NEW YORK — Donald Trump finally got to see the kind of military parade he longed for. Unfortunately for him, it was in Beijing, not Washington. You will recall that in 2018, Trump directed the Pentagon to put on a lavish show of arms to demonstrate America’s might. When news of its cost got out — an estimated $92 million — he scuttled the plan and settled for a far more modest July Fourth event in 2019.
President Xi Jinping faces no such obstacles and put on a thunderous show commemorating China’s 70 years of Communist rule, complete with hundreds of tanks, floats, planes and a nuclear-capable missile that could evade American missile defenses. As Xi inspected troops, he shouted, “Hello, comrades!” They shouted back, “Hello, leader!” Trump was surely envious. In a rare gesture of generosity and friendliness to China, he tweeted out his congratulations.
Xi has made a striking break with China’s recent past. Since taking power, he has in many ways increased the state’s role in the economy, tightened political control and repression, and embraced a revival of Maoism. What explains this turn backward? Political scientists from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan recently conducted 77 in-depth interviews with Chinese citizens and concluded that some do indeed have a hankering for the good old days. In their report, “Understanding ‘Red Memory’ in Contemporary China,” the scholars describe this as a “reflective nostalgia” for an earlier, simpler time before the breakneck pace of growth and globalization produced a whirlwind of change in every aspect of Chinese society. To put it another way, some Chinese yearn to make China great again.
The revived celebration of Mao-era ideology, songs and doctrines has struck many Westerners as bizarre. Mao Zedong, after all, plunged China into some of its deepest crises — from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, which killed and displaced tens of millions of Chinese people. But the Communist Party appears to have recognized that in times of ceaseless change, an embrace of nostalgia can be extremely useful. A decade ago, senior party leader Bo Xilai organized mass rallies at which revolutionary-patriotic songs were sung. Bo was later ousted and jailed, but Xi has emulated his approach.
In a new book, “China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong,” Jude Blanchette argues that we have not recognized the deep, internal divisions within the Chinese Communist Party over the last few decades, with many in the party unhappy with the country’s increasingly capitalist direction. “The party,” he writes, “long the student of Soviet decline, feels exposed on its left flank, and the most effective way to impugn Beijing still remains to point out the distance between its socialist aspirations and the realities of authoritarian state capitalism.” In fact, Xi has said that one of the major reasons Soviet communism collapsed was that the Party repudiated its past leaders and ideology.
A central aspect of China’s Maoist revival has been the return to a cult of personality. Early in Xi’s tenure, he cultivated the image of “Papa Xi.” Since then he has abolished term limits for himself, established his own “thought” as comparable to Mao’s own philosophy, and generally dispensed with the idea of collective leadership.
All this marks a stunning reversal from Deng Xiaoping’s vision for China. Deng, who initiated the 1980s reforms that have created China’s modern economy, once gave a couple of extraordinarily candid interviews to the legendary Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. In them, he praised Mao but openly acknowledged his greatest failures, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. When pressed by Fallaci as to why they would not happen again, Deng said that they were products of Mao’s cult of personality, his insistence on naming his own successor, and his lifetime tenure. Deng explained that none of that would be permitted in the new China. Xi has ignored Deng’s cautionary warnings.
Americans tend to see China as a monolith, an image encouraged by the Communist Party and its grand parades. In fact, it is a vast, complex society, going through great transformation. Xi is trying to hold it together and maintain control over a dynamic society without provoking a backlash. That is why, with all the military power on display, Xi has been wary about using any of it to quell the riots in Hong Kong.
Societies that are confident enough to criticize their leaders relentlessly, investigate their presidents, mock military parades, and honestly examine their past may look messy, chaotic and divided. But perhaps in the long run, they have a deeper resilience and stability.