We’ve all seen pictures featuring the giant portrait of Mao Zedong in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace overlooking Tiananmen Square. But this kind of imagery is surprisingly rare; one of the reasons that particular portrait is so overused is the lack of alternatives to photograph. Forty years after the death of the Great Helmsman, his image is not easily found in China’s public spaces. The authors of China and the New Maoists give a good example of this low profile: “During the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the most striking feature of the vast celebration of China’s claimed ‘five thousand years of history’ was the absence of any image or reference to Mao.”

China and the New Maoists explores how Mao’s legacy has been handled in China. The number of politicians one could label as truly being “New Maoists,” however, is actually so small and their influence so minor that a more accurate book title might be something like “Handling Mao’s Legacy,” or “Snapshots of Modern Maoism.” Or perhaps something incorporating “New Left” or “Leftism” because the term “Maoism” is misleading. We’re really only talking about a watered-down version, that is  “Leftism,” and much of it is an understandable reaction against economic inequality, corruption, and bureaucratic elitism rather than some crazed desire for a Great Leap Backwards to the old China.

If the word “snapshots” sounds a bit insubstantial, that is probably a blessing. Whereas a more comprehensive work would be a slog through obscure names and government departments, China and the New Maoists is a short book and very readable. The chapters handle different aspects within the larger theme; one is on disgraced former politician Bo Xilai (currently serving a life sentence), another on influential politician and theorist Deng Liqun, who pushed back against Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization. We also get a look at political activity on the Internet.

China and the New Maoists is reassuring in that it shows much of the recent hyperbole comparing President Xi Jinping to Mao is unfounded. Not only are the Chinas of these two times so different that a comparison becomes silly, but Xi and other important CCP figures – whatever their authoritarian impulses – have little truck with the ultra-left ideology of Mao.

The book gives a good outline of Xi Jinping’s complicated relationship with Mao. Co-author Kerry Brown is a professor of Chinese studies at King’s College, London, and the most recent of his books on modern China is a biography of Xi Jinping, CEO China: The Rise of Xi Jinping. (His co-author, Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, is an academic at the University of Sydney.) Xi’s father, a high-ranking CCP leader:

… was ignominiously sacked from his official position in 1963, abused in the Cultural Revolution, and granted only one meeting with his four children over the space of nineteen years. Xi Jinping himself was sent from Beijing in the late 1960s, when barely into his teens, to work on a brigade in rural China. He left the life of the elite to become one of the legions of rusticated youths, living in the central Shaanxi province until he was twenty-one years old, before finally being granted access back to Beijing and entrance to Tsinghua University.

Xi Jinping is ambiguous when talking about Mao; he’s critical of the Cultural Revolution, but praises Mao’s overall achievements. As the authors say: “China’s contemporary leaders pay heed to Mao and his ideological and political legacy without being diehard supporters of him.”

Mao was a revolutionary to his core. His embrace of perpetual struggle and conflict is the polar opposite of the modern Chinese Communist Party’s focus on stability and harmony. Yet to damn Mao would be to undermine the legitimacy of the founding of the PRC and the ongoing dictatorship of the CCP. This awkward balancing act is nothing new, of course; it has been the standard line since soon after Mao’s death in 1976. The 1981 official party ruling on the Mao era states:

It is true that he made gross mistakes during the Cultural Revolution, but, if we judge his activities as a whole, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary.

Expect this line to continue for the foreseeable future:

The day when vans appear in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen and remove the immense portrait of Mao is therefore unlikely to arrive any time soon. … Mao and the regime he founded in this sense are caught in a holy embrace, unable to extricate themselves from each other. Debunking Mao, removing him and actively disowning him would raise profound questions about the Party’s own culpability when he was alive, the true record of its time in power, and why this was not done earlier, in the years immediately after his death.

As much as I found China and the New Maoists an informative, varied, and engaging read, I still came away from it with a lot of questions unanswered. But such is the nature of the subject. Reading about Chinese politics is generally unsatisfying; it’s a necessity for a thorough understanding of contemporary China, yet ultimately a chore that rewards grudgingly, and even acclaimed works, for example, Richard Gregory’s The Party, leave me feeling underwhelmed. Chinese politics are, I suspect, just too opaque to reveal a clear picture, and expecting the veil to be lifted by a single book would be like taking titles such as Speak Chinese in a Month literally.

China and the New Maoists is from Zed Books’ Asian Arguments series. Short but in-depth, these books hit the sweet spot between overly dry academic titles and lightweight popular ones.

China and the New Maoists is available from Zed Books, Amazon, and other retailers.