The Chairmen, Trump and MaoPosted: January 28, 2017
The January 13, 1967 issue of TIME magazine featured Mao Zedong on its cover with the headline “China in Chaos.” Fifty years later, TIME made U.S. President-elect Donald Trump its Man of The Year. With a groundswell of mass support, both men rebelled against the established order in their respective countries and set about throwing the world into confusion. Both share an autocratic mind set, Mao Zedong as Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Donald Trump as Chairman of the Board. As Jiaying Fan noted in May 2016, both also share a taste for “polemical excess and xenophobic paranoia.” For his part, Mao’s rebellion led to national catastrophe and untold human misery.
On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States of America. Although some of China’s New Leftists hailed Trump’s November 2016 win as a validation of ever-victorious Mao Zedong Thought, there is little reason to think that a Trump-led America will give much succor to China’s ideologues. In the two months since the U.S. election, through a phone call to Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, repeated comments on China’s currency manipulation, the appointment of Peter Navarro (an economic hawk and author, among other things, of the 2011 book Death by China: Confronting the Dragon—A Global Call to Action) as director of the National Trade Council, and his intervention in a dispute over an underwater U.S. drone waylaid by the Chinese navy in the South China Sea, Trump has indicated that he is taking an unpredictable approach to the most important global bilateral relationship. Even long-standing friends and allies of the U.S. have been thrown off guard as they learn how to live with the Great Disrupter.
The Chinese Communist Party under its Chairman of Everything, Xi Jinping, hasn’t had to confront such an erratic and populist leader since Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolutionary 50 years ago.
Uproar in Heaven
In Official China, the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution passed in silence, even though today’s People’s Republic, whether in terms of its achievements or of its egregious failures, continues to live in the shadow of that political maelstrom.
In 1966, Mao observed that his personality was a mixture of contradictory elements. There was the self-assured sense of destiny and confidence that led him to challenge and overturn earlier leaders of the Communist Party, confront Chiang Kai-shek, and lead the Chinese revolution. This was, he said, an expression of his “Tiger Spirit,” something that was in constant interplay with his “Monkey Spirit,” one that was skittish, paranoid, and unpredictable. The Monkey was always ready to take on the Tiger with devilish glee. In the last two decades of his life, Mao’s China reflected this deep-seated contradiction as the country lurched between authoritarian control and anarchic confusion. What for the Great Helmsman was his life force writ large would rend the fabric of the society he ruled and threatened everything he had worked to achieve.
At the time of the Sino-Soviet split in 1961, Mao wrote a poem in praise of China’s most famous monkey, Sun Wukong, the hero of the popular late-Ming novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. The international order established following WWII was under increasing pressure, and the Socialist Bloc, led by the Soviet Union, was riven by rebellion and disquiet as a result both of repressive Soviet expansionism in Europe and the ideological uncertainty generated by Nikita Khrushchev’s secret denunciation of Joseph Stalin in 1956. Mao, giving vent to his Tiger Spirit, would now lay claim to the mantle of world revolution.
A thunderstorm burst over the earth,
So a devil rose from a heap of white bones.
The deluded monk was not beyond the light,
But the malignant demon must wreak havoc.
The Golden Monkey wrathfully swung his massive cudgel,
And the jade-like firmament was cleared of dust.
Today, a miasmal mist once more rising,
We hail Sun Wu-kung, the wonder-worker.
Having delivered this challenge, Mao’s unpredictable Monkey Spirit would attempt to turn the world upside down. His poem and Uproar in Heaven, a 1964 film adaptation of Wu Cheng’en’s novel, struck a cord with the restive youth of China, many of whom closely followed China’s ideological contest with the Soviet Union. Like Mao, they too felt that their country was being stymied by a hidebound Soviet-style bureaucracy; the normalization of the revolutionary ardor of the past was frustrating China’s ability to lead history and achieve greatness. They related to Mao as he portrayed himself as an outsider who championed an uprising of the masses against a sclerotic system.
When, in 1966, Mao both engineered and supported a grassroots youthful rebellion against the very party-state he had created, a group of middle-school students in Beijing responded by composing a series of manifestos declaring that they, like Monkey, would support the Chairman, create an uproar in heaven, and smash the old world to pieces. In particular, they proclaimed “Rebellion is Justified” and quoted a line from Mao’s 1961 poem:
The Golden Monkey wrathfully swung his massive cudgel,
And the jade-like firmament was cleared of dust.
Mao responded to the young rebels and, to use today’s parlance, an alt-left movement of radicalism was born. The students called themselves Red Guards.
