The political implications of using for Xi a title so far attributed only to Mao are alarming.
by Hu Zimo
In December, the Study Times of the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) published an article by Shen Haixiong commenting once again on the 2021 Third Resolution on the History of the CCP, a key document all Chinese are supposed to study for years to come, and one Bitter Winter has already discussed in detail.
Shen Haixiong is an important CCP ideologist. He is Deputy Minister of the Central Propaganda Department, and editor-in-chief of China Central Radio and Television. He is very much talked about in these days for a non-political reason, i.e. his alleged liaison with divorced actress Tong Liya. Some even speculated in social media that Shen and Tong may have secretly married. These “some” however were immediately detained, and all posts about the Shen-Tong affair, real or otherwise, were deleted.
Chasing beautiful actresses may be the most rewarding job of Shen Haixiong, but is not the most important one. Shen is one of the few people defining the Party ideology Chinese should believe in.
His article does not add anything new to the plethora of summaries and commentaries to the Third Resolution. We can note his comment that the Resolution “announced to the whole world the end of the ‘End of History,’ the collapse of the ‘China Collapse Theory,’ and the failure of the ‘Socialist Failure Theory.’” The “end of history” was a post-1989 theory by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, claiming that after the fall of the Soviet Union democracy had won its war and non-democratic regimes, including China, will all collapse.
This should also have proved that Socialism and Marxism had failed. However, Shen says, the CCP outsmarted both the Americans and the Soviets, stayed in power, and proved that Marxism was still alive, well, and ready to win its war against Western-style democracies.
This, Shen says, did not happen by chance. It was an historical necessity, but also eventually found the right person at the right time. Shen reminds us that “Marx pointed out that ‘every social era needs its own great character. If there is no such character, history will create such a character.’”
The great character saving the CCP from the risk of going the way of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, thus at the same time saving Marxism internationally, emerged. His name is Xi Jinping. For this reason, he should rightly be honored with the title of “Great Helmsman” (伟大舵手).
What is really important in the long article by Shen is the use of an expression that has been traditionally reserved for one person only, Chairman Mao. Note that “Great Helmsman” is not the same as “Helmsman” (舵手, or 舵师, literally “helm master”). Even before the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, Mao was called “Helmsman” by Communist media, and so were Lenin and Stalin. It is only after Stalin’s death in 1953 that Mao was promoted to “Great Helmsman,” thus differentiating him from the post-Stalin Soviet leaders the CCP was increasingly criticizing.
Ironically, the only other figure in Chinese history who was called the “Great Helmsman” was the nationalist and later Taiwan leader Chiang Kai-shek. But only for Mao a theory of what “Great Helmsman” meant was developed before and during the Cultural Revolution, implying that his role was for life and that he had both absolute power and the mission to change the course of Marxism and human history.
No post-Mao leader dared to call himself the “Great Helmsman.” Only of Xi Jinping it was said, since 2016 and 2017, that he was “like a helmsman” or even “the Helmsman.” But not, until 2021, “the Great Helmsman,” and the difference as we have seen is not small.
We do not know whether Shen’s article is just another exercise in the personality cult of Xi Jinping or the term “Great Helmsman” applied to him is here to stay. The fact that it has been used is very significant, and may indicate that Xi understand both his role in history and his absolute power as comparable only to Mao’s.