Mao’s Long Shadow

Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby not only constricting China’s own development but also limiting the progress of all of human civilization. This must change, truly it must. The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.

                                                        Charter 08 for Reform and Democracy in China

Following Mao’s death, the CCP changed direction dramatically. Mao’s ideology of permanent revolution, which was responsible for decades of violent chaos, was replaced by a doctrine of ‘social harmony’. The Party gradually abandoned communism and enthusiastically adopted state capitalism, ushering in decades of unprecedented economic growth.    

The Party’s successes in recent decades have been remarkable. An average of 9 per cent growth over three decades has transformed China into the world’s largest economy. China’s economic reforms have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of severe poverty, the greatest reduction in poverty ever. According to the World Bank [1], half a billion Chinese people escaped poverty between 1981 and 2004. China’s cities have been transformed, with modern skyscrapers, high-speed transport systems, and shopping malls to rival any city in the rich developed world. And China has, so far, achieved this urban transformation without creating the massive slums that blight so many cities across the developing world.

The Party has also relaxed its control over many aspects of the private lives of China’s citizens. People now have less need to seek the Party’s permission on where they can live and work, who they can marry, and whether or not they can travel. As a result, the dehumanisation of everyday life that characterised life under Mao has been greatly reduced.

One hopeful interpretation of these sweeping changes is that the CCP is slowly reforming towards democracy. The evidence suggests, however, that what has happened is less a democratic awakening than a change of disguise. Beneath China’s spectacular economic growth the CCP is still an unreformed authoritarian regime [2].


photo credit: freshwater2006 Gate of Heavenly Mao via photopin (license)

Author Richard McGregor has outlined how the Party still relies on many of the classic tactics of totalitarianism to maintain its grip on power[3]. The Party has centralised all political control and is assiduous in ensuring that no organisation of scale is allowed to develop that could threaten its monopoly on power. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Party has ensured that every police force in the country, from the largest cities to the smallest village, has a domestic security department charged with protecting the Party and silencing political dissent. As Chinese scholar Youwei points out, anyone smart enough to avoid politics entirely will not even feel the presence of this ubiquitous security apparatus[4]. However, political dissidents brave enough to speak out, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei, are either imprisoned or disappeared.

Acutely aware of the role that the trade union Solidarity played in ending communism in Poland, the Party prohibits the formation of independent trade unions. The official trade union body, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, exists primarily to ensure that an independent union movement does not develop.

Similarly, civil society organisations, such as charities and NGOs, find it impossible to operate independently, stifling the development of a vigorous civil society. The Party maintains control over all religious organisations, fearful of their potential to act as a focus for the emergence of an organised opposition movement. Only five faiths are officially recognised and allowed to practise. The Party’s response to those attempting to organise outside of these strictures was made clear in the suppression of the Falun Gong movement. Falun Gong, with an estimated membership of seventy million [5], had grown to rival the Party in the number of its adherents [6]. A massive campaign of repression was launched in 1999, after the organisation had held the largest gathering of protestors since the Tiananmen massacre, which effectively destroyed the movement.

The Party maintains strict control over the press and social media, the courts, and the civil service. All jobs in government ministries and agencies are allocated by the Party; all Chinese media are under the control of the Party’s propaganda department; almost every law firm contains a Party committee which controls pay; and all government employees undergo regular retraining in a network of Party schools to ensure allegiance to Party policies.

The CCP’s ultimate means of retaining power is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Party has not forgotten Mao’s dictum that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’. The PLA is not the army of the Chinese state, as would be the case in democratic nations; it is the army of the Party. Its primary mission is to keep the Party in power. To ensure loyalty, the PLA has over 90,000 Party cells operating within it, one for every twenty-five military personnel. An 800,000-strong People’s Armed Police unit within the PLA has been specially trained to put down major civil unrest [7]. The CCP realised the need for a force trained to shoot unarmed civilians as a result of the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe during the fall of the Soviet Union, and at Tiananmen Square itself in 1989 when some PLA officers refused to obey orders to kill unarmed students.

