I have long been uncomfortable with the widespread view that Xi Jinping is effectively the second coming of Mao Zedong. With his ever-growing list of titles and powers and overwhelming presence in official propaganda, Xi is regularly accused of undermining the collective leadership system instituted by Deng Xiaoping and returning to an era of one-man rule and personality cults.
I think this view is less an actual historical analysis than an attempt to find a way to criticize Xi in a way that resonates within the Chinese political context. Since “everybody knows” that Mao was bad and Deng was good, saying that Xi is like Mao but not like Deng is just a way of expressing disapproval of the things Xi is doing.
While I’m not a huge fan of all the things Xi is doing either, I think we have to recognize that a lot of what he is doing draws very much on Deng Xiaoping’s legacy rather than Mao’s. Xi’s obsession with high economic growth targets is, for instance, clearly an attempt to show that he is Deng’s successor and is fulfilling the great goals passed down from the previous generation of leaders. I’ve also argued that Xi’s treatment of Mao’s legacy is very much in line with Deng’s own.
Even Xi’s obsessive power-gathering, culminating in his recent official recognition as the “core” of the leadership, can be justified as a Dengist move. While Deng always emphasized that China’s top leadership was collective, he knew that he was the core of that leadership, and he did not think the system could function without a core. Deng did not want arbitrary one-man rule but he did not want squabbling and indecision either. His most direct statement of this was in famous remarks made to senior officials in the Party, a couple of weeks after June 4, 1989 and the designation of Jiang Zemin as the new core leader (Chinese original here):
A collective leadership must have a core; a leadership without a core is unreliable. The core of our first generation of collective leadership was Chairman Mao. Because of that core, the “cultural revolution” did not bring the Communist Party down. Actually, I am the core of the second generation. Because of this core, even though we changed two of our leaders, the Party’s exercise of leadership was not affected but always remained stable. The third generation of collective leadership must have a core too; all you comrades present here should be keenly aware of that necessity and act accordingly. You should make an effort to maintain the core — Comrade Jiang Zemin, as you have agreed. From the very first day it starts to work, the new Standing Committee should make a point of establishing and maintaining this collective leadership and its core.
In this vein I have to recommend a new and brilliant piece by Alice Miller, the doyenne of Chinese politics-watchers, which provides a comprehensive assessment of Xi’s governing style and its relationship to Mao and Deng. She comes down firmly on the Dengist side, as is clear from the title “What Would Deng Do?“; here is an excerpt from the conclusion:
Much commentary among observers on Xi Jinping as the new Mao in Chinese leadership politics portrays him as ruthlessly asserting dictatorial power by purging political adversaries on charges of corruption and by assuming command over all major policy sectors as the “chairman of everything.” Xi has thus overturned the norms of collective leadership installed by Deng Xiaoping 30 years ago to inhibit the rise of another Mao, and he has begun building a cult of personality resembling Mao’s, despite a formal ban in 1980 enacted by the Deng leadership. On this view, Xi Jinping has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao himself.
As prominent as this understanding of the Xi leadership has become, it nevertheless suffers from serious flaws. For one thing, several of its specific assertions are simply not the case. Judging by available evidence, Xi has not superseded normal Politburo processes as they worked under his predecessor Hu Jintao and, before Hu, Jiang Zemin. As attested to by public appearances of members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the key decision-making body, the division of policy labor—an intrinsic element of the collective leadership system that Deng Xiaoping implanted—remains in place. …
A more efficient reading of the dynamics of the Xi leadership arises out of the documents of the 18th Party Congress that installed him as top leader in 2012. … The upshot is that Xi and his Politburo Standing Committee colleagues received a mandate at the congress to press a broad array of renewed reforms deemed essential both to China’s advance toward the “double hundred” goals and ultimately to the party’s survival amid a rapidly changing society. To strengthen the ability of the new leadership to press the mandated reforms, the congress downsized the Politburo Standing Committee to make it easier to break the deadlocks that appear to have stymied reforms in Hu Jintao’s later years. And to the same end, Xi was given enhanced public prominence as the front man leading the reform movement, though not at the expense of the collective leadership system that Deng implanted. …
Xi’s model is not Mao Zedong, but rather Deng Xiaoping, the leader who launched the reforms that triggered China’s rise and whose transformative impact Xi and his colleagues hope to emulate.