You want to know Xi? You must study Mao.

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You want to know Xi? You must study Mao.

The author is the head of the China Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo and CEO of China Lab.

Readers may not be familiar with the supply and marketing cooperatives. What do they supply and market anyway? The “Easy Glossary of Chinese Economic Terms,” published in 1994, defines it as “a commercial organization in a form of collective ownership selling products from agricultural areas to cities.”

Farmers would go to the supply and marketing cooperatives to sell agricultural products and buy daily necessities. They can also take out loans there. This is a place serving production, distribution and credit in rural areas. Farmers could not imagine a life separated from the co-op. The notable product of Mao Zedong’s planned economy first appeared in July 1950.

Since then, as the planned economy was ousted by Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening policy, the supply and marketing cooperatives seemed to have disappeared. They were not completely lost, but maintained a nominal presence. In the third term of President Xi Jinping, they are making a grand comeback. Signs of their revival began in 2015, the middle of Xi’s first term, and increased rapidly to 10,000 in 2018 and 32,000 in 2019. Now, they have expanded to basically cover all rural areas of China.

The Chinese authorities insist on developing the cooperatives to promote modern farming. But older Chinese have bitter memories associated with the co-op. They are reminded mainly of two things. The first is a shortage of goods. The necessities they had to buy at the cooperatives were never sufficient. They had to have a ticket to buy anything at the time, separate tickets for grains, oil and meats. The problem was that they could not buy what they want just because they had tickets. Secondly, the co-ops are associated with painful memories of corruption. Goods that everyone needed were often offered to party executives as bribes.

Why is Xi so enthusiastic about reviving the supply and marketing cooperatives, which is a synonym for “shortage and corruption” and planned economy? In the Mao era, the biggest role of the cooperatives was for the Chinese government to control farmers through the planned purchase and sale of agricultural goods — Mao’s tactic to control the countryside. Having successfully secured a third term, Xi wants to keep power while eliminating his succession structure.

To attain this, Xi must control the lifeline of all people. He is seeking control of 500 million farmers through the revival of the cooperatives. Xi is getting much of his know-how on keeping power from the tactic of Mao, his childhood idol. If you want to know where China is headed in Xi’s third term, study Mao.
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