Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and the Mao factor

Story highlights

  • Xi Jinping and Donald Trump have sharply different approaches to politics
  • Some analysts draw comparisons between Mao and Trump's populist tactics

Beijing (CNN)When US President Donald Trump greets his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in person for the first time in Florida this week, the two men may find an unlikely historical figure looming large as they attempt to rebalance the world's most important bilateral relationship.

On the surface, and politics aside, Xi and Trump appear a world apart.
A real estate mogul turned reality television star before winning the White House race in a major upset, Trump relishes the spotlight and combats his political enemies -- including the news media -- through bouts of insulting tweets shared with his millions of Twitter followers.
Xi is Communist royalty thanks to his father's stature as a comrade-in-arms of Mao Zedong, whose ironclad reign over the People's Republic lasted for nearly three decades until his death.
The Chinese president rarely strays from jargon-filled scripts and has no presence on any global social media platforms, many of which -- including Twitter -- are blocked in China by his internet censors.
Yet, in an ironic twist, some observers say Trump, the world's ultimate capitalist leader, seems to have adopted the kind of populist language or even tactics that were once hallmarks of Chairman Mao, Communist China's founding father whose ideology many say Xi has been increasingly embracing.

Eerily familiar?

In his inaugural speech, Trump decried that "the establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country," adding that the day he was sworn in as president would be "remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again."
To many Chinese, these lines sounded eerily familiar, echoing battle cries during Mao's tumultuous Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s.
That movement began as Mao called on the masses to topple a corrupt power structure dominated by party elites, but it ended up paralyzing China for a decade and leaving a whole nation scarred from political persecutions and physical violence.
"Trump and Mao have a very similar anti-establishment and also anti-intellectual tendency," said Orville Schell, a leading US scholar on China who has been visiting the country since the Mao era and now heads the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.
"They have the same kind of concepts like 'overturning society,' the same kind of idea of 'you can't have construction without destruction.'"
Both men also view politics as something extremely personal, yearning to be respected while having little idea how to act respectfully, Schell added.
"I think Trump, like Mao, has a kind of very visceral antipathy or antagonism toward people who don't agree with him or cannot be bullied," he said.
"He's very much in the Maoist tradition, bypassing educated people, the media, artists and, in many ways, even bypassing science, resisting any kind of restraint on him."

Silver lining?

Other analysts see the similarity as well, but warn against drawing too many parallels between the two men based on their personalities or by "cherry-picking a few slices from history."
"Mao wasn't an isolated phenomenon -- he represented certain ideals and values that spread around the world," said He Pin, the founder of Mingjing News, an influential Chinese-language media company based in New York that publishes books and runs websites on Chinese politics.
"The Maoist ideal about a fairer society... was actually closer to the US Democrats' values," he added. "Trump believes in strength -- he believes that's the only way to change things. And he believes in money -- he's the ultimate pragmatist."
Both He and Schell see a silver lining in Trump's "Maoist" mentality when it comes to recalibrating US-China relations, which have been strained by China's stubborn trade surplus over the US and Beijing's increasingly assertive military stance in territorial disputes with American allies in Asia.
For too long, they argue, the Communist leadership in Beijing has been taking advantage of successive administrations in Washington -- benefiting from an open global trade system advocated by the US, and then using its rising economic might to reinforce an authoritarian political system at home and fund its strategic expansion abroad -- all at the expense of American interests.
"Such an imbalanced relationship is simply terrible," said He. "Trump may be ...illogical or clueless about politics, but he knows that things have to change -- and the only way to do so is through unconventional means."
"As he turns the world upside down, China must feel nervous."

Hands off

Despite Trump's fiery attacks on the campaign trail -- accusing China of "raping" the US economy and stealing millions of American jobs, among other things -- his administration has taken a relatively hands-off approach in dealing with Beijing so far.
Trump has not followed through on campaign promises to label China a "currency manipulator" on day one of his presidency or to impose steep tariffs on all Chinese imports.
After initially questioning it, he has since endorsed the so-called "one China" policy, which for decades has governed delicate relations between the United States, China and Taiwan -- a self-ruling island that Beijing regards as a rebel province that must be reunited with the Chinese mainland, by force if necessary.
One of the few areas that Trump still keeps poking China on seems to be Beijing's inability or unwillingness to rein in its unruly neighbor North Korea, as the Pyongyang regime continues to defy UN Security Council bans with its missile launches and possibly a new nuclear weapon test.
Xi has compelling reasons to work with Trump, as the Chinese leader prepares to start his second five-year term as the head of the ruling Communist Party in the fall.
As he focuses on further consolidating power, Xi may find external distractions like a flare-up in US-China relations undesirable as he, like Trump, tries to address myriad domestic challenges. In Xi's case, these range from a slowing economy and widening income gap, to persistent political corruption despite his crackdown.
"All of Trump's contradictory rhetoric has put China somewhat off balance and that's not a bad thing," Schell said.
"If he plays his cards right, if (US Secretary of State Rex) Tillerson and (US Secretary of Defense James) Mattis play their cards right, they could restore some sort of balance to the relationship -- and make it more stable and more functional."