The enigmatic Xi Jinping is arguably China’s most powerful leader since Mao. His influence and popularity among the Chinese public has sparked the growth of a personality cult fuelled by books, cartoons and songs lauding Xi and his rule. The magnitude of this phenomenon is perhaps best represented by the epithet ‘Xi Dada’, a term of endearment which translates roughly to mean ‘Uncle’ or ‘Papa Xi’, and which portrays him as a figurative father of the Chinese state.
But there is more to Xi’s allure than mere paternalistic admiration. Those who have met the Chinese no. 1 describe him as an affable, aristocratic figure and shrewd diplomat whose stock has surged since his imperious outing at the military parade held last September in Beijing. The sense of awe surrounding Xi has even prompted comparisons with Mao; one study revealed that Xi is only second to the PRC’s founding father in terms of the number of appearances in the People’s Daily.
Xi is not only hitting sixes with the Chinese public. His political standing has also been on the rise – Xi recently cemented himself as ‘core’ leader within the Communist Party of China (CPC), an event which motivated the party’s top brass to officially articulate their conformity to Xi’s leadership direction. Perhaps the most conspicuous manifestation of the extent to which the CPC has gravitated toward its leader is the Quishi Journal’s (the Party’s flagship magazine) decision to run an article with the headline “China must conform with Xi”.
It was only after successfully prevailing against a series of challenges from party rivals, however, that Xi finally arrived in his present position as chief executive. Subsequent to assuming power, Xi set about consolidating his status as China’s no. 1, issuing stern warnings to potential coup-plotters and detractors, thereby instigating a fear of retribution among party, particularly regional, constituents.
Given the deliberateness of Xi’s political manoeuvring, it is likely that the personality cult that has formed around him is an active rather than passive construct. In other words, the gushing exaltations and homages of ‘Xi Dada’ are, if not concocted by the Party itself, capitalised upon and primed as CPC propaganda. This is not to say that Xi’s popularity is driven purely by fabricated hype. Rather, his inherent magnetism and political adroitness form the foundations on which this cult of personality is being careful constructed. Although it is unclear how much say Xi has in this propaganda drive, political commentator Li Datong insightfully points out that China’s leader has made no move to curb the flowering personality cult, even indulging in the resultant public fervour.
The construction of a cult of personality around Xi, conceivably the first leader since Mao with the wherewithal and aura worthy of such veneration, is extremely timely for the CPC. An existing intraparty struggle with Jiang Zemin’s faction threatens party stability, while years of economic reforms and sharp growth have seen the Chinese middle class burgeon, which the Party fears will precipitate a push for democratic representation, undermining the foundations of communist governance and thus the CPC’s hold on power. It is hoped, too, that building Xi’s personality cult will induce greater party unity internally.
The cult of personality strategy, according to renowned China scholar David Shambaugh of George Washington University, is also a response to the perceived threat of an internal coup d’état, suggesting that ongoing sweeping corruption purges are part of a broader drive to purify the minds of Party officials, pulling them in line with the Party, and therefore Xi’s, ideological orbit.
The barrage of personality cult-shaping propaganda churned out by the CPC is a mass charm offensive and polar opposite approach to the series of campaigns which have traditionally utilised fear to attain common objectives - loyalty to the party and Xi internally, and securing the support of the greater public externally. In addition to the widespread crackdown on political corruption responsible for punishing thousands of party officials, a number of individuals linked to books critical of the Chinese regime have disappeared from Hong Kong. This, along with the targeting of liberal academics and the promulgation of “Western ideas” (democracy and human rights, among others) in Chinese universities, suggests a broader purification of creeping Westernisation, which Harvard University professor Roderick MacFarquhar interprets as Xi’s attempt at a bloodless Cultural Revolution.
Xi Jinping’s cult of personality is not a natural phenomenon inspired by collective adoration, but a deliberate mechanism which glazes over an all-encompassing effort to purify the CPC of internal disloyalty and to purge ideologies at odds with the communist regime. Ultimately, both operations leverage Xi’s magnetism and political shrewdness in the attainment of the common objective; to keep the Communist Party in power as it faces unprecedented structural challenges.
Michael Parker is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image Credit: thierry ehrmann (Flickr: Creative Commons)