At the May 21 Asia Society event ChinaFile Presents: Does Xi Jinping Represent a Return to the Politics of the Mao Era?, a discussion of author Andrew Walder’s new book, China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed, sparked a lively debate about the effects of the rule the Great Helmsman (1949-1976) on China’s current president.

Moderated by Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society, the discussion might also have been titled “China: Back to the Future?” or “Is Xi Cast In or Out from Underneath Mao’s Shadow?” (Xi’s father was in Mao’s cohort).

Walder, a Stanford University sociologist, was joined on stage by Harvard University historian Roderick MacFarquhar and Susan Shirk, former Deputy Assistant U.S. Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs. While the three panelists agreed that Xi’s rhetoric evoked the Mao era, they differed in their views on the extent to which Xi’s anti-corruption campaign could be legitimately compared to politics under Mao.

“There was virtually no corruption under Mao compared to what we see today,” Walder said, noting that the biggest offenders now being purged by Xi from the Chinese Communist Party are but a few thousand in number, not the millions under Mao who were charged with and often punished for crimes that they did not commit.

Though Xi’s targets are relatively few in number, MacFarquhar argued that Chinese society is showing signs that remind him of more tumultuous bygone eras. For instance, Xi is going after the so-called “Tigers”—the high-ranking Party elite who have fattened their wallets with the three-decade rise of the (corrupt) economy. This poses a risk to stability in an already volatile world: if the Tigers should turn on their leader for punishing their success, they “could growl back,” MacFarquhar said.

Shirk, for her part, expressed a desire to see Xi’s purge (which is popular for giving ordinary Chinese hope for change) run its course without too much disruption and with a diminishment of nationalist noises that accuse Western governments of trying to undermine the CCP.

“Nobody nowadays … in U.S. government is thinking about regime change in China [in the short or medium-term],” said Shirk, who is now Professor of China and Pacific Relations at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at U.C. San Diego.

One area in which all the discussants appeared to agree was their shared bewilderment at Xi’s apparent lack of self-confidence. How could the leader of the fastest growing economy on earth appear to be so paranoid when it now supports the world’s largest population better than it has ever done in the past, even as that economy slows?

“Xi doesn’t want to go down in history as the man under [whom] China fell,” MaqFarquhar explained.

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