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China Foreign Policy Short Form

Understanding Modern China Through Mao

Mao Zedong, the father of the Chinese Communist Party, casts a long shadow on modern day China despite his death nearly a half century ago. Like any shadow, China and its current president Xi Jinping trail alongside the towering figure in both form and substance.

Understanding politics in modern China requires reckoning with two of the most significant legacies of the Mao era – the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s and the cult-of-personality developed around Mao himself through mass media and propaganda during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. One could draw a straight line from these foundational events to Xi Jinping’s current attack on intellectualism, his brutal suppression of dissenting voices, and attempt to exert singular control over Chinese society through ideological indoctrination.

The Anti-Rightist campaign began in 1957, less than ten years after Mao and the CCP founded the People’s Republic of China. It was in response to the Hundred Flowers Movement launched the year before when the CCP encouraged Chinese citizens and intellectuals to openly express their opinions and criticize the government to help the party correct its mistakes.

This brief liberalization of political expression in China proved to be a bridge too far. Mao found the overwhelming criticism from the masses to represent a threat to the party’s control of Chinese society and responded by ordering a brutal purge of so-called “rightists”.

Anyone who favored capitalism over collectivization or had criticized the CCP was accused of plotting to overthrow the government. An estimated 550,000 people were rounded up and either publicly criticized through “struggle meetings”, sent to prison camps for re-education, or even executed[1]. The actual number of victims may be between 1-2 million or more[2].

Up to one million Uyghers are currently being held in re-education camps in Xinjiang, China to prevent religious “extremism” and “terrorist activities”, and to ensure “ethnic unity” and national security.

The Anti-Rightist campaign was a game-changer not only because of how arbitrary the persecutions were – indeed nearly 98% of all who were labeled “rightists” may have been wrongly applied[3] – but that it was aimed at the mainstream, intellectual class not the fringes of Chinese society[4]. It effectively shuttered intellectual dissent and turned China into a de-facto one party state.

Today, Xi Jinping is echoing the legacy of the Anti-Rightist campaign through a similarly repressive crackdown on intellectual discourse. In 2013, Xi’s comprehensive reform plan effectively banned any discussion of constitutional democracy and universal values – it was the biggest ideological campaign to restrict speech since Mao’s death[5].  

As a result, hundreds of professors, lawyers, and activists have been targeted for promoting so-called Western concepts like a free press, civil society, and rule-of-law – acts that have resulted in their harassment, jailing, exiling, and disappearance for “subversion of state power”[6],[7]. Access to China itself has shriveled with scholarly researchers facing surveillance, intimidation, and restrictions on entering the country or accessing archival research materials[8].

Xi is merely borrowing Mao’s suspicion of the intellectual class – if left free to protest or critique the party then they would risk unraveling the hegemonic control of the CCP over the Chinese people.

How were both leaders able to pull off this repressive form of governance? One of Mao’s enduring legacies is the extent to which he was seen a veritable demi-god in the eyes of the public – an infallible, heroic leader who rescued China from the imperialist West[9].

Students carry Mao’s banner and sing songs in his praise during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

The deification of Mao saw its fever pitch during the Cultural Revolution when he urged young people to purge China of the capitalist and revisionist elements in society and impose “Mao Zedong Thought” as the dominant ideology of the country[10].

The People’s Liberation Army deployed expansive propaganda and mass media to build a cult-of-personality around Mao. Songs glorifying him were sang in schools and played in loudspeakers in public, the “Little Red Book” of Mao’s quotations was almost mandatory to be held by everyone and quoted extensively, even a loyalty dance was created for people to express their love and devotion to Mao[11].

Xi is now in the process of leveraging the party’s vast propaganda apparatus to create his own god-like image as a way to engender support from the public in the face of totalitarian control.

In 2019, the CCP launched a mobile app some have dubbed as the “Little Red App” to promote Xi’s ideology where party members and civil servants must log points in every day[12]. Starting in August 2021, “Xi Jinping Thought” has been integrated into the Chinese school curriculum from primary school through college with Xi’s ideology being taught to “cultivate love for the country, the Communist Party of China, and socialism.[13]” At the most recent Central Committee meeting of the CCP, Xi’s ideology was declared the “essence of Chinese culture.[14]

After having eliminated term limits for himself, Xi now stands as ruler-for-life of China[15]. Equipped with the lessons from Mao, he stands ready to quash political dissent, expand the party’s control on every facet of Chinese society, and cement his legacy in the same strain of revolutionary immortality that Mao Zedong imprinted into generations of Chinese citizens.


[1] Roderick MacFarquhar, “The Politics of China: Sixty Years of The People’s Republic of China”, pg. 82, Cambridge University Press, 2011, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/jhu/detail.action?docID=803133.

[2] Christine Vidal, “The 1957-1958 Anti-Rightist Campaign in China: History and Memory (1978-2014)”, HAL Archives, April 25th, 2016, https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-01306892/document.

[3] Roderick MacFarquhar, “The Politics of China: Sixty Years of The People’s Republic of China”, pg. 83, Cambridge University Press, 2011, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/jhu/detail.action?docID=803133.

[4] Andrew Mertha, “Lecture – The Anti-Rightest Movement and the Great Leap Forward”, Module 3 – Maoism and Its Legacy.

[5] Cai Xia, “The Party That Failed: An Insider Breaks With Beijing”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-12-04/chinese-communist-party-failed.

[6] Tom Phillips and Ed Pilkington, “No country for academics: Chinese crackdown forces intellectuals abroad,” The Guardian, May 24th, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/24/academics-china-crackdown-forces-intellectuals-abroad.

[7] Human Rights Watch, “China: On “709” Anniversary, Legal Crackdown Continues,” July 7th, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/07/china-709-anniversary-legal-crackdown-continues.

[8] Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Rory Truex, “Repressive Experiences among China Scholars: New Evidence from Survey Data,” The China Quarterly, 242, June 2020, pp. 349–375, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/china-quarterly/article/repressive-experiences-among-china-scholars-new-evidence-from-survey-data/C1CB08324457ED90199C274CDC153127.

[9] Ian Buruma, “Cult of the chairman,” The Guardian, March 7th, 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/mar/07/china.features11.

[10] Ronald McLeod, “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Mao Zedong’s Quest for Revolutionary Immortality”, Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects, 1990, https://scholarworks.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4378&context=etd.

[11] South China Morning Post, “How Mao Zedong built up his cult of personality – from new Frank Dikötter book How to be a Dictator,” October 13th, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/article/3032488/how-mao-zedong-built-his-cult-personality-new-frank-dikotter.

[12] Iza Ding and Jeffrey Javed, “Why Maoism still resonates in China today,” The Washington Post, May 29th, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/05/29/why-maoism-still-resonates-china-today/.

[13] BBC, “China schools: ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ introduced into curriculum,” August 25th, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58301575.

[14] NPR, “China’s Communist Party, with eye on history, gives Xi Jinping the same status as Mao,” November 11th, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/11/11/1054646063/china-xi-jinping-communist-party.

[15] James Doubek, “China Removes Presidential Term Limits, Enabling Xi Jinping To Rule Indefinitely,” NPR,  March 11th, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/11/592694991/china-removes-presidential-term-limits-enabling-xi-jinping-to-rule-indefinitely.

About The Author

Chetan Hebbale is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. focused on international economics, climate change, and sustainability.

Prior to this, he spent over 4 years at Deloitte Consulting working on technology and strategy projects at the CDC and U.S. Treasury Department.

He is a native of Atlanta, GA and attended the University of Georgia.

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