Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a “new Long March” in the wake of an intensifying trade war with the United States. The historical metaphor evokes a parallel between Xi and Mao Zedong, who rose to power during the grueling military retreat and eventually led the Communist Party to victory over the Nationalists.
This was not the first time Xi’s rhetoric or policies stirred memories of China’s Maoist past. But there’s been little analysis of the complex emotions Mao’s memory — positive and negative — still raise among the Chinese public today, four decades after his death.
Our current study looks at the looming memory of Mao and the Maoist era. China seems to be experiencing a resurgence of Maoism in recent years, manifest in popular nostalgia for Mao and in Xi’s style of governance.
Why are some in China nostalgic for the Maoist era?
In the West, Mao is known for the tremendous suffering his policies caused: the tens of millions who perished during the Great Leap Forward and the millions persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Chinese citizens are not unaware of Mao’s follies, but many see Mao as a national hero nonetheless — someone who successfully liberated the country from Japanese occupation and from Western imperialist exploitation dating to the 19th-century Opium Wars.
China’s Communist Party (CCP) consciously promoted this nationalistic image of Mao. At a convention on party history in 1981, the reformist leadership under Deng Xiaoping declared that Mao’s “contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes,” fearing that completely rejecting Mao would mean the repudiation of the CCP itself.
We find, however, that this nostalgia goes beyond the hero mythology; many Chinese share a vision of the Maoist period as a bygone halcyon era. In our study, we conducted over 70 intensive semi-structured interviews with Chinese citizens in four cities in coastal and inland provinces, from 2015 to 2018.
We asked respondents to describe life in the Maoist era. A sizable proportion described a world of purity and simplicity, where life had clear meaning, people trusted and helped one another and inequality was minimal. In the words of our interviewees, people’s “spiritual life” was richer during the Maoist era, even though their “material life” was poor.
Nostalgia and trauma often coexist in these memories. Many of our older respondents who lived through the Maoist period felt some degree of nostalgia for the past and expressed support for Mao even while acknowledging negative experiences.
This nostalgia extends even to the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long period of political turmoil Mao initiated in 1966. One explanation is that being sent down to the countryside, for many older Chinese citizens, defined their youth, and their memories of that period took on a nostalgic glow (as memories of our formative years often do). This sentiment comes through clearly in Feng Xiaogang’s popular 2017 film “Youth” (Fanghua), which portrays the Cultural Revolution in nostalgic, romantic brushstrokes and depicts the capitalist society of post-Mao China as spiritually sterile and morally corrupt.
We argue that Maoist nostalgia is a reaction to the profound feeling of disenchantment many Chinese citizens feel over the complex societal challenges resulting from China’s extraordinary four-decade arc of economic reform. Our respondents were clear, however, that they did not miss the material hardship of the past, and cherish the significant betterment of their material life in the reform era. In the words of scholar Svetlana Boym, Maoist nostalgia is reflective and not restorative: People may believe that Chinese society has lost a sense of purpose under market capitalism, but they don’t want to turn back time.
Xi seems to harness these Maoist feelings
Nostalgia for Mao and idealized memories of the People’s Republic of China’s early decades predate the Xi Jinping era, but Xi seems to have been selectively harnessing Maoism to his political advantage — most notably in his anti-corruption campaign and his use of ideology.
The harshness and scope of the anti-corruption crackdown, launched shortly after Xi’s ascent to power in 2012, has caused scholars and Chinese citizens alike to draw parallels between Xi and Mao.
What did our respondents think? Those who expressed nostalgia for the Maoist period or admiration for Mao were far more likely to support the anti-corruption campaign. This may be, in part, because many recall Mao’s reputation for asceticism, for dressing and eating simply, and for making anti-corruption a major goal of his political campaigns, including the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s biographers, in contrast to popular memory, have painted a much different, more hedonistic portrait of the chairman.
The Xi era has seen a revival of ideology and a cult of personality, both hallmarks of Maoist rule. In 2017, Xi enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought” in the Chinese constitution, alongside the ideological doctrines of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. At the beginning of 2019, the party launched a cellphone app to “Study the Great Nation” to promote Xi’s ideology. Party members and civil servants across the country must log a certain number of points a day in the app, which some have dubbed the “Little Red App,” in reference to Mao’s “Little Red Book” of political wisdom.
And nostalgia for Mao may be indicative of a larger trend, as globalization roils national identities worldwide. In Russia, approval of Stalin is at a historic high. In the United States, President Trump’s campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again” rests on a rosy vision of bygone era when U.S. manufacturing was at its peak.
Perhaps more than ever, these findings suggest that collective memories of the past play an important role in understanding what’s going on in the present — in China, but also elsewhere in the world.
Iza Ding is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh.
Jeffrey Javed is a postdoctoral fellow at the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan.