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China May Resurrect Title of ‘Chairman,’ Unused Since Mao’s Death

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects Chinese troops of People's Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison at the Shek Kong Barracks in Hong Kong, June 30, 2017.

There is but one chairman in China, and that is Chairman Mao Zedong.

He served as chairman of the central committee of the Communist Party of China, a position so absolutely powerful that party leaders retired it within years of his death in 1976.

But is the title truly retired?

Maybe not, given hints this summer that President Xi Jinping may be angling to resurrect it.

Military greetings

On June 30, at a military parade at the Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Xi met the troops with “Greetings, comrades!” Instead of replying “Greetings, leader!” the comrades answered Xi with the shout: “Greetings, chairman!”

It happened again July 30, during a military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the PLA at the Zhurihe military training base in Inner Mongolia. Troops on review there, clad in military camouflage, answered Xi’s salutation with “Greetings, chairman!”

Xi is both general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China as well as chairman of the Central Military Commission. But as the party prepares for the 19th National Congress, a twice-a-decade gathering scheduled to begin in Beijing in several months, that deviation from standard protocol — general secretary rather than chairman, as was favored by Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — has some analysts thinking Xi may want to re-establish the position.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is displayed on a large screen during the opening session of the annual National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, March 5, 2016.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is displayed on a large screen during the opening session of the annual National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, March 5, 2016.

Xi in charge

The president’s review of the camouflaged troops showed that “if the PLA and the country go to war, he is in charge,” Tai Ming Cheung, an analyst of Chinese and East Asian defense and national security affairs, told VOA.

“This is a very important signal, especially the timing,” said Cheung, who directs the Institute of Global Conflict and Cooperation at University of California-San Diego.

At the party congress, Cheung said, the expectation is that candidates to succeed Xi should be jockeying for position to succeed him.

“But there were no other political leaders at any of these parades, so it looks as if he’s not grooming a successor, and it looks as if he controls the military,” he told VOA Chinese.

Not a megalomaniacal move

Tom Fingar, a Shorenstein Asia-Pacific research fellow at Stanford University, said the PLA’s response to Xi as party leader rather than president underscores that the army is subordinate to the party, not the people.

“I do not see this as elevating Xi to the stature of Mao,” Fingar said. “...It is simply the correct title at a military event,” and it would be “a mistake to view this as a megalomaniacal concentration of power.”

The party selected Xi as its leader to have somebody cut through “the bureaucratic paralysis, and he has not done that, so he is not running [for re-election] from a position of strength,” Fingar said.

However, he added: “Do I think he’s going to come out re-elected? The answer is yes. Xi stays on top of the pile because there’s not an obvious alternative. But what’s his mandate? That’s the question, and they’re clearly still arguing about this because they don’t even have a date for the conference.”

A salesperson sits near posters of the late communist leader Mao Zedong on display for sale at a shop near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Sept. 9, 2016.
A salesperson sits near posters of the late communist leader Mao Zedong on display for sale at a shop near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Sept. 9, 2016.

Unsettling Mao memories

Still, speculation remains that Xi “will use the congress to further solidify and centralize his power,” Cheung said.

That is an unsettling prospect for many Chinese who recall Mao’s era, and others who wonder why Xi may be interested in re-establishing the position and title of party chairman. After all, in October, the party bestowed upon Xi the title of “core of the party.”

Xi thus became the fourth leader so designated since Communist Party rule in China began in 1949.

History may explain why some Chinese are wary of reviving Mao’s title.

Its elimination “symbolized the end of the Cultural Revolution and the Mao era,” according to Pokong Chen, the author of several books on China, who appeared on Pro & Con, a VOA Chinese television program. “If Xi revives the title, it might feel like reviving the era of the Cultural Revolution itself.”

Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, launched in May 1966, unleashed a decade of political and social upheaval in his bid to reassert control over the Communist Party.

Before the Cultural Revolution, there was Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-62), an economic and social program intended to transform the country rapidly from an agrarian economy to a modern industrialized, socialist society. The Great Leap Forward is considered responsible for tens of millions of deaths during a famine caused by mandatory agricultural collectivization, a time when anyone who engaged in private farming was branded a “counter-revolutionary.”

“All the biggest disasters that occurred during the Communist rule were due to Chairman Mao’s unchecked power,” said Wenqian Gao, a senior policy adviser at Human Rights in China, who was previously a senior researcher at the Research Center on Party Literature of the Communist Party of China.

“That is why after Mao’s death, the elderly leaders led by Deng Xiaoping eliminated the position of party chairman,” Gao added. A historian who focuses on the Chinese Communist Party, he said the position of chairman “creates suitable conditions for authoritarian rule and lacks internal checks within the party, even limited ones.”

Why chairman?

If Xi already has centralized power, why would he still want to be the party chairman?

Gao, speaking on Pro & Con, offered two reasons: “First, the titles party chairman and general secretary have different levels of power. The general secretary, which is Xi’s current title, is the moderator for the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party. He is equal to all other members of the committee and represents one vote only.”

Under the precedent established by Mao, a party chairman “has veto power and is above everybody else,” Gao said.

“The second reason is that [Xi] wants to keep his power after the 20th Party Congress,” Gao added. “Specifically, since the party chairman and the general secretary are technically two different positions, Xi could argue that the two-term limit for a general secretary does not apply to him.”

This report originated on VOA Chinese.