“To understand current China, I say read 1984 and Brave New World,” said Prof. Jeff Wasserstrom, history, University of California, Irvine during a lecture on Chinese politics organized by the Cornell Contemporary China Initiative on Monday.
The lecture, titled “Has China entered a post-post-Mao era?” discussed topics from the kidnappings of Hong Kong booksellers earlier this year to the growing popularity of nationalist leaders.
The lecture focused specifically on Xi Jinping’s presidency and his removal of presidential term limits on March 10, 2018. Wasserstrom compared Xi’s recent ascent to power with that of past Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, as well as that of Pope Francis.
Xi and the Pope both rose to power at the same time in March 2013 and had similar political personalities, Wasserstrom said, calling it the “strangest analogy.”
“When I woke up, they talked about the new leader of 1.2 billion people or so, who had just been chosen through an election, but it wasn’t really an election,” he said. “The question was would the old person the guy will be replacing fade away or would he look over the guy’s shoulder? And I found out that could’ve either been about Francis or Xi Jinping.”
According to Wasserstrom, the death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo — which happened during his custody under the Chinese government — signaled a shift in China’s current political state away from reform and towards what Wasserstrom referred to as “post-post-Mao.”
This “post-post-Mao” is evident in the visual reminders of Xi Jinping’s presidency across local shops and bookstores, which is reminiscent of Mao’s Little Red Book when he was in power, according to Wasserstrom. However, he distinguishes this from Mao’s era because “things are very different, but something about that sense of having certain things is not so clear.”
“In the reform era, over time, even the most high profile dissident prisoners were released to go to the West to receive medical treatment,” Wasserstrom said. However, he claimed that this practice of denying medical assistance was one of the “things in China that used to exist, then didn’t, then came back,” following Liu Xiaobo’s death.
Wasserstrom projected images of women washing their husband’s feet that he saw displayed on street walls during his most recent visit, which he used to compare to cartoon propagandas — featuring a younger person washing the feet of the older person — from Mao’s era.
“This is what the bad, old China was like when the young bowed down in front of the old. The new China is not going to be like that at all,” Wasserstrom said, quoting Mao’s ideology. “You can think of it as a revival of some things of Mao’s time but also a rejection of the things that happened during [that period].”
The similarities also lie between the wives of Xi and Chiang Kai-Shek, Peng Liyuan and Soong Mei-ling, Wasserstrom said. Chiang, the former leader of the Republic of China, settled in Taiwan after Mao rose to power after the Chinese civil war.
According to Wasserstrom, the growing presence and influence of Peng is analogous to that of Soong, as both received words of praise of the American press for their “grace, elegance and fashion”. The First Ladies, however, have had little impact in Chinese politics since Soong, Wasserstrom said.
The rise of nationalist leaders like Xi, or what Wasserstrom referred to as “ultimate muscular strongman rule,” is not limited to China.
“Maybe we don’t want to overstate the extent and staying power of this. We can think of counterexamples — not so long ago we had this democratic wave,” Wasserstrom said. “But an unstable world plays into the hands of people who fetishize the appeal of order, which these men — and they’re overwhelmingly men — tend to provide.”