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Andrew Walder on Mao's image under Xi

Photograph of Andrew WalderAndrew Walder is the Denise O'Leary and Kent Thiry Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Senior Fellow in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. A political sociologist, Walder specializes on the sources of conflict, stability, and change in contemporary China. He received his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Michigan in 1981. Before coming to Stanford, he taught at Columbia, Harvard, and also headed the Division of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. On October 7, 2016, he spoke with Caroline Willian CMC ’17.

Photograph and bio courtesy of Professor Walder.

Why do you think China’s current leadership appears to glorify Mao, in spite of his failures and the political and economic differences between Mao's regime and those of the current leadership?

Mao is a symbol of what the Chinese Communist Party has done for China - creating China’s modern state, putting the Chinese Communist Party in power. He’s seen as a founding father. The current leadership may feel as though the source of their legitimacy has been challenged a bit. Or they may feel somewhat threatened by a souring relationship with the United States. I think they’re worried about the fact that growth rates are going down, which is something that everyone predicted as they have reached a level of economic development where you don’t have fast growth rates. They’re also facing some very rapid demographic changes, such as an aging population and a shrinking labor force. So they had the wind at their backs over the last 35 years, and now I think they’re preparing for a potentially rocky period. They’re worried about the instability in the world right now, which started off with the Arab Spring in the Middle East in 2011. They’re still haunted by collapse of the Soviet Union. They want people to be patriotic, and the people are more patriotic than they ever have been, at least for the past 40 years. And they want to manipulate Mao’s images as a symbol of the greatness of China under the Communist Party. They know you can’t criticize the first 30 years and then say the last 35 were fine. The whole thing is part of a package. It’s basically an extension of the patriotic education. It’s precisely because there’s so much to criticize that they don’t want to lose the narrative.

Where do you see the lingering legacies of Mao and Maoism in today’s China? In what ways is the ghost of Mao and Maoism still haunting China and its rulers?

First, there’s the New Left, which uses Mao and Mao’s ideas as a symbol to criticize the inequality and corruption in China today. That haunts the leadership somewhat because on the one hand they want to refurbish Mao’s image, but on the other hand they don’t want to go back to his ideas, which are really quite subversive. The biggest legacy of Mao and Maoism is the structure of the Communist Party, which really hasn’t changed. The spirit of that period lives on in the mentality of the current top leaders, who were in high school when Cultural Revolution began.  The answers Xi Jinping uses about how to strengthen the Communist Party are taken from the earlier period of the PRC. The emphasis on strengthening loyalty to the party, to the leadership, and those sorts of ideas come from that time. So these legacies of the Mao era aren’t really legacies of the Cultural Revolution per se. But I would say they’re a throwback to the pre-Cultural Revolution Mao era. That’s the biggest legacy of Mao and Maoism. And still, leadership now is thinking about how to solve China’s problems by applying the basic tools they used back in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Mao’s successors, many of whom were his victims, decided to preserve Mao’s image as a great leader.  Now, forty years after Mao’s death, how has this decision affected the party and Chinese society? 

It’s too early to tell, but I think it has affected the society by restricting people’s freedom of expression, more so than freedom of thought. Of course, the current government has imposed other restrictions as well.  For example, it’s created, for the first time in a long time, more restrictions on people’s travel. People can only go overseas for so long, if they’re in the government they cannot take their spouses with them, or they can’t spend more than a certain amount of time overseas. There are also numerous restrictions also on what you can teach in classrooms.  I have a former student teaching who got a new job teaching at a top Chinese university, and the first two weeks he had to go through political training about what you can and cannot say in class. That’s something that they never had for 30 years. I think that’s one of the major changes. People also feel more political pressure. There’s a lot of pressure even within the party. A major campaign is going on to strengthen of party discipline. Party members have to attend a lot of meetings; they’re supposed to criticize themselves like they did in the old days. Then, there’s an anti-corruption campaign, which really has a lot of people on edge and is annoying a lot of people.  Department chairs at universities have to reduce the size of their offices if they’re too big.Young Chinese adults, people in their 20s and early 30s, feel this pressure that they’ve never felt any time in their lives because the country had been pretty free and relaxed in the post-Mao period.  But now things have gotten a little more tense.

Could China become a normal country and society without confronting the dark history of the Maoist period?

They did, in the 1980s, confront the dark history. They were very open about horrible things that happened, starting in ‘77 and ‘78, going right up until near the end of the ‘80s. After Tiananmen they stopped, for obvious reasons. But they were quite open and China made significant strides towards becoming a more normal country, in our sense of the word. Some of the things they wrote and publicized back then tried to reconcile society with the horror of what had happened. They made a pragmatic decision to stop talking about it, to stop emphasizing it, and to discourage people from looking back at that period. I don’t think it’s something that they have to go back and confront it all over again. When they did, it had real meaning for the people that experienced it. But for young people today, I don’t think it would make a big difference if they started publishing books about the Cultural Revolution openly. There’s no reason for them to care a lot. 