In the absence of the checks and balances provided by democratic government, an independent police and judiciary, and an open media, local Party officials in China exercise enormous power over ordinary people. The impacts on people’s lives are evident in the multiple injustices they suffer at the hands of local Party cadres. Top of the list of complaints is the illegal seizure of land for development. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an astonishing forty million peasants have had their land forcibly taken from them for development [8]. Such land seizures are used by Party officials to amass considerable personal wealth [9]. Chinese citizens have little redress against the injustices they suffer. One survey of citizens who informed authorities of corrupt activities found that more than half were subject to violent reprisals [10], including having their houses ransacked, being beaten up by local officials, and being falsely charged with crimes [11].

It is not just individual Chinese who suffer as a result of corruption. The development of a more equitable nation is also being undermined by the sheer scale of corruption by Party officials. Despite its recent economic successes, China remains a poor country. Because China’s modernisation is so recent, reforms have so far not had time to change the country’s social structure into anything resembling that typical of rich, developed nations. Instead of the sizable middle class and poor minority typical of developed countries, China has a small middle class and a huge majority of poor.

If China’s economic growth is to continue, this social structure has to change to become more similar to that of developed nations. There is a real danger, however, that China’s current skewed social structure will become locked in. If this were to happen it would result in a society deeply divided between a rich elite and a very poor, very large majority. The continued impoverishment of the majority of China’s population is a recipe not only for economic stagnation, but also for China to become one of the most unequal societies on earth.

The scale of corruption by Party officials, and its potential impact in hindering China’s development, has only recently begun to come to light. Journalist Richard McGregor cited the following instances of corruption, reported within the space of only a few months in 2009: a local police chief in a town in Guangdong caught with $4.4 million in cash at his home; an official in the railways bureau in Urumqi charged with embezzling $3.6 million; a property official convicted of taking $1 million in bribes; a Party secretary in a township near Chengdu executed for taking $2.5 million in bribes; a police chief in Changchun caught with $1.9 million in cash at his home; the vice-mayor of Suzhou charged with accepting a bribe of $12 million; the head of a property development zone in Chongqing charged with embezzling $32.1 million [12]. Given this level of corruption, becoming a CCP official is widely seen as the easiest way to become rich in China.[13]

More recently, instances of corruption have also surfaced involving senior Party figures. These have included Xu Caihou, a retired general who had served as a member of the 25 person Politburo; Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Party’s Standing Committee, whose family’s assets were estimated to be over $150 million; and Bo Xilai, former Politburo member and Party leader in the city of Chongqing. Bo’s trial and that of his wife, Gu Kailai, who was convicted for the murder of a British businessman, were China’s most politically charged trials in decades.

In 2012, current Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a campaign targeting corruption within the Party, warning that endemic corruption could lead to ‘the collapse of the Party and the downfall of the state’. Over 270,000 Party members were punished for corrupt activities in the first two years of the campaign alone.

Critics of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, however, have pointed out that Xi’s inner circle has remained immune, and that the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, or CCDI, set up to carry out the investigations, has acquired a dangerous level of power within the Party [15]. The same critique has been levelled at Xi himself. Rather than establishing checks and balances on the Party as a means of curbing corruption, such as empowering the courts, media and civil society, or allowing an opposition party to emerge, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign relies on the powerful CCDI, loyal only to the central leadership.

Critics also warn that since coming to office, Xi has also systematically centralised control of the Party in his own hands. In particular, he has reversed the reforms that Deng Xaioping introduced after Mao’s death to guard against the reoccurrence of such a nightmare. To prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual, Deng introduced the principle of collective leadership of the Party. In this system, power was distributed among the members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, with each member being responsible for a different portfolio. Controversial issues were settled by vote, with each Standing Committee member’s vote carrying equal weight [16].

Deng explained the importance of collective leadership by saying ‘If systems [of governance] are sound, they can place restraints on the actions of bad people; if they are unsound, they may hamper the efforts of good people…’

Since coming to power Xi Jinping has essentially jettisoned the safeguard of collective leadership. He has marginalised the office of Premier, who has traditionally had the last say on economic policy, by taking control of this area of policy. He has assumed control over the internal security apparatus, which includes the police, the secret police and internet security, areas that were formerly the responsibility of another member of the Standing Committee. And he has created powerful new bodies in charge of the police state apparatus, economic reform, and cyber police and cyber warfare, and has appointed himself head of all three. As a result of this centralisation of power, Xi has established himself as the most authoritarian Chinese leader since Mao.


