What Xi Jinping really said about Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong

It’s been hard to escape the Xi-is-the-new-Mao meme of late, especially with the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution offering an occasion for historical reflection. Andy Browne’s piece in the WSJ is one of the better overviews of the question, noting high up the many important ways in which Xi is not the new Mao; Andrew Nathan’s article in the New York Review of Books is also very much worth reading. Both authors point out an important statement by Xi on the legacies of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping; here is Browne, whose shocked reaction was probably shared by many:

He has declared that it is just as unacceptable to negate Mao’s 30 years in power as it is to speak critically of the 30 years that followed under Deng. He has set side-by-side, on equal footing, a period marked by spasms of mass killing and destruction and an overwhelmingly peaceful era that saw the greatest economic progress in human history.

This naturally piqued my curiosity, so I looked up the original remarks by Xi, which he made on January 5, 2013 in a speech entitled “Some Questions on Maintaining and Developing Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” The speech is indeed very interesting for how Xi positions himself relative to the legacies of Deng and Mao. There is an official summary from Xinhua which covers the main points, including the statement that Browne and Nathan focus on: “we cannot use the historical period after reform and opening to deny the historical period before reform and opening, nor can we use the historical period before reform and opening to deny the historical period after reform and opening” (不能用改革开放后的历史时期否定改革开放前的历史时期,也不能用改革开放前的历史时期否定改革开放后的历史时期). But I also dug up the full text of the speech, which though not online is in an official book of Party documents (十八大以来重要文献选编), and this has more context and some very direct language, which makes it easier to understand what Xi is getting at. Here is my translation of the most relevant section of the speech:

For our Party leading the people in building socialism, there are two historical periods: before “reform and opening” and after “reform and opening.” These are two interrelated periods that also have major differences, but the essence of both periods is that our Party was leading the people in the exploration and practice of building socialism. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was created in the new historical period of “reform and opening,” but it was created on the basis of New China having already established the basic socialist system and carried out more than twenty years of work. A correct understanding of this problem requires grasping three points.

First, if our Party had not taken the decision in 1978 to carry out “reform and opening,” and to unswervingly push forward “reform and opening,” socialist China would not be in the good situation it is today–it is even possible it could have faced a serious crisis like the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. At the same time, if in 1949 New China had not been established in a socialist revolution, and accumulated important ideas, materials and institutional conditions, gaining both positive and negative experiences, it would have been very difficult for reform and opening to proceed smoothly.

Second, although the ideological direction, policies and practice of building socialism in these two historical periods were very different, these two periods are not separate from each other, and are not at all fundamentally opposed. Our Party has in the process of building socialism proposed many correct positions, but at the time they were not properly implemented; they were only fully implemented only after “reform and opening,” and we will continue to adhere to them and develop them in the future. Marx said long ago: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Third, there must be a correct evaluation of the historical period before “reform and opening.” We cannot use the historical period after “reform and opening” to deny the historical period before “reform and opening,” nor can we use the historical period before “reform and opening” to deny the historical period after “reform and opening.” The practice and exploration of socialism before “reform and opening” built up the conditions for the practice and exploration of socialism after “reform and opening;” the practice and exploration of socialism after “reform and opening” is to maintain, reform and develop the previous period. …

The reason I emphasize this question is because this is a major political issue that, if not handled properly, will have serious political consequences. The ancients said: “To destroy the people of a country, first go at their history.” Hostile forces at home and abroad often write articles about the history of the Chinese revolution and the history of New China–they stop at nothing in attacking, vilifying and slandering, but their ultimate purpose is to confuse people and to incite the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party and our country’s socialist system. Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why the Soviet Communist Party fall from power? One important reason is that in the field of ideology the struggle was very intense–fully negating the history of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, negating Lenin, negating Stalin, promoting historical nihilism and confused thinking. Party organizations at all levels hardly did anything, and the army was not under the leadership of the Party. In the end, the Soviet Communist Party, this great Party, was scattered, and the Soviet Union, this great socialist country, fell to pieces. This is a cautionary tale!

Comrade Deng Xiaoping pointed out:  “On no account can we discard the banner of Mao Zedong Thought. To do so would, in fact, be to negate the glorious history of our Party. On the whole, the Party’s history is glorious. Our Party has also made big mistakes in the course of its history, including some in the three decades since the founding of New China, not least, so gross a mistake as the ‘Cultural Revolution’. But after all, we did triumph in the revolution. It is since the birth of the People’s Republic that China’s status in the world has been so greatly enhanced. It is since the founding of the People’s Republic that our great country, with nearly a quarter of the world’s population, has stood up — and stood firm — in the community of nations.” He also stressed: “The appraisal of Comrade Mao Zedong and the exposition of Mao Zedong Thought relate not only to Comrade Mao personally but also to the entire history of our Party and our country. We must keep this overall judgement in mind.”

This is the vision and thinking of a great Marxist statesman. Think for a moment: if at that time we had fully negated Comrade Mao Zedong, could our Party still stand firm? Could our country’s socialist system stand firm? If it does not stand firm, then the result is chaos. Therefore, correctly handling the relationship between socialism before and after “reform and opening” is not just a historical issue, in fact it is mainly a political issue. I suggest that everyone take out the “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China” and read it again.

