Zoubutong de “hongse diguo zhilu” [The “Road of Red Empire” That Cannot Be Traversed]
More than halfway through his five-year term as president of China and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party—expected to be the first of at least two—Xi Jinping’s widening crackdown on civil society and promotion of a cult of personality have disappointed many observers, both Chinese and foreign, who saw him as destined by family heritage and life experience to be a liberal reformer. Many thought Xi must have come to understand the dangers of Party dictatorship from the experiences of his family under Mao’s rule. His father, Xi Zhongxun (1913–2002), was almost executed in an inner-Party conflict in 1935, was purged in another struggle in 1962, was “dragged out” and tortured during the Cultural Revolution, and was eased into retirement after another Party confrontation in 1987. During the Cultural Revolution, one of Xi Jinping’s half-sisters was tormented to the point that she committed suicide. Jinping himself, as the offspring of a “capitalist roader,” was “sent down to the countryside” to labor alongside the peasants. The hardships were so daunting that he reportedly tried to escape, but was caught and sent back.
No wonder, then, that both father and son showed a commitment to reformist causes throughout their careers. Under Deng Xiaoping, the elder Xi pioneered the open-door reforms in the southern province of Guangdong and played an important part in founding the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. In 1987 he stood alone among Politburo members in refusing to vote for the purge of the liberal Party leader Hu Yaobang. The younger Xi made his career as an unpretentious, pragmatic, pro-growth manager at first in the countryside and later in Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, three of China’s provincial units that were most open to the outside world. In the final leg of his climb to power he was chosen in preference to a rival leader, Bo Xilai, who had promoted Cultural Revolution–style policies in the megacity of Chongqing.
For all these reasons, once Xi acceded to top office he was widely expected to pursue political liberalization and market reform. Instead he has reinstated many of the most dangerous features of Mao’s rule: personal dictatorship, enforced ideological conformity, and arbitrary persecution.
The key to this paradox is Xi’s seemingly incongruous veneration of Mao. Xi’s view of Mao emerges in the official biography of his father compiled by Party scholars, whose first volume was published when Xi was close to achieving supreme power and whose second came out after he had become Party general secretary and state president. Describing the elder Xi’s near execution in 1935, the book says that Mao saved his life, ordering his release with the remark that heads are not like scallions: if you cut them off they will not grow back. Mao then promoted Xi’s career as an official in Yan’an and as a top bureaucrat in Beijing after 1949.
With respect to Xi’s…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.