The Unmaking of Deng’s China and Remaking of Mao’s China: An Analysis of their Economic Legacy in China

In a session of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on  11th March 2018 an amendment was passed to abolish presidential term limits making Xi  Jinping’s China’s President for an indefinite term. This has caused many scholars  across the world to term Xi Jinping as “Mao of the 21st century” because this extent of power  consolidation in China was seen during Mao’s era. China has been through a circle of development from tightened consolidation of power during Mao’s rule to Deng’s Open Door Policy to now Xi Jinping’s new China which in a way can be seen moving back to Mao’s era.  One of the starkest features of this circle of evolution of China is the fact that the Communist  Party of China has a strong connect with its past and it’s perceptions of Chinese history still  resonate strongly in its policies. Thus, this paper sets to analyse the economic legacy of Mao  Zedong and his successor Deng Xiaoping in China today and tries to evaluate the question: Is  Xi Jinping’s China moving back to Mao’s China? Thus, in answering this question I argue that Xi Jinping is certainly adopting many of Mao’s authoritarian policies and has an uncomfortable relationship with Deng. However, this cannot be explained by terming him as a  “Maoist.” I emphasise on the fact that the context in which Xi Jinping is functioning is of utmost importance to explain why he is moving back to Mao’s policies.  

Remaking Mao’s China: Xi Jinping’s China  

Why is Xi Jinping purging features of the Dengist state and modelling his economic policies  in a way Mao did? There are many scholars such as Katsuji Nakazawa, Suisheng Zhao and  Tsukasa Hadano who have interpreted this move as a reflection of Maoism and termed Xi  Jinping a “Maoist” or “Neo-Maoist.” However, while  analysing the policies of a leader, the context in which they function is of paramount importance. The kind of China Mao inherited was primitive and underdeveloped  whereas the China Deng inherited had suffered the destructive policies of Mao. The China that Xi Jinping is leading is a whole new China, which is competing with the United States of  America for global hegemony and rapidly developing. Thus, each of these leaders cannot be divorced from their context and Xi Jinping’s policies should not be reduced to ideological reasons.  

Elizabeth Economy in her book The Third Revolution Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

 argues, Xi Jinping took over China when“there was a growing sense within the country that significan contradictions had emerged in the political and economic life of China” Further, for Xi his main aim is to realise the “Chinese Dream.” Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream consists of three things: a)China should double its per-capita GDP from 2010 to 2020 b) it should have a military “capable of fighting and win ning wars”; and c) it should meet the social welfare needs of the people. Xi came into power  in 2012 at a time when the USA was recovering from recession and hence its growth was slow. This was the time when China was rising militarily and economically. Thus, it was due to this that people’s expectations that China will overtake the USA were set into motion and Xi faced the pressure of fulfilling these expectations of the Chinese people. Xi is faced with the rise of India as one of Asia’s giants which poses a threat to Chinese hegemony in  Asia. Recently, it has been the trade war with the USA which is Xi’s biggest challenge and a huge threat to Chinese aims of global domination. This is the context in which Xi Jinping is formulating his policies. In his book, China’s Crisis of Success, Overholt has argued that the Chinese economy has now reached such a level of complexity that it is difficult to manage it and thus the bureaucrats in Beijing need a new strategy to manage this giant economy. China needs a strategy to tackle the United States to become a global power.  Faced with such challenges, Xi’s utmost goal is to keep the state intact. To become a superpower globally, China has to be intact domestically and Xi understood this very well. Khan in his book Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping argues, “to remain a great power, the conclusion seems to have been, China will have to act like one” (232). This means that China has  to keep the state intact: this, in turn, requires political cohesion, economic growth, a  favourable balance of power, and strong armed forces. This requires Xi to enact policies that  strengthen his iron fist in a way Mao did. Thus, to deal with these issues Xi has to have strong control over the party like Mao. This is because the Communist Party of China (CCP) is very strong and has a lot of influence on the state. Thus, for any Chinese leader to become powerful they need to have a strong control on the CCP,. 

Moreover, for the Chinese economy to grow further, Xi needs to maintain a tight control over the industries. During the 1980s Deng wanted to lure foreign industries to set up ventures in China thus he had relaxed the restrictions on industries. However, for Xi nensuring tight control on them is necessary for economic growth in China. Thus, Xi appears to be intruding into the private economic sphere by extending the CCP’s reach into not only state-owned but also private-sector firms. 

Xi has undertaken many developmental projects such as the Belt and Road initiative and the  Silk Road Economic Belt and initiated macro control to manage the economy Further, a lot of financial support has been given to high tech industries such as electric cars under Xi. It is  due to this reason that Xi has tightened his control on private sector firms.

Most importantly China’s trade war with the United States requires a strong leader at the  helm and nationalism in China. Coronavirus has further impacted the Chinese economy domestically and internationally, as many countries imposed restrictions on Chinese goods. Thus, this required excessive political control on the economy by Xi Jinping

Not Maoist but Jingpingist Policies are Remaking Mao’s China  

In a recent interview, Xi clarified that in his way of looking at China, the country had roughly  thirty years of Maoism and thirty years of Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization and rapid  growth. Xi has warned that neither era can negate the other; they are inseparable.  Xi has recognised the importance of trade and open international markets. He has understood the importance of Deng’s  Open Door Policy for China to achieve global domination. Yet, Xi does not want  to give credit to Deng as he wants to portray himself as the champion of open markets and thus he wants to push Deng into the backdrop. For Deng, the purpose of the Open Door Policy was to reform the Chinese economy through foreign firms and technology. Whereas for Xi, an open economy is a way for economic diplomacy and flexing China’s muscle. Nevertheless, there is more similarity in Xi’s approach to leadership with that  of Mao where he attributes importance to his personal supreme authority and tight control on  the economy.  

However, it is incorrect to term Xi Jinping’s policies as “Maoist” or “Dengist” as he has used  a mix of their policies depending on the need of the hour. 


Thus, this paper has analysed the complex economic legacy of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong  and Deng Xiaoping and how these legacies play out in Xi Jinping’s China. This paper makes  three essential arguments. Firstly, it argues that Mao’s legacy is still very important to the  CCP and despite Mao’s blunder, it chooses to portray Mao as a strong leader. Secondly, when analysing Xi Jinping’s policies, it is important to study the context in which they play out as the reason why he is remaking Mao’s China is because of  the global economic situation. Thus, it is important for Xi to have centralised control on the economy.  Finally, it concludes that Xi is neither a Maoist nor a Deng-ist. Even though Xi has chosen to remake Mao’s China, calling him a Maoist is oversimplifying his position.  

 Meher Manga is a rising senior at Ashoka University. She is majoring in Political Science  and minoring in International Relations. Her interests are in public policy and diplomacy.  

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