Into the fourth year of Xi Jinping’s first term as the Chinese Communist Party’s top leader, there are visible worries that the cult of personality that had made the Mao Zedong period a nightmare in Chinese politics is finding its way back.
Several developments appear to have led to the allegation of a new cult of personality. First, there appears to be a clear emphasis on Xi Jinping on the domestic media. Every day, the CCTV’s prime time news (“xinwen lianbo”) seems to devote a lot of its time to Xi’s activities. Major newspapers such as the People’s Daily also devote a large portion of their front page to reporting Xi as well. By contrast, other leaders such as the Premier receive relatively little media coverage.
Secondly, there seems to be a change in political discourse regarding Xi Jinping’s power. On January 29, Xinhua reported that the Politburo called upon all Party members to enhance their “belief in and loyalty to the Party’s core” (“hexin yishi”). While no one provided an explicit explanation of what the term “core” is supposed to mean in this context, many local officials took this as the indication that Xi Jinping should now be addressed as the “leadership core” of the Party.
This title, so to speak, was invented in 1989 in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crisis, when Deng Xiaoping realized that the Party needed to have a strong leadership, with its top leader commanding the Party’s firm support and loyalty. Deng famously commented that the Party’s first-generation leadership had its core in Mao Zedong, while he himself represented that role for the second-generation leadership.
He then explicitly conferred the “title” to Jiang Zemin, who was newly made the Party’s General Secretary and would later go on to lead the leadership team for the following 13 years. Yet, interestingly, following Jiang’s exit, at the 16th Party Congress in 2002, the assumption by Hu Jintao to the Party’s top office was not accompanied by Hu taking up this informal title at the same time.
Instead, Hu was addressed in all official contexts as the Party Center’s “general secretary” only. This practice continued when Xi took over from Hu and became the Party’s top leader and the President. Xi is addressed as the Party’s general secretary, not as the “core” of the Party Center.
Yet many feel the Xinhua report on January 29 mentioned above has changed all this. Many local leaders used newspapers under their direct control to register their enthusiasm about the arrival of the Party’s new “core,” explicitly addressing Xi as the “core” of the Party Center.
For many China watchers, this represented probably the most alarming signal that Xi’s move toward building a cult of personality is underway. By calling himself the “core,” these observers believe, Xi is in an effort to put himself on the same status of Mao and Deng.
Then, when this year’s Lianghui, the “two sessions” — National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — met in early March, reporters found that members of the Tibet delegation were wearing a Xi Jinping pin on their chest.1 For many, wearing a leader’s pin only happened during Mao Zedong’s rule, and that of today’s North Korea. The cult of personality is in fact back.
Prompted by all these talks of a personality cult, on the day when the Lianghui closed (March 16), I went online to study the People’s Daily. Well, as expected, its headline story was on Xi. Plus, of its eight pages of the Lianghui Supplement, the first one reported a number of Xi’s talking points he made during the Two Sessions, taking up the full page. But besides these, the remaining space of the paper’s 24 pages was devoted to other matters.
Then, the following day, the paper’s front page did not feature Xi Jinping individually. His name appeared as the first one of the Party leadership in the by-line of the lead story, which reported the conclusion of the NPC session. He also appeared in a photo of the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee sitting at the Congress’s rostrum. And the front page carried the individual photos of two other leaders, the NPC Chairman Zhang Dejiang, who presided over the Congress’s closing ceremony, and Premier Li Keqiang, who gave the annual post-NPC press conference.
This to me hardly represented any coming of a cult of personality. In fact, despite local Party papers’ chorus of praising the new “core,” Xi has not openly accepted or rejected this title. What can be seen is that Xinhua, People’s Daily, CCTV, or other central media outlets have not picked up this new “title” when covering Xi or other political events. Xi remains the Party’s General Secretary, nothing more.
And the Tibetan delegate also came out to clarify that wearing the Xi pin was the individual acts of their delegates. There was no direction from the Tibet Party Committee, or the Party Center.
Even when the party secretary of Hunan Province formally reported to Xi Jinping that a new song praising Xi as the wise leader of the nation was fueling enthusiasm among the people of the province,2 the media was quickly asked to stop reporting it.
Yet the worry about Xi’s power has a point. It is indeed indisputable that since taking office, Xi has emerged as a very powerful leader. In him we do observe the powers of a top Chinese leader not seen in recent history. His anti-corruption drive has persecuted a few very powerful figures, including an ex-member of the Politburo Standing Committee, Zhou Yongkang, two vice chairmen of the previous Central Military Committee, and a top Party bureaucrat, Ling Jihua, once the most trusted aide of Hu Jintao.
