Chinese Leader Xi Presents Contradictory Positions on Mao’s Legacy Ahead of Regime’s 70th Anniversary

By Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao is a Washington-based reporter focused on China-related topics. Before joining the Epoch Media Group in July 2009, she worked as a global product manager for a railway business in Paris, France.
September 30, 2019 Updated: September 30, 2019

Just before the Chinese communist regime celebrates the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic, Chinese leader Xi Jinping commemorated founder Mao Zedong in a high-profile manner.

On Sept. 30, Xi and other Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders went to Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing, “bowed three times to Mao’s statue, and paid tribute to Mao’s remains,” according to a one-sentence report by Chinese state-run media Xinhua.

But several days prior, Xi also granted an honorary title to a political prisoner who was executed for opposing Mao’s policies.

These seemingly contradictory actions reflect Xi’s attempt to placate different factions within the Party, according to some China observers.

Commemorating Mao

Xi’s visit was the first time that a Chinese leader visited Mao’s mausoleum in the leadup to the Oct. 1 anniversary. All previous Party leaders visited Mao’s mausoleum during their reign—but on Mao’s birthday.

Mao, who was born on Dec. 26, 1893, was a co-founder of the CCP and was Party leader from the takeover of China in 1949 until his death in 1976.

His successor, Hua Guofeng, decided to build a mausoleum for Mao at Tiananmen Square.

In 1983, then-Party leader Hu Yaobang visited Mao’s mausoleum, together with his successors Zhao Ziyang and Deng Xiaoping. Jiang Zemin visited in 1993 and Hu Jintao visited 20 years later. After Xi came to power, he visited Mao’s mausoleum in 2013.

Xi’s most recent visit became the subject of analysis by Hong Kong and Taiwan media, which gave similar readings: Xi was seeking to emphasize Mao’s historical position as the state founder, give legitimacy to the CCP’s rule, and reaffirm that the Party wouldn’t change its system.

Award to Political Prisoner

To celebrate its 70 years of rule, the central government also held an awards ceremony for “The Most Beautiful Fighter” in Beijing on Sept. 25, bestowing the honorary title on 278 individuals and 22 groups.

At the ceremony, Xi said, according to Xinhua, “[The government] should widely publicize the good deeds that these most beautiful fighters did … to realize the Chinese nation’s ‘China dream,’”  which is Xi’s trademark slogan for his vision of the country’s future.

Zhang Zhixin, who was among those honored, was a government official who didn’t agree with Mao’s political campaign of the Cultural Revolution, begun in 1966.

Detained in 1968, she was brutally tortured and raped while in prison, but refused to change her mind. She wrote in an open letter, “Expressing opinions on our party and state is a display of loyalty to the party.”

After publicly saying in 1970 that she opposed Mao, her sentence was revised to life imprisonment from 15 years. But in 1975, Mao’s nephew Mao Yuanxin ordered that she should be executed; prison guards slit her throat and killed her by gunshot in April of that year.

In October 1976, after Mao’s death, Mao Yuanxin was purged and imprisoned. In March 1979, Zhang was politically rehabilitated.

Xi’s decision to grant her an honorary title indicates that he wishes to distance himself from the “extreme left” faction that supports Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which persecuted millions to death, U.S.-based commentator Shi Shi told the Chinese-language Epoch Times on Sept. 30.

Shi explained that the Chinese regime has in recent years enacted leftist policies, such as demolishing all Buddha statues and forcing private companies to cooperate with state-run firms—for which Xi has been criticized.

The Party itself has struggled with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, recently revising school textbook materials to limit mentions of it, while omitting references to its negative effects on the country.

“I think Xi Jinping doesn’t want to be too leftist, because then all private sector businesses would flee,” Shi said.

Meanwhile, the seemingly contradictory move to visit Mao’s tomb days later is an indication that Xi had to placate different factions within the Party who support and oppose Mao’s leftist policies, said Chen Pokong, a U.S.-based political commentator.

“The intense factional infighting among CCP senior officials is on the verge of breaking out in public. To maintain his power, Xi doesn’t know which way is the right direction,” Chen told the Chinese-language Epoch Times on Sept. 30.

Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao is a Washington-based reporter focused on China-related topics. Before joining the Epoch Media Group in July 2009, she worked as a global product manager for a railway business in Paris, France.