalin, being paranoid, behaved as if he did). But Mao had to struggle to retain control in the 1960s, after the disasters of the Great Leap Forward; only with the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 was he able to destroy his party enemies.
Yet Mao, alone of the three, has preserved some historical credit. Hitler’s name is taboo in Germany and throughout the civilised world; Stalin is given at best some grudging credit in Russia for his wartime leadership. But Mao’s portrait still looms large over Tiananmen Square and in a thousand other official locations, and China’s leaders to this day profess allegiance to his thought.
To a large extent, the profession is bogus. China changed radically after Mao’s death in 1976 and the return to power of his rival Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Marxist ideology was dropped and free market economics was embraced – and the country boomed, a long economic expansion that continues today and has pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty.
But the rulers were never willing to meet the associated demand for political reform. Deng himself crushed a pro-democracy revolt in 1989, and his successors, while occasionally flirting with greater liberalisation, always kept control firmly in their own hands.
Since the advent of Xi Jinping to the leadership in 2012, the pendulum has swung back towards totalitarian control. Mao, neglected in the 1980s, has been refurbished, his image used to preach a message of obedience and conformity in a world full of contrary pressures.
The shift is not unprecedented. Stalin’s immediate successors also pursued liberalisation, and Khrushchev famously denounced his crimes in 1956. But the basic structures of the dictatorship went untouched, and although Stalin was never rehabilitated as Mao has been, the old guard was able to depose Khrushchev and reassert control under Leonid Brezhnev.
A single dictator can be removed by death, but their institutions typically live on. It took Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle the totalitarian state and the Soviet empire; his Chinese counterparts watched and took, from their country’s point of view, the wrong lesson.
Well-meaning western commentators still often say that Deng succeeded where Gorbachev failed, but the truth is the opposite. Gorbachev succeeded in peacefully freeing the subject nations and bringing something like normalcy to Russia: for all Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism, he has nothing like the comprehensive control that Xi exercises.
Deng, it seems, hoped that with Mao quietly shunted to the historical sidelines, growing prosperity would eventually allow a painless transition to democracy. Instead, the opposite has happened. Armed with the wealth that Deng’s reforms made possible, Xi’s regime is flexing its muscles internationally while doubling down on domestic and colonial repression.
This is unlikely to end well. After decades of turning a blind eye, the democracies seem to be waking up to the fact that China represents a major problem. But none of them have hit on an answer, and it may well be that there are no good answers.
Let the last word go to the editorial in yesterday’s Guardian, hardly the voice of the global right:
the party is promoting its historical message more assiduously than ever, at a time which, though very different from the past, bears distinct echoes of it. The “people’s leader” has overseen growing repression, a resurgence of ideology, and is increasingly invoking the idea of struggle. China is seeking to reshape the international order once more. Xi is already looking ahead to the republic’s centenary, 30 years hence. Might another story be told by then?
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