Forty-one years ago, on September 9, 1976, Chairman Mao Zedong died at the age of eighty-two. In the four decades since, China has turned into a country that Mao would not recognize. Unleashed by Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” policy, the Chinese people have transformed an agricultural country into the world’s second-largest economy and its industrial workshop. Today hundreds of millions of Chinese people have attained considerable wealth, many even becoming billionaires. The Sino-American opening signaled by Mao and Richard Nixon in 1972 has entangled the two countries in a multiplicity of relationships at all levels: official and popular, economic and educational, political and military.

China has indeed become a power recognized by all, particularly its neighbors. Mao would almost certainly have relished that power. But what of his Cultural Revolution dreams of equality and collectivism? How relevant is Mao Zedong Thought in light of China's high levels of inequality? Are Mao’s portraits in Tiananmen Square and at his mausoleum of any political significance today? Does Mao still matter?

Does Mao still matter? Nobody is more conscious of this question than China’s current ruler, Xi Jinping.

Nobody is more conscious of the importance of these questions than China’s current ruler, Xi Jinping. President Xi constantly admonishes the Chinese people not to divide the history of the PRC into a Maoist period and a reform period. For him such a division would imply that there was a bad period and a good period, like the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods (after Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin in 1956) in Soviet historiography. Xi values the basic elements of the Leninist state set up under Mao in 1949 because he clearly sees in them the only way to preserve Communist Party rule in the future.

What were those elements? First and foremost was Mao himself, the supreme leader, wearing the laurels of revolutionary victory. He had assumed leadership after other contenders failed. With the help of colleagues, he had hammered the Communist Party and its armies into the tightly disciplined, highly motivated institutions that won the civil war against the Nationalists and thereafter ruled China. Marxism-Leninism became the new state ideology, but Mao’s ideas on war and peace, codified in Mao Zedong Thought, were the basis for ruling the country.

Mao oversaw the major movements in the early 1950s that spread Communist rule down to the grassroots throughout China, and it was he who made the major policy decisions during the twenty-seven years that he lived after the revolution. Mao initiated the abandonment of “New Democracy” in favor of a rapid advance to socialism; after the triumph of rural collectivization, it was Mao who initiated the thaw that morphed into the relatively liberal “hundred flowers” era, and it was he who then reversed course into the Anti-Rightist Campaign. In his subsequent leftist phase, Mao conceived of the Great Leap Forward, the Socialist Education Movement, and, finally, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Despite these disasters, to the end of his days, nobody dared challenge Mao. For better or worse, his was the outsize personality that overawed all his colleagues, bestriding the country like a colossus to whom all Chinese citizens had been inculcated to give obedience. The signs suggest that Xi aspires to a similar Maoist role.

In sharp contrast to his immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi has made no bow to collective leadership but has made it clear that he is the supreme ruler. There are two primary proofs. First, in addition to the offices always attached to the post of general secretary—the chairmanship of the CCP’s central Military Affairs Committee (MAC) and the state presidency—there is his assumption of the leadership of other major committees: the new National Security Commission, which has jurisdiction over the army, police, and all foreign-related national security agencies; the new Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reform, which has primacy over the government’s State Council (led by the regime’s official Number Two, Premier Li Keqiang), which traditionally directed economic affairs; and the central leading groups on foreign affairs, Internet security, and information technology.

Contemporary China may trumpet Marxism as its unifying ideology, but only as window dressing. 

The second indication of Xi’s determination to be China’s Mao-like supreme leader is the personality cult that developed early around him. His works have been widely published, and his Governance of China, which exists in several translations, is readily available in western bookshops. (As part of Facebook’s ongoing quest for a foothold in China, Mark Zuckerberg bought several copies so that his employees could learn about “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”) The domestic cult of Xi Dada (“Uncle Xi”) seeks to endear him to the man in the street, while political junkies can regularly find his name in numerous headlines in the People’s Daily. His wife, Peng Liyuan (“Peng Mama”), a popular folk singer and a major general to boot, adds to the image of a power couple running China. In the post-Mao era, no leader’s wife has had comparable publicity. Xi’s personality cult will never reach the absurd heights of Mao’s during the Cultural Revolution; thirty-five years of reform and opening up have surely inoculated most people against blind worship of any leader. But Xi will probably be satisfied with unquestioning obedience based on fear.

The second key element in the Maoist state was, of course, the party through which Mao and his colleagues ruled China. In their early headquarters in Yanan, before coming to power, cadres were educated in how to be good Communists through the works of veteran leader (and later president) Liu Shaoqi, whose watchword was “serving the people,” with the ultimate aim of emulating the “rustless screw” of the party machine, the heroic 1960s soldier, Lei Feng. Corruption certainly existed under Mao, but it was kept in check by campaigns and probably did not affect the leaders. As members of what the Yugoslav dissident theorist Milovan Djilas called “the new class,” they had easy access to whatever luxuries were available. The trashing of the party machine, and the physical and mental battering that its members had to endure during the Cultural Revolution, undermined their Liuist training. Why serve the people if this was one’s reward? Better to adopt the slogan of the reform era: “To get rich is glorious.” The result, according to those who have led the CCP in the reform era, is massive and widespread corruption in the ranks of the bureaucracy, a phenomenon that has damaged the Party’s prestige and legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese population who grapple with it on a daily basis. The objective of Xi Jinping’s thoroughgoing anti-corruption campaign is to restore the Party’s reputation, reclaim popular support, and fend off any potential threats to its continued unfettered rule.

