Behind the Personality Cult of Xi Jinping

He may be China’s most powerful leader in decades. Here’s what he hopes to gain – and stands to lose.

Chinese President Xi Jinping stands by national flags at the Schloss Bellevue presidential residency in Berlin on March 28, 2014. Chinese President Xi Jinping begins a landmark visit to fellow export powerhouse Germany Friday, the third leg of his European tour, expected to cement flourishing trade ties and focus on the Crimea crisis.
AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE        (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping stands by national flags at the Schloss Bellevue presidential residency in Berlin on March 28, 2014. Chinese President Xi Jinping begins a landmark visit to fellow export powerhouse Germany Friday, the third leg of his European tour, expected to cement flourishing trade ties and focus on the Crimea crisis. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

Since assuming office in late 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has quickly consolidated power. He has launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, reorganized the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and tightened controls over media and the Internet — as well as cultivating a cult of personality. Xi’s name has appeared in ruling Communist Party publications with greater frequency that his two most recent predecessors. References to Xi as China’s “core” leader imply a status similar to that of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Songs and videos — some grassroots, some officially commissioned — praising Xi have even gone viral online. In this ChinaFile conversation, experts discuss why Xi has worked to create a cult of personality, and how this may affect Chinese politics in the future.

Jiayang Fan, editorial staff at the New Yorker:

It is evident from his first three years in office that Xi’s top priority is to legitimize his authority and rejuvenate the Communist Party. Therefore, any resources he can marshal to that effect — be it revival of nationalist fervor, the espousal of “red” rhetoric, or songs in praise of his personal and professional conduct — can only further this objective. It is an open question what the precise role his cult of personality will play in the larger agenda but its successful cultivation surely figures as a political gain.

For years, the Chinese public have been inured to the excesses and incompetence of officialdom. The image of politicians living large on the people’s dime, lawlessly luxuriating in ways that directly contradict what the party preaches, has assumed the cast of dark comedy. In China, both the young and old sometimes will sing me catchy little ditties about the profligacies of guanyuan — officials — and resign themselves to the unbridgeable chasm dividing these guanyuan from ordinary citizens. What’s more, the stiffness of technocrats such as former President Hu Jintao, his stilted manners and near total absence of charisma, has only contributed to the perception of Chinese leaders as necessarily devoid of warmth and vitality.

In contrast, the comparative charm of Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan, and the liveliness of their demeanor, suggest a greater awareness of self-presentation and perhaps, shrewder public relations. I think it’s highly possible that due to upbringing and personal taste, Xi may indeed believe and practice the doctrines he propounds; that more than mere theater, he truly hopes to reform the behavior and depravity of the party.

Whatever factors that make up Xi’s public relations campaign, they are less worrying than his growing intolerance for any opinion that diverges from the official line. Recently, during a highly televised visit to the three main official news organizations, Xi affirmed that “the party- and government-run media are a propaganda front and must be surnamed ‘party.'” When Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate tycoon and influential media blogger, criticized the increasing controls the government wielded over news media, his Weibo account was shut down immediately. The expediency of the government’s censorship has cast a chill over the annual National People’s Congress, now in session in Beijing.

Such tightening of the ideological sphere poses the greatest danger to the prospect of a healthy civic society. No matter how readily Xi is willing to exhibit his personal virtues and how genuine they are, the repression of free speech does unequivocal harm to the nation he is trying to better.

Taisu Zhang, associate professor at the Duke University School of Law:

There are many conceivable hypotheses on Xi’s attempts to build a personality cult. I list here a couple that strike me as relatively plausible. The truth — if we can call it that — is likely some combination of these. The first hypothesis is that Xi is pursuing this strategy because he (or his team of advisers) believes it will yield significant dividends — probably in the form of broader and deeper support among the general population. But why does he believe this? In other words, what does this strategy tell us about his understanding of China’s sociopolitical circumstances?

There are several possible answers to this question. Perhaps Xi doesn’t really know whether the population will be receptive or not, but nonetheless believes that these tactics amount to a show of force that will help deter dissenting voices and buoy supporters. He may be trying to show that he is firmly in charge. Given the political tensions created by the anti-corruption campaign and the economic slowdown, such a show of force could, in fact, be very timely. Alternately, perhaps Xi believes that such tactics might generate genuine goodwill among certain segments of the adult population. As I argue in a recent essay, there is reason to believe that China’s educated population is becoming increasingly ideologically polarized, and that a leftist intellectual movement is gaining force. Many leftists, particularly those that hold onto a highly positive image of former Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, might actually find the personality cult strategy — and its resonance with the party’s pre-1978 past — rather endearing. If the population has an appetite for ideological tactics (and the pursuit of a personality cult, in the Chinese political context, counts as one) then perhaps it is only wise and prudent to cater to it. Especially if there are deeper divisions among the political elite that are difficult to observe from the outside, pursuing a populist, personality cult-based strategy could pay off handsomely in the medium to long run. Mao himself is a success story of this kind.

