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Xi Plays Mao Without the Madness

The future is not set, and contra Xi’s boastful rhetoric, freedom still is the better bet for the world.

Porcelain statue of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping on a stall.
Porcelain statue of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping on a stall. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)

War with Russia is unsettling countries around the globe, but the most serious challenge to the U.S. and West is likely to come from Beijing. The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party has convened, and General Secretary Xi Jinping appears set for a third term, and ultimately perhaps rule for life.

The import of his 64-page report to assembled CCP paladins was simple: communism and dictatorship forever. Explained Xi, “Since its founding a century ago, the Communist Party of China has taken a remarkable journey. Our Party has dedicated itself to achieving lasting greatness for the Chinese nation and committed itself to the noble cause of peace and development for humanity. Our responsibility is unmatched in importance, and our mission is glorious beyond compare.”

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For centuries, China underperformed, as a ramshackle and badly governed empire. Western imperial powers, joined by Japan, took advantage to extract wealth and impose their will on that distant and alien land. Imperial China suffered through what is now typically labeled the “Century of Humiliation.” Both Hong Kong and Taiwan were separated from the mainland by military defeats. This history provides a narrative long used by the CCP to buttress its rule.

For much of its existence the PRC was less attractive than the Soviet Union. After all, despite their practiced pitch as rural reformers, Mao Zedong and his fellow revolutionary icons were no moderates. Life in China was worse under Mao and the Chinese Communist Party than in the USSR even under Joseph Stalin.

The Chinese civil war and CCP’s post-revolutionary consolidation of power were as bloody and deadly as the Russian civil war and aftermath. The Great Leap Forward, which mixed agricultural collectivization with backyard industrialization, killed more people while producing less steel than Stalin’s comparable campaign. Moreover, his Great Terror did not match the PRC’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a terrible and bizarre mix of party purge/power play/social upheaval/personality cult/civil war/political immolation.

Richard Nixon ended the PRC’s effective isolation from the West in 1972. The maneuver reflected grand geopolitics, but Western governments, along with a gaggle of policymakers and analysts, also hoped for a liberal, democratic transformation of the PRC. Yet the communist state lives on, more than 73 years after Mao famously proclaimed its founding.

China moved away from Mao after his death in 1976. Within a couple years the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping had climbed the political mountaintop, tagged as “paramount leader.” Although he believed in the CCP’s right to rule, he dispensed with communist orthodoxy in managing the economy.

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The PRC dramatically relaxed economic controls while maintaining its tight political grip. Freeing workers from collective farms multiplied food production and yielded surplus labor to fuel economic growth and improve living standards. The Chinese people became responsible for education, employment, and other life decisions previously decided by the CCP. Private business provided manifold opportunities for both prosperity and corruption. Economic benefits spread across China, along with resentment of overbearing and profiteering political elites.

Support for political liberalization also rose, leading to the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crisis. The violent crackdown, which went well beyond Beijing, halted movement toward a freer political system; but even after the subsequent CCP purge, political controls were substantially looser than under Mao. The system was authoritarian, but with space for carefully calibrated criticism and debate.

Even more important for the West, Beijing remained well behind the U.S. and allied states. The PRC seemed, and indeed, was, far from a threat to the U.S. and international liberal order. However, that China was soon swept away. The country grew fast. Accumulating wealth strengthened the Chinese state and private sector and turned Beijing into a military and economic powerhouse. Over the last decade, Xi made a sharp turn toward Leninism, emphasizing party and personal dictatorship.

The resulting regime is antagonistic to just about every liberal value and interest, in America and elsewhere. Indeed, China, though once a nonfactor in global affairs, now poses a significant challenge to a liberal, free, and democratic order. Not every policy it follows is malign and not every problem it creates requires a response, let alone justifies military action. However, Beijing is a new kind of adversary.

Over the last decade space for individual thought and action in the PRC has steadily closed. And themes from the Maoist era are returning. For instance, echoing Mao’s campaign to send educated urban elites to the countryside, Xi’s government now is promoting “labor education,” which is supposed to remedy “wrong ideas.” Although universities are unlikely to be emptied like during the Cultural Revolution, Xi has shown his willingness to back rhetoric with force.