I think it is not quite right to read this as Xi glorifying everything about Mao, and saying China made just as much progress during the Great Leap Forward as it did after 1978. What Xi is saying is that the legitimacy of the Communist Party China rests on the whole history of its rule, and that if the legitimacy of Party rule is questioned for one historical period, then it can be questioned for other historical periods. Deng felt the same way, and what Xi is doing in this speech is forcefully repeating Deng’s own evaluation of Mao. The 1981 resolution on Party history that Xi cites is best known for how it assigned primary blame for the Cultural Revolution to Mao personally. But the resolution’s overall assessment of Mao is rather balanced, and Deng himself insisted on this. The quotes from Deng that Xi mentions are remarks Deng made during the drafting of the resolution, and some other Deng comments from the same source make the point very clear:

Comrade Mao Zedong was not an isolated individual, he was the leader of our Party until the moment of his death. When we write about his mistakes, we should not exaggerate, for otherwise we shall be discrediting Comrade Mao Zedong, and this would mean discrediting our Party and state. … What we have achieved cannot be separated from the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and Comrade Mao Zedong. It is precisely this point that many of our young people don’t sufficiently appreciate.

The parallel that both Deng and Xi very clearly had in mind is the Soviet Union, and the backlash against Stalin that began with Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech” acknowledging Stalin’s crimes. Chinese leaders clearly view the “negation” of Stalin that Khrushchev began as fatally undermining the legitimacy of the Soviet Party, and leading inevitably to its collapse in subsequent decades. And they are not alone in this judgment. Here is the historian Orlando Figes on the impact of Khrushchev’s 1956 speech, from his excellent Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History:

The speech changed everything. It was the moment when the Party lost authority, unity and self-belief. It was the beginning of the end. The Soviet system never really recovered from the crisis of confidence created by the speech. How could people continue to believe in a revolution that had killed so many in the people’s name? In leaders who had told so many lies? For the first time the Party was admitting that it had been wrong— not wrong in a minor way but catastrophically. How could it rebuild its credibility?

Exactly. I do not see much daylight between Xi Jinping and Deng Xiaoping in terms of their positions on Mao Zedong and Communist Party history. Xi is very much following in Deng’s footsteps here, though he may be departing from Deng’s legacy in other ways.

8 Comments

  1. An enlightening read. Thanks Andrew for digging into this. Many seem to believe that politics in China has become more important than economics, so very useful in that context.

    Reply

  2. Well done. Nicely digs deep for the evidence upon which the recent characterizations relied. Yet, some might argue that the remarks about the secret speech that addresses the denunciation of Stalin and its consequences for CPSU legitimacy might well fit with the facts on Mao, at least post-49:

    “How could people continue to believe in a revolution that had killed so many in the people’s name? In leaders who had told so many lies?”

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  3. Excellent analysis, backed up by the Chinese love – and commitment to – continuity. Xi’s claim is that the Party has nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of, counters the entire Western narrative. One wonders. did his Harvard-grad daughter have play a part in this position?

    Reply

    1. Doubtful. She is just lucky the deep pockets of Xi, like those of Bo Xilai for his son, enabled her to attend. XI has emphasized his belief that Mao saved him and his family from the Red Guards. Quite a perverse logic, but there it is.

      Reply

  4. Excellent article, and bound to be ignored by the vast majority of Western press. The assessment that the Cultural Revolution was a severe mistake 严重错误 was mentioned by Deng, it is also integral in the Scientific Development Doctrine 科学发展观 yet I still frequently read articles claiming the Chinese government is unwilling to revisit the period of the Cultural Revolution. What these critics don’t understand is, that there is a difference in China between agreeing something was a mistake including a condemnation (which China has done) and trying to assign the blame onto individual persons. The latter may appeal to Western sense of individualism as well as rule of law, but it comes at the price of reopening old wounds and once again accusing individual people unjustly. How to determine who did what intentionally in the Mao era, and who did it out of fear? It was mass hysteria, where ultimately everyone is driven, perhaps including Mao himself. Assigning the blame individually will at best give some sense of revenge. It will not heal wounds.

    Reply

    1. It’s not about attacking individuals, it’s about teaching the next generation not to make the same mistake again. The US doesn’t blame one individual for the slaughter of native Americans or slavery, but these events are integral parts of every history curriculum nationwide.

      The Chinese just bury the cultural revolution under the rug, and today’s youth have only anecdotal oral histories to guide them. Or they have to hop over the Great Firewall to learn the truth. Where are the museum’s to commemorate those lost? Nearly every other country builds museums to reflect on previous disasters, but not China.

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  5. I find the whole discussion about Xi=Mao or Xi=Deng utterly empty… The problem is that most of the assessments of Xi Jinping have focused on references to History, when actually in China -as anywhere else- History can be rendered to say one thing and its opposite, too. Mao has become a empty signifier in China ready to be fulfilled at the fulfiller’s discretion. If you really want to get a glimpse at Xi’s ideology, rather look at what he is doing in economic terms. That will put him on Deng’s side and beyond…

    Reply

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