When Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party with a rousing speech before 70,000 people in Beijing, he looked to both the past and the future as he heralded his nation’s prospects and consolidated his own power.
Mr. Xi, wearing a Mao jacket, paid his respects to the late dictator without mentioning the murderous, calamitous excesses of the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution. To China’s current authoritarian rulers, Mao may be remembered as a transformative state-builder, a suitable legacy (and selective reading of history) as the nation presents itself as a rising, unstoppable force in global affairs.
Many Chinese youth are also looking to Mao for inspiration. In a great irony as the CCP celebrates its 100th birthday, alienated members of Generation Z are embracing Mao’s revolutionary zeal as a way to cope with sharp inequality and the lack of civil liberties.
China finds itself grappling with these internal contradictions exactly 50 years after President Nixon announced a dramatic change in international relations. Nixon would visit China the following year, shake hands with Chairman Mao, tour the Great Wall, and lay the groundwork for a relationship that has shaped the modern world.
It is hard to imagine what the world would be like today were China still isolated and weak, and if the U.S. and China were not engaged in about $550 billion in trade annually. In 1972, prior to Nixon’s historic visit, the two nations barely knew each other.
In this episode of the History As It Happens podcast, Weifeng Zhong of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center said China’s mix of state capitalism and authoritarian, single-party rule have proved doubters wrong, but its leaders are privately concerned about economic headwinds. “When the world welcomed China into the global economy with open arms, we were expecting that as the economy grew, the Chinese people would demand more political freedom, which has been true … but they did not get it,” said Mr. Zhong, who runs a research program analyzing CCP propaganda to predict Chinese economic policy changes.
“That is part of the reason why a lot of young folks now, who are not enjoying the same opportunities as the older generation or the wealthier generation, are looking back to Mao. During the Mao days, things were equal in terms of outcome,” said Mr. Zhong, even though Mao’s regime was also more authoritarian, chaotic and cruel. As for Xi, the 68-year-old autocrat believes expanding his own authority is critical to China’s ability to rival the United States, Mr. Zhong said. “But if you really want to be like Mao, that would be in contradiction to state capitalism.”
For more of Mr. Zhong’s insights about the centenary of the Chinese Community Party, Mao’s legacy and the future of U.S.-China relations, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.