Mao Redux: The Enduring Relevance of Self-Reliance in China

Neil Thomas
Pundits are particularly fond of likening Xi Jinping to Chairman Mao. Xi’s accumulation of personal political power, purging of opponents, and removal of presidential term limits all lend credence to the comparison. Some of the latest evidence that “Xi is the new Mao” is his supposed “revival” of the Maoist concept of “self-reliance” (zili gengsheng).

But talk of a rapid revival of Maoism under Xi is off the mark. Xi is hardly the first head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to be inspired by Mao Zedong Thought. In fact, self-reliance is a good case study of the abiding relevance of certain ideas in CCP thought.

While self-reliance was championed by Mao, it is a concept that has been supported by all subsequent leaders, even if its application has evolved over time. That’s because self-reliance fundamentally means that the CCP will retain ultimate control over China’s economic development—an enduring consensus that has heavily influenced policy across generations of leaders.


In many ways, Xi has built upon longstanding CCP principles that are larger than himself. Misinterpreting such concepts as merely “Xi issues” actually diminishes their importance as core “CCP issues” that would likely be pursued irrespective of who holds power in Zhongnanhai.

Self-Reliance in the Spotlight

As the US-China trade war and technology competition escalated during 2018, Xi, on an inspection tour of China’s northeast “rust belt” in September 2018, complainedthat rising “protectionism” means that “key technology is becoming harder to obtain internationally” and that China was thus “forced to take the road of self-reliance.”

Xi reiterated this call for self-reliance several times over the next few months: at a visit to an exhibition to celebrate 40 years of Reform and Opening in Guangdong in October, at the China International Import Expo in November, and also in his 2019 New Year speech.

For many, this was a stunning admission of Xi’s true political colors. His invocation of the concept was described variously as a “long-discarded Maoist slogan,” a “Maoist bet” on the Chinese economy, or even a turn toward becoming like “isolationist North Korea.” Some worried that Xi’s emphasis on self-reliance might lead China “toward stagnation” by undoing the openness that enabled its economic progress.

Among the commentariat, self-reliance was often equated with autarky, or complete self-sufficiency in producing goods and services. But self-reliance is not the same as autarky and the concept has never been discarded by the CCP.

The Maoist Origins of Self-Reliance

Self-reliance was borne out of wartime necessity. Mao proclaimed the virtues of self-reliance as early as January 1945, when the CCP was forced to operate out of the remote Shaan-Gan-Ning border region while fighting both Japanese invaders and Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-Shek. Anxious to assert his patriotic credentials in the Chinese Civil War, Mao framed the CCP’s self-reliance as “the very opposite” of Chiang’s dependence on US military aid.

The CCP’s hardscrabble journey from near-annihilation in the mid-1930s to victory in 1949 provided strong validation for the policies associated with the Party’s success, including self-reliance. But decades of war had devastated China’s economy, so Mao turned to the Soviet Union, an ideological comrade and an industrial powerhouse, to form an alliance in February 1950.

Moscow sent Beijing $25 billion in assistance from 1946-1960—almost 1% of Soviet GDP annually—as well as massive technology transfers and over 10,000 technical advisers. But the success of the First Five-Year Plan (1953-1957) helped convince Mao, rather counterintuitively, that China could grow faster by returning to its revolutionary roots and giving “primary importance” to self-reliance.

Between 1958 and 1978, the CCP “vigorously propagandized” self-reliance, especially following the Sino-Soviet Split in the early 1960s and during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and the heyday of the the Third Front campaign (1964-1971) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Self-Reliance Mentions in People’s Daily (1946-2018)

Note: Figures represent average mentions of self-reliance per month for a given year.
Source: People’s Daily Graphic Database (1946-2019).
Yet Mao was still happy to trade with the West if this served his interests. Starting with the United Kingdom in 1957, US allies began abandoning the strict China embargo that Washington had organized after Beijing entered the Korean War in October 1950. Australia and Canada exported significant volumes of grain to Maoist China, and Japan and Western Europe became important suppliers of industrial products. The value of imports averaged just under 4% of China’s annual GDP from 1952-1976 (see Figure 2). Even at the height of Maoist self-reliance, it did not translate into autarky, and ideology was not divorced completely from economic reality.

Figure 2. Despite Maoist Self-Reliance, China Still Traded 

Note: Figures are imports of goods and services as % of GDP.
Source: National Bureau of Statistics.
Self-Reliance Bridges the Mao-Deng Divide

In the post-Mao era—the Chairman died in 1976—the opening up of the economy under Deng Xiaoping saw China’s trade rise from 8.8% of GDP in 1978 to peak at 64.5% in 2006 and its net FDI inflows increase from near-zero to 4.5% of GDP in the same period. Yet, as Figure 1 shows, even as self-reliance became less prominent, the concept continued to inform CCP thought.

Indeed, the “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the PRC”—a foundational text of post-Mao politics, approved by Deng and then issued by the CCP Central Committee on June 27, 1981—criticized Maoist errors like “the closed door policy” and “blind opposition to everything foreign” but proclaimed that “independence and self-reliance” remained fundamental principles of the “living soul” of Mao Zedong Thought.

That’s because Deng’s policy of “opening to the outside” (duiwai kaifang) was premised on the idea that Beijing would use foreign trade, investment, technology, and expertise to improve domestic industry, strengthen the Chinese economy, and bolster the CCP’s popular legitimacy. The market was never an end in itself but was simply a means to retain control.