Nineteen eighty-nine, on the other hand, was something very different, but also now is much more relevant. For China to become a more democratic, open, relaxed, less politically repressive system, they’re going to have to deal with what happened in 1989, and be honest about that. It would be possible to do that, because there were at least two leaders in the top leadership who did not want to crack down on students, and there was a real controversy about it. But the cultural revolution no longer needs to be confronted that way.

What do you see as the risks associated with Neo-Maoist sentiment in China? Do you see it resulting in political tumult? Or do you see it in resulting in a prolonged maintenance of the status quo?

Neo-Maoism is small fringe group. People are just starting to do research on it and become aware of it. There was an article in Financial Times a few days ago that focuses on them, but I think they’re quite marginal, and I think they’re kind of oddballs. There were Neo-Stalinist under Breshnev in the Soviet Union, and their version of Stalin was just that he was a great, strong leader who prevented corruption. They saw him as a totem of strength and incorruptibility. This is how Mao is thought of now. There are other parts to it too — Mao was very much for equality. They see him as someone who prevented corruption, who had high ideals, and there’s valid reasons for thinking of him that way. I guess they counterbalance liberals to some extent, but I still see them as kind of a fringe group, an oddity. I don’t think that they would create political tumult, they don’t seem to be that big of a threat.

What about the risks associated with hyper-patriotism?

That could be disruptive, to international relations, and to relations with the United States in particular. Hyper-patriotism is kind of an echo chamber; it could push the government to take stronger stands towards Japan and the United States, which would me more self-defeating in some ways. And if the government does something that is perceived as being weak, or as caving into foreigners, or if they launch some kind of military action and are defeated or humiliated, that could lead to a backlash. I think that’s potentially more disruptive. And we’ve seen since 1997, the thing that really mobilizes people into the streets are nationalistic, patriotic issues. I think the government is very careful to make sure it never turns in an anti-government direction. Because it can.

Your talk mentioned that Xi seeks to mobilize the state through the party, instead of through the masses. Do you think that this is primarily due to Xi's personal ways of approaching things, or because cultural shifts (like neo-familism) have made it more difficult to engage and move the masses?

I don’t think he wants to mobilize the masses, I think he wants them to obey. He’s trying to tighten up the party, and attacking corruption is part of that. In the West, we think a good way to attack corruption is to loosen up freedom of the press. We let the press report on these things, have ordinary people turn in corrupt officials, have open websites where people are shamed - that’s our way of thinking. But his way of thinking is that that could get very much out of control. If there’s too much openness it becomes like the hundred flowers, where people all of a sudden start mobilizing. What the government really is worried about is having students, middle class people, and even lower ranking party members develop a critical public opinion on central leadership. They especially don’t want them to assemble in main squares of the cities, where these things would be covered, and people would be filming it on their phones, nothing else. It would be very hard to cover up something that was going on, and would force them make a choice like they were forced to in 1989. Do they crack down? Do they use troops, or do they use police? Do they arrest people, or do they negotiate with the students? Now, I don’t think they want to be in a position where there’s some influential group in society like the students were in ‘89. But with the new emphasis on family, you’ve got college students today, almost all of them come from single-child families, their families have put enormous investments into their education and upbringing, and families’ futures are basically hanging on the success of these students. If they became political and go into the streets and get arrested, it would turn a lot of people against the government. The students in ‘89 positioned themselves as being patriotic, selfless, and they won a lot of public support. Hundreds of thousands of people went out into the streets on May 19, 1989 to stop the troops from going to the square. So the second time they tried, on June 3rd and 4th, they shot their way in. Leaders don’t want to be put in that position again, so  they’re very cautious. They want to keep control, keep discipline, and they want to mobilize people internally, not externally. Within the party, from top to bottom, they want to reinforce patriotism and loyalty to the party.

How do the Chinese people and government reconcile the dissonance between neo-Maoist sentiment and the extreme differences between this state and the Maoist state?

They reconcile it by keeping most people in a state of ignorance about what things were like before 1976. There are students who went through an education system where they didn’t get taught much of anything about their history from 1956 to 1976. So, there’s not a whole lot to reconcile, and it’s easy to sell Mao as a symbol of placidity, calmness, and steadiness, when in reality he was anything but a placid, calm, steady leader. The education system and censorship helps keep that dissonance to minimum. After a while, young people especially don’t have any reason to rake over those old stories. Young people are not that political except when it comes to defending China’s honor. I’m not sure what it would take to change that, but that’s a big change from the 1980s. That said, Tiananmen is really what they have to reconcile, because that has had much bigger impact on the direction that China has taken, and you can’t really change things. I think the sign that China is going to change politically in some way is when they begin to reconsider the verdict on 1989, and to talk about it. The Cultural Revolution is long ago, it’s kind of like slavery in the U.S. We still worship George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and both were slave owners. So we live with that dissonance, too. Here’s what I don’t understand: why doesn’t the Chinese government put emphasis on progress. If  young people in China did know how bad things were, or at least had an inkling, they would recognize that their lives, not  just politically but materially, are so much freer. That’s something that they could use if at some point they wanted to liberalize. I could easily think of a propaganda line that they could use to open up about the past, and emphasize how much better things are. There’s a factual basis for that, and I think it would be very persuasive.

Caroline Willian