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Xi Jinping's party is just getting started – By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes for the BBC News – 24.10.22

Comparing Xi Jinping to Mao Zedong is "inane", scoffs Rebecca Karl, a professor of Chinese History at New York University.

"If you're going to compare two people, it has to reveal something. It's like comparing Putin to Stalin or Liz Truss to Margaret Thatcher."

At first glance, the parallels are striking. Chairman Mao, as he was known, was the defining political figure of 20th Century China. He ran the Communist Party - and the country - from the republic's founding in 1949 until the day he died in 1976. No other Chinese leader has since come close. Until now.

On Sunday Xi Jinping became the first leader since Mao to be chosen as party chief for a third term. In his decade at the top, he has centralised power in his own hands, ruthlessly eliminated rivals, promoted a cult of personality, shut down criticism, and had his ideology - Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era - enshrined in the constitution.

He is known, only half-jokingly, as the Chairman of Everything.

But it's still a mistake to draw a straight line from Mao to Xi, Prof Karl argues, because it dismisses all that came in between - and the Chinese who dreamed or fought for a different country.

"It suggests autocracy is in their blood, it's in their water or it's in their culture," she says.

The truth is Xi's path to power was far from inevitable. And it's defined as much by his ambition as it is by the party's failure to prevent what they did not want - a repeat of Mao's disastrous one-man rule.

"My first introduction to China was in the 1980s, when the debates about China's future were huge, significant, and consequential," Prof Karl says. "The party itself was involved in those debates. But 1989 shut that down."

In 1989 - as the Soviet Union was breaking up - China's hopes for change were crushed by tanks and automatic gunfire.

'We came too late'

The country was still recovering in that decade or so following Mao's death. Tens of millions had died on his watch - first from hunger because of his devastating mission to industrialise China overnight; and then in the violent, paranoid purges of rivals, dissidents, intellectuals and "class enemies".

Mao's mantle eventually fell to Deng Xiaoping, who had survived two purges, and insisted on collective leadership that would change every 10 years.

By 1989, that included General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, a reformist.

In the spring of that year hundreds of thousands of students and workers occupied central Beijing to protest against corruption and rising prices, and demand reform. Behind the high walls of the Communist Party's leadership compound, Zhongnanhai, the party's top rung split. Moderates led by Zhao tried to use the protests to push further reform. Hardliners, led by Premier Li Peng, believed the students' goal was to overthrow the party, and wanted the protests quashed.

Zhao visited the protesters, urging them to call off their strike in what is now a historic speech: "We came too late. It's right for you to talk about us and criticise us any way you want... We're all old and it doesn't matter to us anymore. But you're still young, you should take care of yourself."

At the end of May the hardliners won. Early on the morning of June 4, the tanks rolled in. The massacre at Tiananmen Square ended debate about political reform. Instead, the Communist Party turned to economic reform.

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Xi Jinping's party is just getting started – The BBC – 24.10.22
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