Illustration by Alex Santafé

Echoes of Maoism in the storming of Capitol Hill.

This Week in China’s America’s History: January 6, 2021 / August 7, 1966

In light of the ongoing, extraordinary events in Washington, D.C., I thought it appropriate to swerve from my usual practice a bit. I still want to highlight an event from China’s history and point out its relevance today, but this time the comparison starts not in China’s past, but in America’s present.

On January 6, as Congress met in the U.S. Capitol to count and certify the electoral votes cast in the 2020 presidential election, President Donald Trump made a stunning attack on Vice President Mike Pence, second-in-command of the Executive Branch and a Trump loyalist through extraordinary challenges and controversies. “Mike Pence,” the president said before several thousand supporters, “I hope you’re gonna stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country.”

Trump told the crowd that he wanted Pence to reject the votes showing that Trump had lost. “And if you’re not [going to do that], I’m going to be very disappointed in you, I will tell you right now. I’m not hearing good stories.”

Trump’s ire was not limited to Pence, but extended to any Republican who refused to overturn the election result or even acknowledged President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Trump’s son warned such officials that he “was coming” for them. Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani promised “trial by combat” against the forces he claimed had stolen the election. (Allegations of widespread fraud and misconduct have been completely rejected by courts, election officials, and investigators.)

At Trump’s suggestion, thousands of his supporters then walked the mile and a half down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, breaching security and bringing the vote count to a temporary halt. The mob dragged Capitol police officers into the crowd and beat them. Five people died in the insurrection, including an officer. Rioters were captured on video erecting a gallows, declaring, “Hang Mike Pence!” Others, who invaded lawmakers’ evacuated offices, congratulated one another and said they should “call Trump” to let him know they had made good on his wishes.

The image of a national leader calling on supporters to oppose his second-in-command — and the government itself — brought to my mind a moment in China’s history: The start of the Cultural Revolution.

Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 had led the Communist Party to victory in the Civil War and established the People’s Republic of China. But by the late 1950s, there were signs that he might soon pass the reins. Liú Shǎoqí 刘少奇, the head of state who had been loyal to the chairman ever since Mao assumed leadership of the Communist movement, became the chosen successor.

But circumstances changed after the debacle of the Great Leap Forward, which began in 1958.

Liu and much of the CCP leadership turned on Mao after his disastrous policies led to tens of millions of deaths. Liu, who had initially supported the Great Leap, adopted a more moderate approach to socialism and to revolution. Mao lost most of his practical, day-to-day governing power, but remained the public face of the PRC. He retained posts as the chairman of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission, but the party leadership viewed Mao’s role as largely ceremonial, a stepping stone toward retirement.

Mao did not see it that way.

In the summer of 1966, Mao announced — literally to his colleagues in government and symbolically through events like swimming in the Yangtze River — that he was back, no longer content with being a figurehead. He delayed the 11th plenum of the Eighth Central Committee so that he personally could preside, and when he arrived in Beijing, he shook the party he had led for three decades.

“Bombard the headquarters!” (炮打司令部 pào dǎ sīlìng bù) he wrote in a big-character poster of the sort that had been appearing on college campuses around the capital. Mao’s poster attacked his rivals in the party for having “confounded right and wrong and black and white” and “suppressing alternative viewpoints.” Mao’s call to “bombard the headquarters” was meant, physically and metaphorically, to provoke an attack on the halls of power. These halls, and the men inside them, had once done his bidding unquestioningly. Mao was now enlisting his supporters to give him the power that the government had taken from him. Most prominent among his enemies was his former protege, Liu Shaoqi.

Historian Yáng Jìshéng 杨继绳 writes in his newly translated history of the Cultural Revolution that Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来, China’s premier and one of Mao’s closest confidantes, assessed the situation in ways that would later find an echo in Trump’s comments about Pence. “Liu Shaoqi can no longer be in charge,” Yang describes Zhou as having said, “because he has disappointed the chairman’s hopes.”

Mao delivered his message that August to the Party’s Central Committee. It would take a year before it was published as an editorial in the party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, but after that it spread rapidly around the country. Then, Yang writes, “the ‘bombarding’ of various party and government organs at the central, provincial, and municipal level surged.”

What began in the summer of 1966 swept across China for a decade. The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s attempt to remake the Communist Party as a Cult of Personality. If ever there were a case that fit the metaphor of Frankenstein’s creature, this might be it. The party had seen Mao’s danger, but kept him on to be its symbol, a hood ornament. To make him a more effective logo, the party burnished Mao’s image and removed any public acknowledgement of his flaws. So successful had the party been that Mao was able to use this image of his own perfection to argue that only his leadership could measure up, and that those who opposed him were letting down the side. Mao’s brand became more recognizable than the Communist Party’s.

You’ll note that there were no Republican Party flags flying at the Capitol last week, but plenty of Trump flags.

It is vital to remember that, cliches aside, history does not repeat itself, not in the sense that the same thing happens over and over. Every case has differences that matter; every moment in the past is unique. If we are to draw lessons from other times and places — and I think we can — we need to bear in mind the differences between them.

The point of comparing Mao with Trump is not that they are the same: they aren’t, a point Aminda Smith makes compellingly here. Yet we can learn from the comparison, both the similarities and the differences. Mao and Trump both positioned themselves as outsiders despite being the most powerful people in their respective countries. Both made personal loyalty the ultimate, and basically sole, criteria for their followers, with the result being a long string of close confidants kicked to the curb. The insistence on personal loyalty can be seen graphically: in the Mao badges that supporters raised to the level of art; in the Trump flags that supplanted American flags at rallies. There was never any doubt that both men defined patriotism as personal loyalty.

Mao’s call to “bombard the headquarters” was meant abstractly, but it had tremendous practical effects. The PRC descended into sporadic civil war for a decade. Hundreds of thousands of lives, families, and careers were lost. Liu Shaoqi, the intended target, died alone and humiliated, denied medical treatment for defying the chairman. For Trump, the call was more immediate: he literally told his followers to march on the Capitol (and lied when he said “I’ll be there with you”). No elected officials have thus far been harmed.

Comparisons can go too far, but one similarity stands out: When they overran the barricades, forced legislators to flee, and killed a law enforcement officer, Trump’s supporters felt they were acting, if not on Trump’s orders, then at least in his interest. Likewise, memoirs of the Cultural Revolution describe people who felt that they were patriots, and measured their patriotism by just one standard: Would the Great Helmsman be pleased?

By many accounts, it was not until yet another of Mao’s chosen successors, Lín Biāo 林彪, died in an apparent failed coup that enthusiasm for Mao’s cult waned. That was five years after the initial call to bombard the headquarters, and it would be another five years — when Mao died — that the pieces could really start to be put back together: schools could be reopened, government could be reorganized, public expression could start to move out of the shadow of Maoist interpretation.

How will Trump’s call to bombard the headquarters be heard five years from now? It is of course too soon to know. Certainly destruction on the scale Mao wrought seems far-fetched. But the disdain for norms and institutions, coupled with the insistence on personal infallibility and loyalty, gives cause for concern that this will not be the last opportunity to compare Donald Trump and Mao Zedong.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.