Since 2012, China has experienced an official revival of Maoist culture and politics, as part of a generalized invigoration of ideology under Xi Jinping. Despite the huge human cost of Mao’s rule, on 1 October 2019 (the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China) the Chinese Communist Party celebrated Mao as august builder of the party and nation. This ideological, authoritarian retrenchment, alongside the PRC’s newly assertive foreign policy, has alarmed Western governments. Fears of a new Cold War, now centred on China, have seized imaginations across the Anglophone world.
But the PRC’s definition of Mao as respectable paterfamilias obscures other, more destabilising legacies of Maoism – a volatile mix of militarised autocracy, anti-colonial rebellion and ‘continuous revolution’. Although Mao remains central to China’s increasingly authoritarian government, his ideas have also fuelled global insurgency and subversion across the last eighty years, in revolutions and insurrections that have transformed states and left millions dead.
In these febrile times, as we seem to be slipping back into a polarised Cold War world, it is more important than ever to understand the PRC’s complex history of global interventions, from Mao to now. And the unpredictable transnational journeys of Maoism are at the centre of that story. This lecture will explore how Mao’s ideas have shaped the world, as well as China, since World War II. It will conclude by assessing China’s current partial Maoist revival and its significance for China’s self-positioning in the world.
Julia Lovell is Professor of Modern China at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of Maoism: A Global History (2019 Cundill History Prize), and The Opium War (2012 Jan Michalski Prize). Her many translations of Chinese fiction into English include The Real Story of Ah Q and Monkey King.