In August 1966, Mao and his deputy, Lin Biao, encouraged the Red Guards to Destroy the Four Olds and a wave of iconoclasm swept the country while the violence against people victimized as representing the old order were denounced, attacked, beaten, and even killed. During what would be known as Bloody August, Mao is said to have written to Jiang Qing, his wife and partner in revolutionary extremism, declaring that “Once heaven is in great disorder a new kind of order can emerge.” He believed that throwing the political establishment and social order into confusion would liberate the true potential of people to achieve what was otherwise seemingly impossible. A high-tide of revolutionary enthusiasm would allow people to cast aside the deadening bureaucracy and revitalize industry, agriculture, research, and society itself. Under the guidance of Mao Zedong Thought, the goal of making China great again could be realized on the world stage.
The Instincts of an Autocrat
The similarities between Mao Zedong and Donald Trump don’t end with the autocrat’s mindset touched on in the opening paragraph of this essay, or with the clash between tiger-like brio and the dyspathy of the monkey. The will to autocracy means that both figures share (with elected or self-appointed strong men historically and worldwide) some disturbing parallels:
Quotations Vs. Tweets: In the Mao era, the mysterious, contradictory, and yet powerfully inciting utterances of the Chairman were conveyed not by Twitter, but through quotations broadcast over national radio and carried in the newspapers. In the print media, Mao’s gnomic utterances were always highlighted by being printed in bold, while on radio they were recited in the stentorian voice of authority. A daily quotation called “The Highest Directive” featured in the top right-hand corner of the People’s Daily and was mimicked by every paper across the land. The quotations demanded a response and action and sent the country lurching in different directions while confusion reigned supreme in Beijing.
Progadanda Vs. the Lying Media: Like Mao, Trump has trouble sleeping, and his early morning Tweets reveal whatever has caught the leader’s flickering attention, alerting the world to some new twist or turn in his feverish thinking. With Twitter, Trump bypasses both the formal bureaucracy of Washington and what he and his followers dub “The Lying Media.”
Mao too distrusted the state media based in the capital, Beijing, and with the support of his wife, Jiang Qing, and her Shanghai comrades he got his message of rebellion out in other cities. He extolled The Right to Rebel and, in essence, he launched the Cultural Revolution to “drain the swamp” of the Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy. He called enemies within the Party nomenklatura “Capitalist Roaders,” the permanent political class, that is men and women who were pursuing policies that undermined his ideas and which, he believe, held back China’s productive capacity and frustrated the country’s global revolutionary preeminence.
Climate Change Vs. Human Will: The effects of climate change and the mismanagement of natural resources were evident in Mao’s China. There was a profligate depletion of water resources; increasing desertification starting from Outer Mongolia; unmodulated industrial pollution from the Great Leap Forward era onwards; denial of contaminants in food and water supplies. . . the list goes on. Mao believed that “man can conquer heaven,” that human will could triumph over nature. China now faces the challenge of climate change and environmental degradation with sober clarity; Trump’s America will be led by climate skeptics, deniers, and those who would sign up for Mao’s axiom.
The Smartest Men in the Room: Like Trump, Mao thought he was “smart,” and he distrusted experts and the educated. An autodidact, he believed that he did not need to rely on others to understand complex issues and resolve problems. He declared that the more education you have, the more dangerous you may be.
Divide to Rule Vs. Scapegoating: Like Trump, Mao pitted people against each other and encouraged discrimination against and the denigration of real and perceived enemies. He enjoyed the discomfort of others. His leadership style was erratic and even close allies never knew when they might be found wanting or discover that they had been betrayed. Mao didn’t need to say “you’re fired!” for his victims learned of their fate at the hands of underlings or in the media. Despite a belief in his omniscience and a sense that he alone understood mass sentiment, sequestered behind high palace walls, Mao lived in constant fear of machinations against him. His physician, Zhisui Li, claimed that in his later years, Mao anxiously questioned visitors: “What news do you have?” His paranoia led him to detect new plots and hidden enemies. Conspiracy theory became the core of Mao Zedong Thought. His response to his own suspicions was to create an atmosphere of unease and constant uncertainty.
A touch of yin, a touch of yang,
That is the nature of the Tao.
A swerve to the left, a swerve to the right,
This is the way of Mao.
Gangs of Four: Mao’s inner circle was the infamous Gang of Four. Donald Trump has his own Gang of Four: the canny female enabler, Ivanka Trump; the “Dog-head General,” Steve Bannon, formerly of Breitbart News; the loyal propagandist Kellyanne Conway, a genius at dialectical argumentation; and the helicoptered-in successor-in-waiting, Jared Kushner. When the farrago of Trump’s rule comes to an end, will they too end up in the dock like the original Gang of Four, or will they, like most things in America—homeland of the makeover and comeback—merely march forward, from victory to victory?
Business as Usual: In the long run, Mao found he had to rely on….(read more)
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