As Deng emphasized in his opening speech at the 12th Party Congress in September 1982:

China’s affairs should be run according to China’s specific conditions and by the Chinese people themselves. Independence and self-reliance have always been and will always be their basic stand. While the Chinese people value their friendship and cooperation with other countries and other peoples, they value even more their hard-won independence and sovereign rights. No foreign country should expect China to be its vassal or to accept anything that is damaging to China’s own interests. We shall unswervingly follow a policy of opening to the outside world and increase our exchanges with foreign countries on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.

Deng delivered this message repeatedly in remarks to CCP leaders and foreignvisitors. Even China’s most reformist leader, Zhao Ziyang, said that the country’s opening was designed to “enhance” rather than impair the CCP’s capacity for self-reliance.

The continued salience of self-reliance during Reform and Opening highlights the common confusion between self-reliance and self-sufficiency. The Chinese for self-reliance—zili gengsheng—literally means “regeneration through one’s own efforts.” Kenneth Lieberthal, renowned China specialist, described self-reliance as the CCP’s desire to “keep the initiative in one’s own hands” by minimizing China’s economic dependence on any particular country or bloc. Deng wanted to modernize China to make the country strong, not to make it economically dependent on the West in the same way that it had been on the Soviet Union.

Self-Reliance and the Rise of Indigenous Innovation

It was under Deng’s leadership that China revived its scientific institutions and pursued the technological independence that is coming to the fore today. In March 1978, in a speech at the opening ceremony of the National Conference on Science—hailed as a “springtime for science” after the system had been attacked and radicalized during the Cultural Revolution—Deng said, “One must learn from those who are more advanced before he can catch up with and surpass them…self-reliance [does not] mean blind opposition to everything foreign…”

Deng saw science and technology as “a primary productive force” and this emphasis continued under his successors Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) and Hu Jintao (2002-2012). Major milestones included the Key Technologies R&D Program in November 1982, the National Key Laboratories program in 1984, the State High-Tech Development Plan in March 1986, and the Torch Program to develop hi-tech industry zones in August 1988. Chinese leaders recognized early that technological progress would be key to their country’s economic strength (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Chinese R&D Spending Rose Quickly as US Spending Held Steady (% of GDP)

Source: World Bank.

Jiang declared “persevering with self-reliance and indigenous innovation” as the second of five lessons for “realizing technological development,” because “only by mastering core technologies and having our own intellectual property will we be able to securely grasp the destiny of the motherland…” In May 1995, the CCP issued a strategy to “invigorate the country through science and technology” and launched a National Basic Research Program in 1997.

Indigenous innovation (zizhu chuangxin)—the modern industrial progeny of Mao’s desire for self-reliance—was then elevated to the highest levels of national strategy in Hu’s landmark National Medium- and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development (2006-2020). Thirteen years later, Xi is carrying the torch of this long-established connection between self-reliance and technological advancement.

In June 2014, Xi vowed that China would not be “the technological vassal of other countries” and said in October 2018 that: “The starting point for the struggle of the Chinese nation is self-reliance, the only way to ascend the commanding heights of the world of science and technology is indigenous innovation…”

What Might Self-Reliance Mean for Xi?

Like any political concept, the meaning of “self-reliance” in China has evolved over time, as leaders adapted the conceptual framework to fit new economic and political realities.

Mao, while receptive to some essential foreign trade and technology, often dialed up self-reliance into a push toward autarky. Deng chose to preserve self-reliance in CCP thought but used it as a foundation to anchor the widescale yet measured opening of China’s economy to the world. After this phase of opening peaked under Jiang, Hu then linked self-reliance to a concerted push for indigenous innovation, which has continued and intensified under Xi.

The concept of self-reliance was never equivalent to a policy of absolute self-sufficiency, but was centered on the CCP’s desire to retain control over China’s economic development. As the scholar David Kerr has argued, China is “pursuing a policy of selective and strategic integration that bends globalization to China’s long-term nation-building goals.”

While globalization made China more international, Beijing also made globalization more Chinese, an example of “economic nationalism in a globalized world.” This obsession with control may have worked to China’s advantage, especially when its record of development is compared to the economic malaise that roiled many developing countries that experienced free-market “shock therapy.”

Xi likely chose to spotlight self-reliance in late 2018 as a response to the imminent threat the US-China trade war posed to high-tech supply chains. But the CCP’s emphasis on self-reliance has nonetheless increased throughout Xi’s tenure, as Beijing used indigenous innovation as a broad platform to bolster domestic production and manufacturing to achieve parity with foreign technological leadership (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Self-Reliance Mentions in People’s Daily Have Trended Upward Under Xi 

Note: Figures represent average mentions of self-reliance per month for a given year.
Source: People’s Daily Graphic Database (1946-2019).

Still, nationalism is not the only reason why a Chinese leader might favor greater self-reliance. This trend fits with a long-term economic objective—of which “Made in China 2025” was just one manifestation—of moving domestic manufacturing up the value-added chain, a prescription that economists have long deemed necessary for China to avoid the middle-income trap. Even before his trip to the Chinese rust belt in September 2018, Xi had urged China to pursue self-reliance in key sectors including science, space, hydropower, and the Internet.

As Deng told the UN General Assembly as early as April 1974, self-reliance means “a country should mainly rely on the strength and wisdom of its own people, control its own economic lifelines, make full use of its own resources…and develop the economy step by step in a planned way…[it] in no way means ‘self-seclusion’ and rejection of foreign aid.” For the CCP, “political independence and economic independence are inseparable.”

Self-reliance happens to be one of a handful of Maoist concepts that still held political currency after Reform and Opening. But it is also larger than Mao or Xi—the idea is a defining feature of the CCP’s worldview and may also partly explain why China is something of a lonely superpower bereft of true allies. Xi may have found it expedient to emphasize self-reliance amid the trade war, but it will continue to inform Chinese economic strategy long after he leaves office.
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