But the anti-corruption campaign is a double-edged weapon, which reminds one of the saying that used to circulate in China: “If we don’t wipe out corruption, China may be finished, but if we do wipe out corruption, the party may be finished.” If the campaign continues to target “tigers” like Zhou Yongkang, the Politburo member responsible for internal security, Xi may be threatened by a backlash among the elite who do not want their reputations or families thrown in the dustbin of history, nor to be jailed and deprived of their ill-gotten gains. As for the rank and file of the Party, the “flies” of this campaign, there are already indications of inertia, as humble cadres shy away from any action that might trigger accusations of corruption. Will recruitment be maintained if the financial perks of CCP membership are withdrawn?

The third element of the Maoist state, uniting leader, party, and people, was ideology: Marxism-Leninism, supplemented, in due course, by Mao Zedong Thought. There is no indication that Xi wishes to imitate Mao by making China a shining revolutionary beacon on a hill. Nor, in all his talk of a China dream, is there any suggestion that he foresees a revival of Confucianism. Rather, he will reemphasize Deng’s delineation of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought as components of the nation’s four cardinal principles that cannot be questioned. Whereas, in Deng’s time, this effectively meant putting ideology aside, Xi sees a need to revive Communist ideology as a vibrant bulwark of China’s exceptionalism, to inoculate its citizens against Western democratic ideas. It was presumably in response to Xi’s concerns that, in autumn 2015, Peking University held a world conference on Marxism, inviting some seventy foreign Marxists (and at least one non-Marxist foreigner, this chapter’s author) to participate. The funds are already in place for a follow-up conference. And yet, as one participant vouchsafed, sotto voce, “Marxism will do nothing for the Chinese, but they are stuck with it.”

Indeed, Xi has an unenviable task. In 1949, the Chinese may not have been “poor and blank” as Mao once described them, but with a new regime firmly in power, they were at least persuaded that the regime’s ideology had to be respected. Afterward, however, the Chinese had to endure the ridiculous lengths to which the study of Mao Zedong Thought was emphasized in the Cultural Revolution, only to witness the demotion of ideology when Deng proclaimed that “practice was the sole criterion of truth,” opening the country to all sorts of foreign ideas. The reform era has now lasted nearly forty years, almost a decade longer than the Maoist period. The impact on young Chinese has been enormous.

In particular, the demand for education in the West has skyrocketed. The number of Chinese studying in the United States alone in 2005–2006 was over 62,500; by 2015–2016, the number had climbed to over 328,000. There are many thousands more studying at campuses set up by foreign universities on Chinese soil. Most Chinese families sending their children to foreign schools can meet the cost through their own funds and are thus not dependent on government scholarships. How will Xi stop this turn away from Chinese colleges? A few years ago, he instructed officials to remove their children from foreign schools. At the time, Xi’s daughter was midway through her undergraduate studies at Harvard. She did not withdraw. What kind of example does this set for other official families, let alone families with no ties to public office?

‘If we don’t wipe out corruption, China may be finished, but if we do wipe out corruption, the party may be finished.’

Of course, Chinese students today are very different from those who pioneered study abroad in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, when some students looked to the West for new ideas of governance that might lead China out of the chaos of Mao’s last years. Today, Chinese students come from a proudly resurgent nation, very conscious of its economic and diplomatic clout. Most are patriotic and probably see a Western education as providing an excellent basis for their careers, rather than as exposure to the ideals of democracy. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that, back in China, they will embrace the creed, based on an analysis of early industrial Britain, of a mid-nineteenth-century German philosopher. Xi’s China may trumpet Marxism as its unifying ideology, but only as window dressing. The Thought of General Secretary Xi will effectively take its place, as Mao Zedong Thought did under the Chairman.

The final element of the Maoist state was the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Mao was always careful to ensure that the majority of generals would back him, especially when he clashed with such revolutionary heroes as Marshals Peng Dehuai and Lin Biao. Xi Jinping obviously cannot claim Mao’s revolutionary laurels, and so he has had to employ more overt means of indicating PLA support. Early in his administration, he persuaded eighteen generals to write short articles in the People’s Daily pledging loyalty. More recently, he has assumed a new military title: Commander-in-Chief of the Central Military Commission’s Joint Battle Command Center. Xi appeared in military fatigues at the new center on the occasion of the announcement of this title, suggesting that, unlike any of his predecessors, he would be a battlefield commander if the occasion arose. But whether the PLA generals will be prepared to rescue Xi in a political crisis, as they did Mao during the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping at Tiananmen, remains to be seen.

Xi Jinping has transformed China at an amazing pace. Maoist institutions and values are being restored, though, in one respect, Xi’s politics mark a sharp break from late Maoism. Whereas the Chairman deliberately unleashed the youth of China for revolution, in Xi’s China, no vigilantism will be tolerated, even in the cause of fighting corruption. Whistle-blowers are likely to find themselves imprisoned. Nevertheless, Mao is the lodestone of the Xi regime, the ultimate legitimation of Xi’s policies and personal role in state and society. So the Chairman’s portrait will continue to hang in Tiananmen, and citizens will continue to be shepherded into his mausoleum. Mao does still matter.

Excerpted from The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power, edited by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi. Copyright © 2018 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.