Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping has long faced dissent from Communists who think he is insufficiently loyal to Marxist dogma, but he is increasingly provoking unease among Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elders who fear he might be a little too Communist in his outlook – or, more specifically, Maoist.
Xi’s government has been cracking down on Marxist student groups for years and fending off strikes by Marxist labor groups, even though the government officially adheres to that ideology and Xi is fond of quoting Marx himself.
Marxist activists accuse Xi of perverting their pure collectivist ideology into “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – in other words, diluting collectivism with enough capitalist ideals to create a prosperous economy. The new class of young Marxist revolutionary believes government schools are deliberately teaching Marxism incorrectly to promote Xi’s ideology instead. The authorities are nervous about the increasing fondness of these young activists for revolutionary books and plays about overthrowing corrupt government.
Older and more senior CCP officials, on the other hand, are worried that Xi might see himself as the new Mao Zedong. They spent the last four decades trying to forget how many people the original Mao killed, and they dogmatically view his Great Cultural Revolution as an experience that might have been necessary long ago, but is not something they are eager to repeat.
Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday noted Xi has been using the word “struggle” an awful lot lately, sometimes repeating it dozens of times in a single speech, and it is making the Beijing elite nervous, because that was Mao’s favorite word too. They fear Xi is setting up a Mao-style “rectification” or political purge, perhaps timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Communist China’s founding in October, and consolidating his position as absolute ruler.
Another interpretation is that Xi feels insecure because the U.S.-China trade war and the protest movement in Hong Kong have weakened his authority, and he knows some Party elders are unhappy with his moves to rewrite Communist ideology, remove all limits on his term in office, and establish the sort of personality cult the Chinese system is supposed to prevent. From this perspective, Xi’s constant invocation of Mao’s “struggle” talk is an effort to shore up support going into the 2022 Communist Party national congress, which will be the last chance for his critics to prevent him from becoming president for life.
The Hong Kong Free Press suspected Xi is “facing his own real struggles within the Party” and is peppering his speeches with struggle talk as a warning to his adversaries – an external signal of “fierce internal struggles and squabbles within the Chinese Communist Party.”
The HKFP noted an important linguistic quirk of Xi’s struggle talk: he has been using the Chinese word that simply means “struggle” for a long time, but only recently has he begun using the phrase “great struggle,” and he is the only Chinese leader since the late 1970s to use the term in a serious manner. In historical context, “great struggle” describes a Chinese nationalist battle against internal traitors and external imperial enemies, primarily the United States.
The South China Morning Post argued that Xi’s critics are correct to worry that his endless anti-corruption crusades have also been political purges, but modern China really does have an endemic corruption problem that might take a fairly brutal “great struggle” to resolve.
Thanks to a looming demographic crisis, the trade war with the United States, political challenges like Hong Kong and Taiwan, and mounting environmental damage that the peasantry is increasingly bold about noticing, time is running out for Xi to clean out the kleptocracy clogging China’s arteries. It may not be sheer ego or a desire to control China’s historical memory that makes Xi see Chairman Mao looking back at him when he gazes into the mirror.