For the first time in over 70 years, the most powerful person in the world is not an American. If America has been the world’s premier “empire” since the end of World War II, then Trump is to America what Commodus (the cruel, hedonistic Roman Emperor portrayed in the film Gladiator) was to Rome- a decadent, immoral ruler whose ascent marks the beginning of the empire’s inexorable decline. Into his place has emerged Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China. As he has tightened his grip on power, incorporating his political philosophy of “Xi Jinping Thought” into the nation’s constitution and moving to abolish the term limits that keep him from staying more than ten years in office, observers across the political spectrum compare him more and more to the People’s Republic’s founder, Mao Zedong. Mainstream observers evoke Mao’s image as a stark warning, hearkening back to the atrocities and ideological fantacism of the Cultural Revolution and other events that took place during his reign. Leftists on the other hand, hope that Xi will repudiate the capitalistic reforms that have held sway since Mao’s death and return the country to true socialism. However, it is not Mao, but another mid-20th century figure to whom Xi is most aptly compared. Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he is a leader who was born into a political elite, but was forced by circumstances into becoming a crusader for populist economic policies, and who is also overseeing the rise of his country into the leading world power.
Though many Americans might not realize it, Xi was born into Chinese political royalty, just as FDR was in America. His father, Xi Zhongxun, served in a number of high posts in Mao Zedong’s government in the 1950s, including chief of propaganda. However, in the 1960s he was purged during the Cultural Revolution and the young Xi Jinping was sent to various rural villages and work camps. Despite this youthful misfortune, Xi still ultimately belonged to the privilieged class of “princelings,” children of powerful Communist Party members ultimately groomed for leadership. Xi came up following the standard party line of the post-Deng era, technocratic and supportive of China’s direction towards increasing the role of the free market. Similarly, FDR was very much in the mold of the standard Bourbon Democrat, the fiscally conservative Northerners who resisted, or at best mildly accommodated, the populist upswings that arose in the party starting with William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s. Even FDR’s 1932 campaign for President had the central message of cutting government spending, a theme that would be quite at home in the party’s center today.
So what changed for both FDR and Xi? In Xi’s case, the enormous economic success story of modern China obscures a darker side of social unrest and discontentment. Even as millions of rural Chinese are pulled out of poverty and urban development skyrockets, poverty and deprivation still persist. In his book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, Brian Merchant explores how workers in Shanghai assemble millions of the titular devices in horrid work conditions, with suicide so rampant that nets have to be installed on factory premises to prevent people from jumping to their deaths constantly. In reaction to this, an underground labor movement has arisen in China, fighting for better pay and working conditions despite repression by the government and corporations alike with a wave of wildcat strikes.
At the same time, millions of Chinese, disillusioned with the current system where billionaires and Communist Party leaders are often one and the same, find themselves longing for the days before Deng Xiaoping brought capitalism back to China. In 2008, as the world faced the greatest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression, a group of left-wing dissidents formed the Maoist Communist Party of China, claiming in its manifesto that the ruling Communist Party has betrayed Mao’s legacy and is now “the top enemy of the peoples of China.” Despite being immediately banned and forced to go underground by the government, this movement has only grown in popularity, to the point where, according to a 2016 profile by Financial Times, “a neo-Maoist candidate would probably win a general election in China today.”
This mirrors the situation FDR found himself in in 1932. In the wake of the crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression, more and more American workers were taking militant labor action against their bosses. The membership of radical unions such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and United Mine Workers increased dramatically, as did the ranks of anti-capitalist political parties such as the Socialist Party of America and the Communist Party USA. In order to preserve the American system itself, the manor-born FDR found himself having no choice but to coopt this emerging radicalism, reinventing himself as the voice of the people who passed programs such as Social Security and the Industrial Recovery Act that reinvented the American social compact, and spoke directly to the people over the radio in his famous “fireside chats.” So dramatic was his transformation that the man who ran on cutting budgets in 1932 could, in his 1936 campaign for reelection, give a speech where he declared proudly that the forces of “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering… are unanimous in their hatred for me, and I welcome their hatred.”
Similarly, Xi Jinping has coopted the rhetoric of the grassroots radicalism that threatens the rising yet unstable Chinese system he is a product of. Early in his first term of office, the CCP launched an initiative called the Mass Line Campaign, aimed at making sure party members “prioritize the interests of the people and persist in representing them and working on their behalf.” Mass line was a term popularized by Mao Zedong, advanced as part of his “Mao Zedong Thought”- it inspired the campaign to have Party members live among the people and constantly be listening to what they want, in order to prevent them becoming a detached bureaucracy like in the Soviet Union. As it happens, this was an offshoot of this idea that inspired the Down To The Country campaign that saw the young Red princeling Xi sent to a rural village in the 1960s. Xi has also invoked the term “bombard the headquarters” in his speeches- this was one of the key slogans of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao urged young Red Guard radicals to attack the “reactionaries” in the CCP leadership, including Xi’s own father. Clearly, Xi has learned from his misfortunes as a boy how to keep his own power as a man.
Xi’s populism extends into other policies as well- he has launched a renewed anti-poverty campaign, green energy initiatives, and a crackdown on corruption. But he is not really giving China’s new radicals the full restoration of socialism they crave- he still goes to places like Davos to champion free trade, and his signature Belt and Road initiative has the explicit goal of extending Chinese capitalism all over the world. Similarly, FDR always had the goal of saving capitalism from its worst instincts in a time of crisis, and ultimately successfully did coopt the early 30s radical trend into the New Deal coalition that dominated American politics for 30 years.
Xi Jinping announcing this year that he will stay in office beyond the traditional term limit of ten years is yet another comparison to FDR, who broke George Washington’s unofficial two-term precedent. FDR’s time in power saw the US rise to the heights of displacing the British Empire as the world’s top power. Will Xi Jinping’s Presidency see China do the same thing to the US? In some ways it already has, and if things continue as they are, by the time Xi leaves office there will no longer be any doubt.