- "PRC Foreign Policy: Mao vs. Xi"
There was a time in the West until about a decade ago when, if you said you studied Chinese, some folks might ask you what for. This is changing rapidly on the back of China's economic growth, and nowadays Chinese studies departments in Western universities are packed to the rafters. Talk of China becoming the next global power broker is no longer considered outlandish, although the topic is hotly debated. Optimists suggest that China will be socialized into the prevailing liberal world order, pointing to Xi Jinping's (selective) embrace of globalization, as opposed to President Trump's go-it-alone transactional approach. By way of evidence, on the one hand, they underscore the fact that over the past two decades, China resolved all its land-border disputes with the exception of India. Pessimists, on the other hand, usually point to the militarization of the South China Sea and draw alarming comparisons between contemporary China and Germany on the eve of World War I.
Against this backdrop, it is perhaps a little surprising that the great bulk of the academic literature on China and globalization has been until recently focused on the latter's impact on Chinese society. In other words, much more has been written on how the West has changed China than on how China has changed the developed as well as developing world. For this reason, and many others, the publication of Julia Lovell's Maoism: A Global History (Penguin, 2019) is an important milestone. In this review, I will aim to identify her contribution to the field of Chinese studies, the ways in which her book fills gaps in our knowledge given the existing literature, and areas where lacunas in [End Page 216] our knowledge still remain. To that end, I will put together thematically different threads that are interspersed across the book.
Although the import of Maoism beyond China's borders had been explored before by Robert J. Alexander, his was more of a survey than systematic study.1Lovell, by contrast, draws illuminating comparisons between different countries and animates her story with polyglot nous and colorful prose that will appeal to readers well beyond academe. As her concluding chapter convincingly makes clear, Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping cannot be understood without reference to China's global ambition under Mao Zedong. Yet Lovell seems to also make the case that analogies between the two periods are urgently called for without analyzing Xi's foreign policy in too much depth. She suggests that China is headed at present in a "Maoish" direction on both the domestic and external fronts. What this review will hopefully show is that understanding Xi does not imply the two eras are of the same mould.
Deng Xiaoping's "low profile" policy, which endured for the most part under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, seems to have worked inasmuch as it dampened concern in the West about China's global ambitions. It arguably helped entrench China in our mindsets as poor, backward, and passive country desperate to imbue Western economic wisdom. Lovell ably reminds us that this had not been the case in the rowdy 1960s. In 1966, for example, Marshall Ye Jianying brazenly declared that over the next 25 years, China would "liberate the whole world" (p. 138). The following year, Nyerere—Tanzania's anticolonialist founding father—was told on a visit to China that Mao was the leader of "the whole world" (p. 209). In developed countries, Maosim was proving popular in the left-wing student counterculture, as the USSR invasion of Hungary and later Czechoslovakia caused much disillusionment.
In contrast to the USSR, China appeared much more of a revolutionary underdog even though the rhetoric it emitted could often sound internationalist and ethnocentric at once (pp. 139, 276). Beyond Marxist strictures, Lovell, like others, discusses the eclectic mainspring of Mao's ideas: he had been an anarchist in his twenties and would continue to invoke the Monkey King as a "havoc-wreaking" hero later in life (p. 54). During...