President Trump, well known for his admiration of strongmen and dictators, praised the move. “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day,” he said in widely criticized off-the-record remarks.
Yet Xi’s embrace of personal power — till death do them part — throws China back to the age of Mao. If it is a Maoist-type dictatorship that is the subject of Trump’s envy, he is either incredibly callous, incredibly ignorant — or both. In any case, he seems unable to comprehend the terrible consequences of tyranny.
Xi, on the other hand, surely knows about the consequences. He witnessed them. In the early 1970s, when Xi, then in his 20s, dug trenches with a production brigade, China was in the grip of the final paroxysm of the Cultural Revolution, guided by an aging tyrant unwilling to relinquish rule. Chairman Mao was getting old and very, very sick. The declining state of Mao’s health paralyzed Chinese politics and was a source of embarrassment on the international stage.
Records of Mao’s meetings with foreign leaders make for a sad reading. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Robert Muldoon — one of the last foreigners to see Mao alive — noted the bizarre spectacle of their meeting: The chairman had to be “lifted” from his armchair into a standing position while the photographers took pictures. He then “slumped back in it in a state of seeming collapse.”
By then Mao was a dead man walking, so different from his strong, vigorous self of 1949, when he claimed power. But he always ruled with an iron hand, setting his colleagues against one another, and purging the ranks of the Communist Party, much as Xi has done (only with greater brutality).
Mao could have learned from the others’ mistakes. In February 1956 the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin’s abuse of power and promised to return to “collective leadership.” “Little Stalins” among Soviet client states were toppled one after another. Not Mao — he was too powerful.
Although he toned down his personality cult a notch in deference to the Kremlin’s new policy, Mao was unwilling to share power with anyone. He even criticized Khrushchev for slandering Stalin, saying that the latter was a “great Marxist-Leninist.”
Meanwhile, rejecting warnings from his Soviet advisers, Mao launched a harebrained economic campaign, which aimed to catapult China into the ranks of the industrial superpowers. Instead, the Great Leap Forward resulted in the worst man-made famine in human history. Tens of millions of Chinese paid with their lives for Mao’s delusions of glory.
In the atmosphere of fear and backstabbing that gripped the Chinese government, feedback mechanisms broke down. Lower-ranking officials reported what the leaders wanted to hear. Mao was in a state of denial.
When in July 1959 Defense Minister Peng Dehuai criticized him in a carefully worded letter, Mao had Peng purged, even as he agreed to move away from some of the worst excesses of the Great Leap. Mao later accused Peng of conspiring with Khrushchev to overthrow him.
As he grew older, Mao succumbed to bouts of paranoia, seeing enemies lurking behind every shadow. In 1962, Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun — until then a high-ranking official in the State Council — was purged on trumped-up charges. He would endure years of misery and imprisonment before being finally rehabilitated after Mao’s death.
The Cultural Revolution witnessed the grotesque blossoming of Mao’s personality cult. His visage graced banners and newspapers. He was glorified in songs and poetry. His words were memorized and cited in all walks of life.
There was even a Mao loyalty dance, among other forms of regularized madness. “There is always a need to be worshiped,” Mao noted in a conversation with an American visitor, Edgar Snow, in December 1970. “If no one worships you, Snow, would you be happy?” Snow, a journalist, did not share Mao’s enthusiasm for personality cults.
But Xi clearly does. Since coming to power in 2012, “Papa” Xi (as he is affectionately known in the Chinese propaganda) has actively promoted his own cult, one that is beginning to rival Mao’s.
News broadcasts laud Xi’s great achievements; whole academic institutes are being set up to study his “thought”; his exploits are celebrated in museum exhibitions. State television marked the Chinese New Year by running a video heavily suggesting that Xi came from heavenly origins. How long will it be before Papa Xi, becomes, like Mao before him, “the Red, Red Sun of Our Hearts”?
Having purged real and imagined rivals, Mao soon succumbed to the forces of nature. Each passing year he grew sicker and sicker. In January 1972 he developed congestive heart failure and a lung infection. He was so bloated from edema that he had to be given a new suit and shoes for his historic meeting with President Richard M. Nixon on Feb. 21, 1972. “A monster,” Henry Kissinger said of Mao. “He is holding himself together by sheer willpower.”
But willpower was not enough. In July 1974, Mao was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He soon lost the ability to move and speak. He died in September 1976, surrounded by attendants and nurses who, toward the end of Mao’s life, acquired formidable standing as the go-betweens for the Great Helmsman and the rival factions that wrestled for control of the rudderless ship of state power.
After Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s leader, he was determined not to allow the repetition of the tragic experience of despotic rule. It was Deng who, in 1982, oversaw the changes to the Chinese Constitution, which limited the presidency to two terms. It was Deng, too, who instituted the retirement system of senior party leadership.
The system worked well as power passed from Deng to Jiang Zemin, who in turn handed the reins to Hu Jintao, who was replaced at the helm by Xi. This succession process was often seen as a part of the “Chinese model,” and even touted as something superior to Western democracy, because it allowed political stability and consistency of policies while supposedly preventing the abuses of power and the political atrophy that were the hallmarks of Mao’s era.
Yet the system “worked” only for as long as it did not encounter someone determined enough to do away with it. There were no institutional constraints in place to prevent Papa Xi from abusing his position when he decided that he could.
“He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great,” Trump said. This is, to say the least, a peculiar understanding of “greatness.”
Xi’s addiction to power clouds China’s future. Addictions such as these are not easily cured. Mao’s tragic rule is a case in point. Today, though, the stakes are higher. China is incomparably more powerful than it was under Mao. Xi’s unrestrained ambition portends dire consequences for the entire world.