Yet the worry about Xi’s power has a point. In him we do observe the powers of a top Chinese leader not seen in recent history.
He has also brought a large amount of Party and state powers under his control. During the last 15-20 years, it was more or less the norm that the Premier would control the power of economic management, for example. But under Xi Jinping, he appears to be running the economic show, leaving the Premier much limited space of operation. And his other peers in the Politburo Standing Committee, such as the Chairmen of the NPC and the CPPCC, seem to have their power status lowered by half a rank. While under Hu Jintao’s rule, all nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee appeared to be equal, in Xi Jinping’s time it is not the case anymore.
These developments must be put into context. The changes in power distribution among the Party’s top leaders reflect both stylistic and structural factors in China’s elite politics.
For sure, China’s political system has so far provided no clear definition of the roles and duties of the Premier, and how the top leader (Party Sectary) and the Premier should share powers or separate their responsibilities. The same is true for the top leader and his other Politburo peers.
But in terms of style, Xi Jinping is certainly different from the last two leaders. Neither Jiang nor Hu was personally interested in economic affairs. Both were very happy to leave that portfolio to the Premier at the time, Li Peng, Zhu Rongji, and Wen Jiabao, respectively.
By contrast, ever since he was a local official in Fujian, Xi Jinping had shown clear interests in economic affairs, not to mention when he was the leader of one of China’s richest and economically most innovative province, Zhejiang, from 2002 to 2007. Therefore, it is not strange that, as the top leader of the country he would like to personally oversee economic management and the challenging tasks in economic reform.
Another stylistic factor is that, Hu Jintao was clearly a believer in equal and collegial relationship with his Politburo peers, an unusual trait among Chinese leaders, one would venture to say.
Personal styles aside, Xi’s drive to enhance the power of the Party’s top leader represents a response to the structural problems China’s political system faces. Simply put, during the years in which he was being prepared as the Party’s leader, Xi appeared to have formed several critical beliefs regarding power structure at the top. He appears to see today’s China as in need of an ambitious reform program, the Party as in need of centralizing power in order to implement that program, and he as the top leader needs to do what is required to ensure the Party maintain effective power.
Once formally taking over, these beliefs were quickly translated into swift actions he led, including the sweeping anti-corruption campaign and designing and implementing reform plans. To centralize power in order to deliver results, according to some observers, Xi is “using the tools of Mao to become a Deng Xiaoping 2.0.” to take on vested interests and acquire power in order to push through much-needed legal and economic reform. Cultivating a powerful figure of himself through state media is just a part of this effort to unify party power and party thinking.
To say the least, Xi Jinping is highly wary of the situation under Hu Jintao, in which a retiring, self-containing top leader allowed his peer to acquire untamed ambitions, leading to power fragmentation and policy paralysis.
Against this background, the noises about the revival of a personality cult seem to have two origins. One is that lower level officials were misreading Xi’s intention. They took Xi’s centralization of power as the signal that Xi himself was interested in a Mao style personality cult. Led by this judgement, they went on to register their loyalty in order to win Xi’s favor.
The other is of course the natural challenge of turning ideas into policy measures. While Xi hopes the media and party-state bureaucracy can transmit the idea of a unified and strong leadership to its ranks and files, the party-state organs responsible for this task hardly get the balance right all the time. Political communication is always an ongoing process, requiring fine tuning all the time. That the Hunan Delegation’s praise of the Xi-adoring song was first reported widely in the media, but was very soon stopped, was a case in point.
What should concern us, therefore, is not the return of a personality cult, but rather, how well Xi’s reform ambitions will fare in the years to come. Almost half-way through his tenure, this is an urgent assessment we need to make. But sadly, the available information seems to be rather limited for such an exercise. That for me is much more pressing than the untenable cry of the return of a personality cult.
1. You, R. (2016, March 6). A reflection of the new “Xi core”: Tibet delegates wear Xi Jinping badges to the opening session of NPC. [Fanying “Xi hexin” xin qushi, Xizang daibiaotuan bie Xi Jinping xiangzhang, canjia renda kaimushi]. Lianhe Zaobao, p. 13. This was widely reported in overseas media, including some important English media.
2. Hunan party secretary told Xi Jinping: ‘Don’t Know How to Address You’ sung all over Hunan. [Hunan shuji gaosu Xi Jinping: 《Buzhi Zenme Chenhu Ni》chuanchang sanxiang]. (2016, March 15). Youth.cn. Retrieved from http://news.youth.cn/sz/201603/t20160315_7744649.htm