A new group of leaders recently took power in China. After becoming the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in November, Xi Jinping just received another official title: President of the People’s Republic of China. This new group of leaders also includes several Politburo members, each tasked with overseeing political, military, economic and cultural affairs in China. This ruling body proclaimed that it will not “take the old path” nor “the wicked route” in the future, preferring instead to “create a new path.” Whatever the meaning of this convoluted metaphor, it fails to shed light on the new government’s policy intentions. Are they referring to choosing between the “Mao road” or the “Deng road?” Everybody is thoroughly confused.
Of course, we have seen some “new signs.” For example, Xi Jinping has asked his daughter who was studying in the US to return to China. Wang Qishan has also stated that he will take charge in severely cracking down on corruption and degeneration. Moreover, the whole Communist Party, from low-level minions to high-ranking officials, is prohibited from engaging in food and drink binges, using public cars for private travel, and conducting extravagant meetings. Officials also assert that the “laojiao” labor camp system must end. Additionally, the central government will reportedly consolidate departments of the State Council, especially the two departments in charge of family planning and railway affairs. Xi Jinping has also signaled an intention to fight intensely for control of the contested Diaoyu Islands, thus greatly enhancing nationalism and patriotism. The list goes on and on.
China watchers have also speculated on how the government will handle some of the more high profile cases after the “National People’s Congress” concludes in March. Regarding Bo Xilai, the way in which his trial is conducted has no bearing on its eventual outcome; Bo Xilai is a dead tiger and everyone is just enjoying watching the show. Xi Jinping will, however, likely do something in the case of Liu Xiaobo. Originally, Liu Xiaobo firmly declined to go overseas and insisted upon staying in China. This angered the Hu Jintao regime and prompted it to issue a draconian sentence. If Liu Xiaobo has somehow “repented” during the last two years and agreed to leave China, in light of the widespread international attention the case has received, the Xi Jinping regime will likely immediately give him the green light to leave the country. However, it is also possible that the regime will first release him on medical parole before releasing him from custody entirely if he obeys certain stipulated terms.
Are there still broader issues to tackle? Yes. One is the historical legacy of Mao Zedong. In light of Mao’s notoriety, a number of disturbing facts would come to light if people in China were allowed to publicly criticize his reign. Such truths include how Mao drove Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi, He Long and Lin Biao to death, how 35-45 million people starved to death during the Great Famine as a result of his policies (an era also marked by widespread cannibalism), and how more than 1 million “rightists” were persecuted during various campaigns. In the end, Mao killed all of the landlords and instituted a policy of “land reform,” which granted the government control over all land in China. Government officials have since enriched themselves through exploiting this ill-gotten land for commercial use. If these facts were exposed, at the very least, Mao’s portrait and corpse would not remain in Tiananmen Square.
Revealing Mao’s legacy, however, has more practical relevance to China’s current system of governance than cosmetic changes to Tiananmen Square. On a procedural level, the way in which thousands of members of the People’s Congress are appointed and the process of “electing” members of the ruling Standing Committee remains the same as it did during Mao’s time. The institution and structure of Chinese governance is the direct product of Mao. How can they dispose of this system’s grand architect, Mao Zedong? Doing so might fundamentally alter China’s political landscape. Perhaps this is the substantive content of the Party’s proposed reforms. If so, people might get a clearer understanding of the meaning of “reforms.”
During the last couple of days, I have watched interviews with Mao Xinyu, Mao Zedong’s grandson, that were broadcast on Phoenix TV. Mao Xinyu talked very excitedly about democracy and, just like Xi Jinping, lambasted corrupt Party members. In fact, before taking over China in 1949, his grandfather had talked to the democrat Huang Yanpei about democracy and spoken about American democracy with journalists. After taking power, he still talked about “democracy.” This time, however, it referred to “socialist democracy,” which is quite different. Later, when it came to purging Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, there was “no time” to talk about democracy. Therefore, when I heard Mao Xinyu talking about democracy with such passion, I could not help but want to hear his thoughts on the evolution of Mao Zedong’s “democratic” ideas and the prospects for Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream.” Maybe he could help me decode Xi’s recent statements.