The second hypothesis is that Xi is pursuing a cult of personality not merely because it might be politically beneficial, but also because it appeals to his personal ideological leanings. To borrow a phrase from the political scientist Pei Minxin, this runs afoul of the common belief in “the competent Chinese autocrat,” which assumes that Chinese leaders are both materialistically pragmatic and competent. But what if that assumption is, as Pei argues, more myth than fact? Pei’s criticism primarily targets the “competency” leg of the assumption; but can we go deeper and probe the “materialistic pragmatism” leg as well? This is not to question that Chinese leaders are deeply pragmatic people, but merely to suggest that even the most pragmatic of politicians can, or perhaps should, have ideological leanings. A purely materialistic and Machiavellian worldview is not necessarily a political asset (not even, I should add, in the age of Donald Trump): a dose of genuine ideological commitment can be enormously beneficial for the projection of charisma, for example. Why dismiss the possibility that there is a genuinely ideological side to Xi, or to other party leaders, and that a personality cult-based strategy truly appeals to their political aesthetics?

Ying Zhu, chair of the Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island-CUNY:

Unlike the disgraced former Chongqing party chief and Xi’s one-time political rival Bo Xilai, who peddled Maoist ideology and red classics for popular appeal, Xi does seem to be a genuine believer in the doctrines he preaches.

The same applies to his wife Peng Liyuan, a People’s Liberation Army-nurtured soprano renowned for her vocal prowess in delivering soaring Chinese revolutionary folk songs and nationalistic ballads. Unlike many of her contemporaries who turned to performing pop songs, Peng was uncompromising in her choice of music that adhered to revolutionary folkloric traditions. It is worth noting that another well-known soprano, Dong Wenhua, a contemporary and one-time competitor of Peng, turned to pop tunes in her singing as she sought monetary rewards. Dong was later embroiled in a scandal involving sex and money, which greatly tarnished her reputation. Peng, on the other hand, stayed committed to Chinese folk songs and an occasional highbrow opera tune and later married Xi.

In comparison to Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, who was condemned as a femme fatale responsible for the downfall of her husband’s political dynasty, Peng’s seemingly impeccable political and moral standing and her celebrity status makes her a prized first lady. Together, Peng and Xi make a compelling first couple with a modern sensibility that helps to soften and humanize China’s global image. The last time China produced a charming couple was prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, during the 1930s and 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek, in well-tailored army uniforms and Chinese tunic suits, and Soong Meiling, with snuggly fitted Cheongsams and fluent English, wooed Americans.

The Papa Xi Loves Mama Peng music video accentuates the loving relationship between Xi and Peng rarely seen among Chinese political couples. In fact, a montage of shots of Xi holding Peng’s hand and Xi’s glancing dotingly at Peng promotes a gentlemanly demeanor. Though the song owes its origin to the grassroots, the carefully choreographed images of Xi and Peng together as a couple owe much to a Shanghai based public relations firm that conducted opinion polls about what people desired to see in their leaders. A communications scholar in China told me that one suggestion coming out of the research is to have Xi hold Peng’s hand as he steps out of the airplane during their international visits and to encourage Xi slow down and wait for Peng as he strides to greet people. A careful review of early footage of Xi and Peng reveals Xi often steps out of airplanes and strides off alone, paying scant attention to Peng as she — in high heels — tries to catch up. Recent footage of the couple together captures a more attentive Xi, reaching out to Peng or casting an adoring gaze her way. Multiple shots of this gaze casts Peng as the object of desire: refreshing to Westerners, if not secretly thrilling to Chinese women. The image of China’s amorous first couple further sets a benchmark for the country’s cultural cleansing campaign extolling devotion and harmony in marriage.

AFP/Getty Images

Jiayang Fan is a member of the New Yorker's editorial staff. She frequently writes about China and Chinese-American issues.
Taisu Zhang is an Associate Professor at Yale Law School.

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