Is Xi Jinping looking to take Chairman Mao’s place?

Mia Ping-chieh Chen for RFA Mandarin
Is Xi Jinping looking to take Chairman Mao’s place? A portrait of the late Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong is displayed at a market stall in Beijing on Sept. 5, 2022.
Noel Celis/AFP

As the ruling Chinese Communist Party marks the 46th anniversary of the death of its leader Mao Zedong, concerns are being raised in some quarters that current leader Xi Jinping is hoping to emulate the “Great Helmsman’s” supreme status in the party hierarchy.

At the CCP’s 20th National Congress on Oct. 16, Xi will be seeking an unprecedented third term in office, after amending the constitution to abolish presidential term limits in 2018.

The move comes amid growing fears of a Mao-style personality cult around Xi, as institutions and political figures compete to show the utmost loyalty to Xi and his personal brand of political ideology.

Cai Xia, a former professor at the CCP’s party school now living in exile, said Xi has angered many in the ranks of the ruling party, who feel he has abandoned the more collective style of leadership established after the death of late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.

“Xi, a devoted student of Mao and just as eager to leave his mark on history, has worked to establish his absolute power,” Cai wrote in a recent analysis in Foreign Policy magazine.

“And because previous reforms failed to place real checks and balances on the party leader, he has succeeded,” she wrote. “Now, as under Mao, China is a one-man show.”

Cai said she was unable to schedule an interview when Radio Free Asia contacted her about the article. RFA is an online news service affiliated with BenarNews.

Xi is certainly drawing on Mao’s legacy as he consolidates his personal power, said Deng Yuwen, a former newspaper editor for a CCP party school publication.

“He wants to portray himself as another Mao Zedong, and portray himself as a kind of god to replace Mao Zedong among the people, but this is actually impossible,” Deng told RFA.

“This kind of personality cult is an officially sponsored form of worship, so everyone knows they’re just going through the motions,” Deng said.

“Just because someone shouts ‘Long live Xi!’ in public, doesn’t mean they’re going to be shouting that in private,” Deng said. “It’s just pretend.”

Chen Kuide, executive chairman of the Princeton China Society, said Xi’s approach isn’t without risk, however.

“There is a group of people who have gained political and economic benefits since Xi came to power, but there aren’t actually very many of them,” Chen said.

“They also lack the political clout of the other factions.”

“They just have a lot more power in the party and hold their posts because of Xi Jinping,” he said.

Xi Jinping delivers a speech at a New Year's event held by the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, Dec. 31, 2021. [Yan Yan/Xinhua via AP]

Extending power

Xi is widely expected to secure a third five-year leadership term at the 20th party congress next month, cementing his status as China’s most powerful leader since Chairman Mao.

The CCP will amend its constitution in October during a leadership reshuffle held over five years, according to a report on Sept. 9 from state news agency Xinhua.

The Politburo of the CCP’s Central Committee discussed the draft amendment to the party charter, the agency reported, but gave no specific details.

Reuters quoted political analysts as saying that the amendment could shorten the title of Xi’s personal brand of ideology to “Xi Jinping Thought,” which would bring it closer in status to “Mao Zedong Thought” in the popular consciousness, the agency said.

Other possible changes could see the establishment of Xi as the “core” of the party, and his ideas as its guiding principles, or the reinstatement of the post of party chairman, which was abolished in 1982, it said.

The party constitution can only be amended during a CCP National Congress, which take place every five years.

According to Cai, “stealth infighting” within party ranks will likely intensify, with possible arrests and trials of more high-ranking officials as his critics seek to leak more information unfavorable to the Chinese leader.

She said that, if successful, Xi is likely to take a third term as a mandate to carry out further steps on his “national rejuvenation” plan for China.

“Xi will double down on his statist economic policies,” Cai predicted. “To maintain his grip on power, he will continue to preemptively eliminate any potential rivals and tighten social control, making China look increasingly like North Korea.”

“An emboldened Xi may well accelerate his militarization of disputed areas of the South China Sea and try to forcibly take over Taiwan,” she warned. “As he continues China’s quest for dominance, he will further its isolation from the rest of the world.”

She said the most likely downfall for Xi would result from China’s defeat in an invasion of the democratic island of Taiwan.

This report was produced by the Mandarin Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), an online news service affiliated with BenarNews. 


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