Written by Jackie Sheehan.

Before considering today’s parallels with the Cultural Revolution, first let’s deal with the characterization of China’s current leader as Xi Zedong, or if you prefer, Mao Jinping. Accusations of a Xi personality cult are accumulating, and incidents like last month’s poetic outpouring by Xinhua News deputy director Pu Liye provide compelling evidence. Inspired by Xi’s visit to the newsroom, Pu, with “fingers burning on [his] cellphone”, invoked in verse the “admiring gaze” of Xinhua staff at their departing leader’s back as he “march[es] on with vigorous steps and rising head.”

It was natural that Mao’s “little red soldiers”, teenagers brought up to worship the Great Helmsman and with no access to alternate realities, might be overcome with emotion in his presence at the great Tiananmen Square Red Guard rallies in autumn 1966, and might even be moved to write embarrassingly gushing odes to mark the occasion, but it is less obvious what the excuse is for Pu, who from his job title we must assume is a competent adult.

Personality cults, however, are usually launched by someone other than their subject – starting your own, like choosing your own nickname, never quite sticks. For Xi himself to have instructed the People’s Daily to pepper its front page with a record number of mentions of his name is as unlikely as his having personally chosen the cute-yet-sinister “Xi Dada” appellation (“Uncle Xi” – at least whoever came up with it had the wit to avoid “Big Brother”) for the promotion of a folksy, down-to-earth image.

Xi does exercise personal control over every committee that matters in Zhongnanhai, but they still seem to be properly constituted committees that meet regularly, so this is not a Stalinist by-passing of normal lines of command by a charismatic leader overriding the principles of collective leadership. As Kerry Brown has pointed out in these pages, there is no evidence that Xi faced opposition from party comrades to the concentration of power in his hands that has occurred, or even that it was his idea originally.

More convincing than an individual power grab is the idea of a project of, as Matthew Johnson’s post has it, “re-building and re-legitimizing the party through the figure of Xi.” If this is to succeed, then clearly Xi’s leadership and conduct cannot be called into question, hence Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo’s TV interview urging his former industry to shut down its production of unofficial Xi commentary. Lee and two other Hong Kong detainees in the Gui Minhai case have all briefly appeared back in the SAR to warn the local police off further investigation, with Lee insisting on his freedom even while using the code that it was “not convenient” to disclose who was waiting outside the Phoenix TV studios to drive him directly back to the mainland.

The latest round of disappearances in China has also been sparked by an unwanted intervention in the Xi leadership debate, this time an open letter calling on Xi to resign supposedly written by “loyal CCP members.” It was published on an overseas website and then briefly, possibly unintentionally, appeared on the Wujie News website. 20 people had gone missing in connection with this letter at the time of writing, though most seem unlikely to have had anything to do with its writing or publication.

The first to vanish was journalist Jia Jia, detained at Beijing airport where he was due to board a flight to Hong Kong on 17 March. He had previously told friends he believed he was under investigation and might be detained, but he is clearly not one of the letter’s authors, as they “experienced the Cultural Revolution”, which had finished before Jia was born. Possibly his detention was simply because he had contacted Wujie News’ editor to ask about the letter and because he’s one of the usual suspects of the still-critical, non-Xi-worshipping Chinese media; at any rate, he has now been released.

The letter speaks of Xi’s concentration of powers in his own hands as leading to “unprecedented problems and crises in all political, economic, ideological, and cultural spheres”, and accuses him of “stunning the country” with further restrictions on freedom of expression. It’s hard to deny that we are back to early-70s levels of repression, persecution, and the proliferation of forms of arbitrary detention, all the more sinister second time around for being carried out with the full support of the law, as in the provision for detainees to be held away from home under “house arrest” which effectively legalized the disappearance without charge or trial of inconvenient people.

So if we are being taken back to the Cultural Revolution, it is definitely to the years 1969-76, as in the first three years of the movement, at times the most radical Red Guards were free to urge their peers to “doubt everything”, even to “doubt Chairman Mao.” It was precisely this brief taste of freedom early on that made them feel the backlash so acutely as the most radical groups became the first to be suppressed.

Mao’s personality cult eventually developed its own antidote as his 180-degree turns broke the spell over some of his most loyal followers, and once they lost faith in him, they gained the useful habit of questioning all authority. As the “Thinking generation,” some former Red Guards continued their activism past 1976 to help found China’s indigenous human-rights movement – it never was a foreign import.

Given this background, it was natural that the key demand of the subsequent Democracy Wall movement (1978-81) was for the ruling party itself to be brought within the law, so that citizens’ rights could be enforced rather than being in the gift of those in power. This still has not happened, and although Xi’s anti-corruption campaign might enable him to claim he will put “good bureaucrats” in charge of the system, that wasn’t enough for Democracy Wall, so why should it be enough 35 years later?

For Xi to establish Constitution Day and hold a party plenum on the rule of law can only be a standing provocation to dissent when in reality it is harder than at any point for the past 40 years for China’s citizens to speak, write, assemble, organize, associate, or worship as they wish.

Jackie Sheehan is a professor and Head of the School of Asian Studies at University College Cork. Image credit: CC by GovernmentZA/Flickr.

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