Return of the Mao Suit

The CBC noted that the new Chinese ambassador to Canada appeared wearing a Mao suit to present his credentials to the Governor-General, representative of Queen Elizabeth II. In the recent past delegates of the Communist Party of China wore Western-style business suits to such events, so the CBC asked what message might be intended by the return of the Mao suit?

To the CBC, the Mao suit signifies a new determination to impose conformity within China to Communist Party rule at a time of increasing ethnic tensions. This is a thinly disguised criticism of China’s policy in Hong Kong designed to lend support to another “color revolution,” much like those taking place in Bolivia and Venezuela, also supported by Ottawa.

But it may be that the CBC is over-looking a dialectical quality in the ideological warfare raging around the world that is not lost on Xi, son of Mao’s propaganda chief Xi Zhongxun. The West is not impermeable to the discontent that inevitably arises with any regime. What would have to happen, for example, to bring about the radicalization of social democratic voters, whose growing support for the NDP or Bernie Sanders is changing the outcome of elections in North America?

Social Democracy is only the soft side of communism, a reaction to Stalinist and Maoist “mistakes” as the Chinese would say. Under the right conditions it could take a more militant turn, as it did in St. Petersburg in 1917, and the Stalinka might come back into fashion.

A brief review of the history of the Mao suit reveals that it was first popularized by Chinese nationalist leader Sun-Yat-Sen. Mao adopted it with variations borrowed from the Stalinka. Mao preferred the very modest shirt-style insisted upon by Stalin.

Whatever their faults, neither Stalin nor Mao indulged in the opulence so visibly enjoyed by Western leaders like President Drumpf (the Trump family’s Anglicization of their Bavarian name is typically brazen). While Xi has taken measures to ban golfing among Communist Party cadre in China, Trump sports a golf club in a Veblenesque display of predatory prowess at every opportunity.

There are indeed some signs in the West of a leftward turn in fashion. For example, the current popularity of the worker’s “flat cap.” Jeremy Corbyn often don’s the flat cap, but it is also popular amongst celebrities like De Niro. Perhaps this augurs the return to a hard left in North America that Xi hopes to encourage?

Indeed, there was a time in North American history when the left was radicalized. Communists in Canada including A.A. Macleod and J.B. Salsberg were elected to the Ontario Legislature, 1943 -1951; and Fred Rose was elected to the Federal Parliament, 1943 – 1947.

Meanwhile, in the United States more than 1,000 Socialist candidates were elected to public office in the first two decades of the 20th century. They included two members of Congress, dozens of state legislators, and more than 130 mayors. For example, Eugene Debs, a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and leader of the Socialist Party of America, won election to the Indiana Legislature in 1887, and was a candidate for President of the United States on many occasions from 1900 – 1920.

Make no mistake, the renewed barrage of propaganda in the CBC and the New York Times against Communist governments (eg., the furor over the Uyghar “re-education camps,” which the CBC has likened to conditions during the Holocaust), is as much aimed at silencing domestic socialist tendencies as it is at promoting “color revolutions” abroad.

Xi’s subtle gesture might then be usefully emulated by leaders on the left in North America. For example, Union leaders might start showing-up at press conferences or protests in blue collar again, not the shirt and tie pattern of conformity into which they have fallen.

Paul Bentley holds an MSc. (Econ) in International Relations from the London School of Economics, and an Ed. D. in the History and Philosophy of Education from the University of Toronto. He has worked as a History Teacher and Head of Department in Ontario High Schools for over 25 years. He is the author of Strange Journey: John R. Friedeberg Seeley and the Quest for Mental Health — Academic Studies Press.