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Xi Jinping in Südkorea 03.07.2014 Seoul - Chinese President Xi Jinping waves after arriving at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam July 3, 2014. Xi arrived in South Korea on Thursday, hoping to strengthen commercial and diplomatic ties while Seoul is expected to push Beijing to increase pressure on ally North Korea to end its pursuit of nuclear arms. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS)
Image: Reuters

Xi's image-building

Fang Wan
July 31, 2014

In the era of Mao Zedong, the cult of personality reached its peak, only to become history during China's decades of reforms. However, analysts now see a possible comeback of the "great leader worship" under Xi Jinping.


Is Xi Jinping following in the footsteps of Mao Zedong when it comes to personality cult? This is the impression one could get from state media coverage of the Chinese president and Communist Party chief. A study conducted by the University of Hong Kong (HKU) recently concluded that Xi's name was mentioned more frequently in People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) flagship newspaper, than that of any other top party leader since the time of Mao Zedong.

The study report, titled "The observation of leaders' name transmission", was made public amid Xi's anti-graft campaign. Merely days after its publication, news broke out on July 29 that Zhou Yongkang, a retired CCP member highest decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, was placed under investigation.

The researchers compared the People's Daily's coverage of eight current and former top leaders: Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. The reference period was the first 18 months after each one took office.

Zhou Yongkang chinesischer Spitzenpolitiker ARCHIVBILD 16.10.2007 - China's Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang gestures as he attends a discussion session of the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing in this October 16, 2007 file photograph. To match CHINA-POLITICS/BO-CRONIES REUTERS/Jason Lee/Files (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS HEADSHOT)
Xi broke an unwritten rule by placing Zhou Yongkang under investigationImage: Reuters

Qian Gang, director of the HKU China Media Project and main researcher of this study, told DW that the political message behind the intense coverage of Xi should now be analyzed by the public and media experts.

'Chinese expect a strong leader'

Few people in China expected to see such a strong leader, says Hu Xingdou, economics professor at the Beijing University of Science and Technology.

"To a certain extent, it might be good for carrying out anti-corruption measures and constructing a legal system, in terms of promoting and establishing modern social institutions," Hu said. "Whether Xi could leave a legacy and become a national hero is really dependent on reaching this criteria," he added.

According to professor Hu, there is a certain degree of centralization of authority in China under Xi. He is of the view, however, that this process might be necessary to conduct further reforms, since "there are strong vested interest groups obstructing reforms." "We can also draw lessons from Hu Jintao's decade of inaction," Hu Xingdou pointed out, adding that China might needs a strongman to promote reforms and establish a more modern system.

After taking over the reins, Xi Jinping launched a nation wide anti-graft campaign, vowing to go after both "tigers" and "flies", meaning high- and low-ranking officials. Many Chinese have been surprised at the scope and intensity of this campaign, as well as by Xi's aggressive stance.

Analysts argue that with this campaign, Xi is killing two birds with one stone. The crackdown helps the president to consolidate his power while weakening his enemies. Furthermore, it has boosted Xi's image among the public.

The biggest 'tiger' yet

By announcing an investigation into ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang, who was one of the country's most influential politicians, Xi broke a longstanding unwritten rule against publicly investigating members and former members of the CPC's Politburo Standing Committee.

It demonstrates Xi's firm grip on power. "Xi Jinping successfully took down a big tiger, which is very positive for his personal prestige", said Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based scholar on Chinese history and politics.

Xi is now undeniably a strongman, more powerful than the last two presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Lam said. "After Deng Xiaoping came to power, he established the collective leadership system, with a specific division of labor within the Politburo Standing Committee. The general secretary of the Standing Committee usually does not interfere with other members' work, but Xi essentially broke this mechanism," explained Lam.

"Some people around Xi are busy working on a Mao-style personality cult. That's why you will find that Xi appears in the People's Daily and on CCTV more often than any other committee members," said China expert Lam.

Mao Zedong Mao Tse-tung China 1960 - 1960: Mao Zedong known as Mao Tse-tung (1893 - 1976) the communist leader and first chairman of the People's Republic from 1949. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The cult of personality reached fever pitch in the era of Mao ZedongImage: Getty Images

Embrace or despise the cult?

A repetition of Mao's era is impossible, says professor Hu, pointing out that the current generation now has a range of different interests. "People are no longer as ignorant as before. However, the nourishing soil of personality cult still exits, as the Chinese are expecting a new generation of charismatic authority."

"People confront problems in the real world and see all sorts of darkness and unfairness. They were expecting the emergence of a strongman who could change the situation at the grassroot level. This is perhaps the social basis of the new cult," Hu told DW.

Taiwan's former president Chiang Ching-kuo once said: "I will use authoritarian means to end the authoritarian system." These words were now borrowed by professor Hu to refer to his expectations for Xi Jinping.

But for China expert Lam the strongman-concept is outdated. "Strongman-politics won't work," as China has loads of problems, and solving them depends on democracy, political participation and public oversight, he said. "This is regression."

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