Xi Jinping visits Mao’s caves

The Chinese leader uses symbolism of wartime revolutionary base to signal grip on the military.
By Qian Lang for RFA Mandarin
Xi Jinping visits Mao’s caves A portrait of Chinese leader Mao Zedong is seen inside a shop in Yan'an, northwest China's Shaanxi province October 15, 2007.

President Xi Jinping has led top military brass on a pilgrimage of caves that were a key revolutionary base for the late supreme leader Mao Zedong, state media reported, a move analysts said was aimed at strengthening grip over the People's Liberation Army.

The cave complex of Yan'an, in northeast China, where Mao spent the formative years of the Chinese Communist Party leadership during the war with Japan, has become a symbol of ideological purity in China, and has been described by commentators as one of the "holy sites" of the Chinese revolution.

The Yan'an conference marks "a return to the roots of the military," state news agency Xinhua paraphrased Xi as saying.

It comes after Xi fired Li Shangfu from his post as defense minister on Oct. 24, 2023, with no explanation given. A number of senior leaders of the People's Liberation Army's Rocket Corps, including the head of China's nuclear arsenal, had also been fired by Xi in July.

Yan'an is also where Mao launched a major "rectification" campaign, purging his opponents from party ranks.

Newly elected Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu takes his oath during a session of China's National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 12, 2023. (Andy Wong/AP)

Commentators told RFA that the choice of Yan'an as a venue for Xi's speech sent out a strong symbolic message.

Xi told the political work conference in Shaanxi province that "the armed forces must always be led by those who are reliable and loyal to the party," Xinhua reported.

He warned of "deep-seated problems" in the military due to a "lack of ideals and beliefs."

Useful propaganda tool

Communist troops arrived in Yan'an, on the poverty-stricken loess plateau of the Yellow River, in 1935, making their homes in caves and eating millet gruel every day until the tide swung their way in the civil war in 1948.

The Yan'an period of Chinese history is a useful propaganda tool, because it came before the power struggles and political campaigns launched by Mao against his opponents threw the country into years of turmoil and cost millions of lives, and still carries a message of hope for many Chinese people.

During a government-organized media tour, tourists visit the former residence of Chinese leader Mao Zedong at the Yangjialing Revolutionary Site in Yan'an, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party from 1936 to 1947, in Shaanxi province on May 10, 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

Current affairs commentator Cai Shenkun said Xi's message was clear.

"He is emphasizing the importance of who it is holding the gun," Cai said. "It used to be said that the party should command the gun, but the key question is, who is actually holding it?"

"Mao Zedong ruled the party with guns, Deng Xiaoping did the same," he said in a reference to Mao's successor who ordered the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre by People's Liberation Army forces in Beijing.

Wife promoted

Meanwhile, Xi has reportedly promoted his wife Peng Liyuan, a former military singer who holds the rank of major-general, to a senior position in the Central Military Commission’s Cadre Assessment Committee, which approves appointments, according to senior political commentator Willy Lam.

"Peng’s increasing public profile and potential elevation within the military hierarchy invites comparisons to Mao Zedong’s reliance on his fourth wife, Jiang Qing, during the Cultural Revolution," Lam wrote in a commentary last month for the Jamestown Foundation .

Cai said it is significant that the conference is being held ahead of the third plenum of the Central Committee next month, and can be seen as a message that Xi is strengthening his grip on the military.

During a government-organized media tour, figures are displayed representing the former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at Dongfanghong Theatre in Yan'an, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party from 1936 to 1947, in Shaanxi province on May 10, 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

Current affairs commentator Guo Min agreed, saying that party control over the armed forces is a recurrent concern for Xi.

"He's talking about the absolute leadership of the party over the military, which basically means, his absolute command over the military," Guo said.

"Political work is actually about toeing the line, the same line as [Xi]," he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.