“Party, government, military, civilian and academic, east, west, south, north and centre, the party leads everything,” said Xi Jinping during his opening speech at the 19th Chinese Communist party (CCP) conference. A few days later, on 20 October 2017, President Xi became the first living leader since Mao Zedong to have his name written into the CCP constitution – the awkwardly translated ‘Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics’.
Mao may seem irrelevant when juxtaposed with the endless shopping malls, neon lights, empty high-rise apartment blocks and sky-high rents – fuelled by China’s property boom – which shape 21st century China. Why, in 2017, is Xi so eager to draw parallels between himself and the revolutionary leader?
I think back to my encounter a few weeks earlier under the Aiwan pavilion on Yuelu mountain. The pavilion, coincidentally, where Mao, amongst other famous poets and philosophers, is said to have studied. A stone tablet under the pavilion roof bears some of Mao’s own calligraphy.
Mr Zhou is speaking enthusiastically. He explains he has given up his free time to volunteer on the mountain. A red CCP armband with yellow hammer and sickle is pinned crookedly to his upper left shirt sleeve. He praises the government, emphasising the continual initiatives they undertake, citing the 2014 anti-rabies programme as an example. Volunteering, he says, is his way of participating in the current nationwide government initiative: zhongguo meng – the Chinese dream.
The Chinese dream was unveiled five years ago when Xi attended an exhibition in 2012: The Road Towards Renewal. It is intimately connected with Xi’s vision for China: the zhongguo meng functions at national, societal and individual levels, outlining specific areas for development within each. At its core is national revival.
The political style deployed to develop these nationally desirable characteristics initially feels about as anachronistic in today’s China as Xi’s evocation of Mao.
The compulsory military training that all freshers must complete during their first month of university is a direct outgrowth of the 20th century socialist policy of creating a fit, healthy and disciplined youth avant-garde. However, the university military training, the basic military drills and daily exercises carried out in the playground for high school students, and the continued existence of the pioneer organisation in Chinese primary schools are supposed to develop the latter half of national-level min zhu (prosperity and strength) as well as individual-level ai gui (patriotism) and jing ye (respect for hard work).
Xi’s anti-corruption drive echoes the dynamic socialist language of initiatives and five-year plans, while simultaneously underpinning the development of the societal characteristics of zi you (freedom), ping deng (equality), gong zheng (justice) and fa zhi (the rule of law). Small posters on the street remind people of their individual role to play in creation of he xie: Chinese brilliance.
Although the political style may appear socialist on the surface, it is no secret that the CCP is now strongly nationalist.
Xi’s policies are aimed at developing a strong nationalism at home and abroad: the One Belt One Road initiative should secure Chinese influence over its neighbours, as should the strengthening of its military. Clampdowns on internet freedom, as well as feminists and those critical of China’s human rights record, demonstrate that freedom, equality and justice only extend so far – as does Xi’s re-emphasis of the One China principle during his party conference speech, against the backdrop of continued nationalist propaganda campaigns waged in both Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Xi’s decision to fashion himself after Mao must also be understood in these terms. Mao is a greatly revered figure in China today. The party line in China is that Mao was ‘70% good, 30% bad’, yet this is by no means top-down created hero-worship. Whilst acknowledging the great purges and atrocities perpetrated during his leadership, for many ordinary Chinese Mao represents drastically improved living standards and the restoration of pride and dignity for their country. In Hunan province, where he was born, he is particularly popular. Get a Didi (Chinese Uber) in Changsha and accompanying the smell of menthol betel nut will often be a small bust of Mao perched on the dashboard to comfort the passenger on their perilous journey through the concrete sprawl.
Xi has cast Mao as the lead in the Chinese dream. He can be wheeled out as both a unifying nationalist folk hero and figurehead of the nostalgic socialist-era character-building used to achieve 21st century Chinese national rejuvenation.
The success of this policy is not easy to assess. Xi is presented as stronger than ever by the Chinese media, and opinion polls have no place in Chinese politics.
It is evening in one of the rare coffee shops in Changsha. I am sharing rice wine with some students from Hunan university. They demonstrate perfectly the zhongguo meng characteristics of you shan (kindness) and chung xin (honesty). These are the Chinese metropolitan elite, the children of the new middle class, benefitting from the most recent advances in the education system, and having grown up without experiencing the actually existing socialism their parents lived through. I ask a few for their thoughts on the zhongguo meng. After laughing embarrassedly, one friend suggests that each individual has their own duty to make China great. It seems, here at least, the rhetoric of the Chinese dream is in action, binding these individuals to a shared national destiny.