It’s time Chinese people! The square belongs to everyone. Your feet are your own. It’s time to use your feet to go to the square and make a choice.

Zhu Yufu, imprisoned for seven years in 2012 for writing these words in a poem

Like Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China demonstrates that people with dangerous personality disorders play a dominant role in shaping our world, a dominance which belies their minority status in the human population as a whole.

Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia both show that the rise to power of pathological groups is not an aberration. Rather than the exception, rule by tyranny is the norm unless societies guard themselves against the pathological minority in their midst. And contemporary China, like modern day Russia, demonstrates that pathological groups cast a long shadow over the societies they have brutalised.

The Chinese Communist Party’s continuation in power to date has been possible largely because it has succeeded, so far, in suppressing the truth of the horrors it has wrought. It has succeeded in this, as author Philip Pan has written, partly because many ordinary Chinese people have been willing accomplices in the act of forgetting [17]. Just as in the case of Stalin’s Gulag, so many people either participated in the frenzy of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution or stood by in silence, that it has not been difficult for the Party to persuade Chinese society to forget its past. In addition, half of China’s population has been born since the Cultural Revolution ended and has never been allowed to learn what really took place. Government based on a denial of history, however, is not a basis for long term stability.

The institutions of liberal democracy, while flawed, are the best defence the Chinese people could build against the return of a pathological leader such as Mao. A process of controlled and sequenced democratisation is therefore be in the best interests of China and its people. As scholar Youwei and others have argued [18], an enlightened leadership in Beijing could take steps now for an eventual transition to democracy by gradually enabling judicial independence, encouraging the development of civil society, and introducing a measure of democracy within the Party.

Unfortunately, as Youwei laments, this is unlikely to happen. Such a transition would require a coalition of pro-reform politicians within the CCP’s leadership, a coalition that is absent now and is unlikely to appear soon.

Instead China under Xi Jinping is moving in a more authoritarian direction. By doing so, by removing the defence of collective leadership and centralising power in his own hands, President Xi runs the real risk of returning China once again to the dark days when relations between human beings were characterised as those between wolves.


[1] Richard McGregor, The Party: The secret world of China’s Communist Rulers, Allen Lane, 2010:xvii

[2] Richard McGregor, The Party: The secret world of China’s Communist Rulers, Allen Lane, 2010:19

[3] Richard McGregor, The Party: The secret world of China’s Communist Rulers, Allen Lane, 2010:xiv

[4] Youwei, The End of Reform in China, Foreign Affairs, Volume 94, Number 3, May/June 2015

[5] Joseph Kahn, ‘Notoriety now for movement’s leaders’, New York Times, 27 April 1999

[6]In 2009, the Party’s membership was around seventy five million – about one in twelve of China’s adult population.

[7] Richard McGregor, The Party: The secret world of China’s Communist Rulers, Allen Lane, 2010:110

[8] Quoted in Mark Leonard, What Does China Think?, Fourth Estate, 2008:73

[9] Lianjiang Li, ‘Driven to Protest: China’s rural unrest’, Current History, September 2006:250

[10] Minxin Pei, China’s Trapped Transition: The limits of developmental autocracy, Harvard University Press, 2008:150

[11] Ibid:203

[12] Richard McGregor, The Party: The secret world of China’s Communist Rulers, Allen Lane, 2010:139

[13] Li Peilin 2002, quoted in China Since Tiananmen, Joseph Fewsmith, Cambridge University Press, 2009:234

[15] James Leung, Xi’s Corruption Crackdown, Foreign Affairs, Volume 94, Number 3, May/June 2015

[16] Willy Lam, a 21st Century Mao, Prospect Magazine, June 2015

[17] Philip Pan, Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the soul of a new China, Picador, 2008:83

[18] Youwei, The End of Reform in China, Foreign Affairs, Volume 94, Number 3, May/June 2015


1 thought on “Mao’s Long Shadow

  1. Pingback: Trump’s Angry Narcissistic Fog is a Threat to Democracy Everywhere | disorderedworld

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