Additional slogans recited by Xi and his colleagues have not provided any more clarity regarding the direction in which they plan to lead China. Recently, however, Xi delivered a speech that drew considerable attention. Quite unexpectedly, he talked about the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party in 1991. He asked, “Why was there not a single ‘real man’ willing to stand up to it?”
I was greatly dismayed by this remark and even doubted whether I had heard it correctly. I thought that maybe the media had got it wrong. Was he actually suggesting that the Soviet Union fell because of the weakness and cowardice of individual leaders? The Soviet Union was an enormous empire composed of 16 republics, possessed thousands of long-range missiles and nuclear bombs, and flaunted an immensely powerful air force, army, and internal security apparatus. How come such an empire suddenly disintegrated? How come all the 16 component republics declared independence one-by-one? After all, the Soviet Communist Party was the very first socialist regime. Theoretically and practically, it possessed a wealth of experience and cultural richness. Countless Soviet citizens had sacrificed their lives for the communist cause. How come all suddenly changed? Was it simply abandoned? I too wonder why no single “real man” stood up to resist change. Did Gorbachev, Xi’s straw man, just entice everyone to submit to his will through his overwhelming charisma? Maybe Gorbachev used his overpowering strength to vanquish the Communist Party. Perhaps, however, this was the natural result of societal forces pushing the country toward the historical trend of democratic empowerment.
In 1992, I traveled to Moscow. Most streets were dark at dusk, likely a consequence of ongoing turmoil. While walking the streets of Moscow, I bought and (picked up) many certificates of Soviet party membership that had been abandoned. One such certificate indicated that the person had been a member of the Party for 28 years. In my view, it takes a real man to discard this badge of identity under the former regime and embrace a freer but more uncertain future. Maybe this faceless citizen in fact represents the “real man” of history.
Today’s Moscow has changed drastically since my visit and will see even more change in the future. In spite of the many problems associated with the transition from communism, the change represented progress. In addition to undergoing drastic “shock therapy,” it is worth noting that Russia did not abolish state ownership of land until 2002, 11 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, although many legitimately criticize Russian President Putin, Russia is a better place than it was under communist rule.
Communist revolution (or socialist revolution) is the real-world implementation of a political ideology positing that a society run by and for the working class is the inevitable outcome of political evolution. That is, when seeking prosperity, equality, freedom, and high-quality life, people would ultimately trust in the ideas and propositions of such men as Marx and Engels. Capitalizing on this sentiment, Lenin further argued that an intellectual elite, a ‘vanguard of professional revolutionaries,’ holds the responsibility of inciting and leading the working class to revolution. Lenin, and later Stalin, assumed this role of leading the revolution in the Soviet Union. In China, however, rather than leading a working class revolution, Mao Zedong incited peasant revolts to violently overthrow the established order.
The Soviet Communist Party established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics by uniting 16 republics and claimed to “liberate all humanity,” eradicate exploitation, and set up a world communist society where there would be no classes and equality would prevail. Countless people sacrificed their lives for this ideal. In the end, however, the great Soviet Union disappeared. This was not because any single “real man” willed it to disappear, nor was it because a “real man” failed to stand up to the opposition. It was because of a broader, unyielding societal shift that demanded reform.
Faced with this historical trend toward democratic empowerment, does Xi Jinping really just want some “real man” to stand up and resist change? Perhaps he meant to say that he wants a specific man to cement his legacy by preventing the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party. Maybe Xi envisions himself as playing the role of this heroic “real man.”
China is currently at the same crossroads faced by the Soviet Union decades ago. Looking beyond ambiguous statements about “old roads” and “wicked roads,” Xi’s claims about the “real man” of history provide insight into the path he wishes to take. It seems that the mighty Xi Jinping wants to be the “real man” who stands up to overwhelming historical forces.
We all of course know what will come of pitiful Xi Jinping’s attempt to resist inevitable change.