Asia Pacific / Politics | FOCUS

From Mao to Xi: China’s evolution under one-party rule


China’s Communist Party has defied the odds to retain firm control of power for 70 years, adapting to a changing world to outlast its comrades in the Soviet Union.

As the People’s Republic of China prepares to celebrate its anniversary on Tuesday, here is a look at how the party has evolved over the years.

Turbulent decades

For almost three decades, China had its own style of rule: Maoism.

Under the regime of PRC founder Mao Zedong, the state took over industries and farmers were organized into collectives.

The Great Leap Forward in 1958 — a mass mobilization of labor to boost agricultural and industrial production — ended with the deaths of tens of millions of people by famine.

Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 as a movement to demolish his political rivals, but it turned into a disaster, with youthful Red Guards wreaking havoc across the country.

Opening up

Two years after Mao’s death, the party abandoned Maoism and launched its “reform and opening up” policy under new paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978.

The economy thrived following a series of market-oriented policies that allowed for private capital and foreign investment.

The party has had a “certain pragmatic recognition that regime survival depends upon economic performance, and economic performance requires interaction with the world economy,” said Sam Crane, a professor specializing in Chinese politics at Williams College in the United States.

Millions of people have been pulled out of poverty and the country now boasts hundreds of billionaires and major homegrown companies, such as internet giants Alibaba and Tencent.

Tight control

Under this “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Ferraris roar down the streets of major cities where people can shop at luxury stores like Gucci.

But one thing has not changed — the Communist Party of China’s tight grip on the reins of the economy.

Xi made clear at an exhibition about the 70th anniversary last week that the country’s historic achievements “fully demonstrate that only the CPC can lead China,” according to its official Xinhua News Agency.

Party “cells” are present in private companies and state-owned firms remain major players in the economy.

Even Alibaba’s billionaire founder Jack Ma is among the party’s 90.6 million members.

What if Karl Marx traveled through time to see today’s China?

“If Marx came back I think he would say that it is not ‘socialist.’ That is, it is not moving in the historical direction of ‘communism’ but has settled into a rather rigid ‘state capitalism’ with strong authoritarian elements,” Crane said.

Mao and Xi ‘thought’

Another break from Mao was the end of one-man rule.

Deng backed a system of “collective” leadership and orderly succession following his death in 1997.

Jiang Zemin served two five-year terms as president, and his successor Hu Jintao complied with the new tradition.

But Xi has turned back the clock to become the most powerful leader since Mao.

Like the “Great Helmsman” before him, Xi has benefited from a state media-crafted cult of personality.

The founder had “Mao Zedong Thought.” The current leader enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the country’s constitution.

Mao had the “Little Red Book.” Xi has a 21st century version in an app dubbed “Study Xi,” which features his teachings.

Xi has overseen a crackdown on graft that has punished more than 1.5 million party officials — a move popular with ordinary citizens but viewed by observers as a chance to purge his rivals.

And Xi could be here to stay with the recent removal of presidential term limits.

Crackdown party

The opening of the economy has not been accompanied by political reforms.

China marked another anniversary this year, one that the party made sure was not commemorated — the 30th anniversary of the brutally fatal repression of pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square.

The government has even tightened its grip on society under Xi, detaining activists, stepping up internet censorship, and refusing to free dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo even while he was dying of cancer.

Critics fear authorities are increasingly using China’s development of facial recognition and other technologies to monitor citizens.

In the Xinjiang region in China’s northwest, the mostly Muslim Uighur ethnic group has learned the hard way what it means to run afoul of the government.

More than 1 million people there are said to have been placed in internment camps in the name of combatting terrorism.

Coronavirus banner