The great big helmsman

The grandson of Mao Zedong is rising through the military ranks. So why can’t he get any respect?

Jason Lee/Reuters

He’s a part-time blogger and a military historian. He was also born into China’s most vaunted political bloodline: the only grandson of Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic and enduring icon to millions in China. And now, after almost 12 months of speculation, Mao Xinyu, the Great Helmsman’s beefy, 40-year-old heir has been made the People’s Liberation Army’s youngest major general.

When rumours of his promotion began circulating last September, officials refused to confirm them, apparently to avoid the scent of nepotism. But once the author of Grandpa Mao Zedong started turning up at events with a major general’s single star sewn to his red and gold epaulettes—as he did during a visit to the province of Sichuan last week—it became impossible to keep it under wraps.

Soon after, the Global Times—run by the Communist party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily—acknowledged Xinyu’s new title. “This is a natural elevation,” said Bao Guojun, spokesman for the Academy of Military Science, where Xinyu is vice-director of war theory. “Mao’s many achievements earned him the right to be promoted.”

But his meteoric rise through the ranks has sparked a wave of anger, anxiety and resentment. It’s the latest example of the Chinese practice of dispensing jobs, favours and good grades to the children of highly placed officials and revolutionaries, says UBC law professor Pitman Potter, also a senior fellow with the Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. In the avowedly classless Communist country, nepotism thrives. Xinyu, who “hasn’t done anything,” according to Potter, is being held up as the ultimate princeling.

Critics have lampooned his intelligence, sloppy dress, childish penmanship and girth. But Xinyu has met the controversy head-on. Family ties were “definitely a factor,” he admitted in an interview posted on a popular Chinese website. “This is an objective fact that you can’t avoid. Everyone shifts their respect and love of Chairman Mao on me, so this definitely was a factor.” But being a descendent of the leader also carries with it “a lot of stress,” he has admitted. “I feel that people are always watching my behaviour. So I must do good.”

As a historian, Mao Xinyu has been a staunch supporter of his grandfather’s legacy as father of the nation; Xinyu doesn’t dwell on the blunders: the “Great Leap Forward,” the ill-conceived charge to industrialization that sparked one of the world’s worst famines, or the unending madness of the Cultural Revolution.

His grandfather, who had a famously messy personal life, married four times and sired nine children. Mao Xinyu is the son of Mao Anqing, whose mother was abandoned, then executed by a local warlord. His father, who died in 2007, battled mental illness, and he was reared by his mother, Shao Hu, a photographer, who also became an army general in the People’s Liberation Army. His grandfather gave him the name, Xinyu (it means “new universe”) shortly before his death in 1976. And like his grandfather, Xinyu fully expects to make a political run one day. “It’s from the military,” he says, “that I will rise.”

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