The regime increasingly interferes with personal behavior that has but the faintest political overtones. For instance, Beijing has begun restricting “LARPing,” essentially costumed play-acting, which is common in the U.S. and gaining fans in the PRC. Reported the Economist: “The government is worried, for several reasons. One is that no formal mechanism exists for censoring the scripts. They are circulated in samizdat form, without going through the normal publishing process. There has been much hand-wringing in state media over the danger this poses of players being exposed to ‘harmful’ content such as sex, violence or supernatural horror.” Shanghai now requires submission of scripts and bans anything that “threatens national security.” A Weibo user complained: “If you want us to become North Koreans, just say so.”

At the same time, Xi has been steadily limiting contact with the West and liberal values, which he views as a threat to CCP rule. Reported the New York Times: “Education officials are imposing restrictions on English education and requiring that scholars ask permission to attend even virtual international conferences. Regulators have punished Chinese companies for raising money overseas. Mr. Xi has exhorted artists to embrace ‘cultural confidence’ by promoting traditional Chinese literature and art and has warned against imitating Hollywood.”

If the “China threat” was only the country’s return to Maoist levels of oppression, free peoples worldwide might regret the outcome but remain secure. However, Beijing’s ambitions extend beyond the PRC’s old borders. Expatriates and dissidents living abroad are harassed, surveilled, and threatened. In Hong Kong, the civil and political freedoms of decades of British rule have been roughly extinguished.

Taiwan, now a rambunctious, often raucous democracy, would suffer the same fate if absorbed by China. Observed the PRC’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, reeducation, by unstated means, would be necessary: “Why do I say ‘reeducate’? Because the authorities of Taiwan have made an education of ‘desinicisation’ on its population, which is effectively indoctrinated and intoxicated. It must be reeducated to eliminate separatist thought and secessionist theory.” As well as, no doubt, belief in liberal values. With sufficient indoctrination, said Lu, “the Taiwanese public will once again become patriots.” By this, he meant obedient communists.

Beijing is using its increased wealth to create a military typically ranked third behind the U.S. and Russia, and, given plans for nuclear expansion, may soon supplant Russia for number two. There is no evident Chinese program to seize the equivalent of Lebensraum, but the PRC is increasingly seen as willing to challenge “the international rules-based order,” or status quo, and, in turn, the Western countries that most benefit from that system. Chances for violent confrontation between China and America are growing.

The PRC has changed since the establishment of official relations. Hope that Xi would be a reformer long ago dissipated. His driving philosophy as expressed at the national congress is unchallenged CCP control forever: “Upholding the Party’s overall leadership is the path we must take to uphold and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

A serious but calibrated international response is required. However, despite fearmongering in the U.S. and elsewhere, the PRC is not about to displace the U.S. as the world’s dominant power and conquer most of the known world. Beijing suffers from what increasingly looks like a perfect storm: slowing international economy, real estate collapse, tsunami of bad debt, expanding CCP economic interference, demographic implosion, and destructive zero-COVID policy.

Internationally, China has few friends and no real military allies: even Pyongyang barely tolerates and is barely tolerated by Beijing. So-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy has offended close trading partners. The PRC’s military pretensions are largely limited to its own region, which Beijing, unlike Washington in the Western hemisphere, doesn’t dominate. There is no Chinese threat to the American homeland.

There is still much for the West to do. The future is not set, and contra Xi’s boastful rhetoric, freedom still is the better bet for the world. Washington should start by addressing its own weaknesses. Free and allied states can constrain the PRC when necessary while cooperating with Beijing when possible, addressing Chinese abuses without adopting the PRC’s authoritarian and collectivist strategies. Americans should continue to engage the Chinese people, especially the young, showing respect for a great civilization while making the case for a free rather than totalitarian society. America can remember the crises she has overcome in the past, and confidently confront the China challenge today.

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