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No, xi jinping has not built a cult of personality.

“Every historical event begins with a struggle centered on naming.” - Milun Kundera

Since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012-13, academics, diplomats, journalists, think tank researchers, and most of the Chinese nation have been struggling to make sense of who Xi Jinping is, and where his vision for the country will lead. Sure, we can read about the China Dream, the Four Comprehensives, the Two 100 Year Goals, the Moderately prosperous society, etc., but these don't tell us much about where China is really headed. Will it continue down the bumpy and uneven road of economic openness (two steps forward, one step back)? Will political reform ever be put back on the table, as it was in the years before Tiananmen quashed talk of political liberalization? These are all very important questions; perhaps they are the most important questions.

And while I'm not sure how to answer them, I am pretty sure of a few dead ends. Perhaps the most unhelpful heuristic floating around right now is that Xi is reconstituting Mao's cult of personality. indeed, this seems to have become the mainstream consensus.  The Economist recently published a striking cover of Xi-as-Mao with the headline "Beware the cult of Xi." In early March, the indispensable ChinaFile ran a conversation under the headline "Xi Jinping: A Cult of Personality?" The Nikkei Asian Review ran a piece entitled "Xi's burgeoning personality cult stirs controversy," while the venerable HK-based China watcher Willy Lam spotted the emergence of Xi's cult more than one year ago. In fact, the latest cover story by The Economist shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as they ran a piece in September 2014 that argued "A cult of personality is growing around China’s president."

I respect these publications, but I think they're wrong: we're not seeing the return to a cult of personality, but rather the outcome of a authoritarian-communist system trying to get media savvy, which has the effect of looking like an incipient cult without actually being one. We're also seeing foreign observers grasp for historical analogies to make sense of a rapidly changing political situation, but instead of finding the best analogies, we're all too often reverting to the easy ones.

If we rewind back to 1978-1982 period, we see that Deng Xiaoping and the CCP faced a series of challenges, or more accurately a series of questions about the role and function of the Party moving forward. For the decade prior to his death in 1976, Mao essentially was the Party, and as a result there wasn't a whole lot of public soul searching about the right way forward, as that had been outsourced to Mao and his near-unchallenged authority. When he died just after midnight on September 9th, an ideological and power vacuum suddenly appeared wasn't meaningfully filled until the early part of the 1980s after a series of important plenums, conferences, and pronouncements. If we lump these all together, the basic gist was this: let's deleverage ideology (primarily leftist), dethrone Mao {but not too much), restore the authority of the government/State council (to begin making and implementing rational policy), and finally let's get to work on economic development, the "second revolution," in the words of Deng Xiaoping. In 1982, the Party Constitution was amended to include a prohibition on personality cults ("党禁止任何形式的个人崇拜"), following on the heels of the momentous "Resolution on Certain Questions in Our Party's History since the Founding of the PRC", which for the first time offered an official assessment of Mao Zedong. Mao, it concluded, bore "chief responsibility for the grave 'Left' error of the 'cultural revolution', an error comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration." (Incidentally, it did not make any statement about Mao being 70% right/good and 30% wrong/bad, a point I'll touch on in a later blog post).   

And this was all well and good, for China under Mao, especially during the "later years", really had become an ungovernable place. It's worth dwelling for a moment on the heights of the Maoist cult of personality, as I think when we compare it to what's happening today, it's pretty evident Xi has a long way to go if he wants to match Mao. Andrew Walder's wonderful recent book China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed highlights some of the absurdities of the Mao era:

"Virtually every home had its portrait of Chairman Mao on the wall or a bust of the Chairman on full display. Failure to display Mao paraphernalia could put one under political suspicion. In public spaces, large statues of Mao were erected on university campuses, in front of government office buildings, and in city squares. Carefully orchestrated parades with marches displaying scores of large Mao portraits or mobile floats with statues of the Charmin in a heroic pose were a common event during public holidays. Large stadiums were filled with thousands of performers who engaged in synchronized displays designed to glorify the Chairman and express loyalty. Individuals who inadvertently defaced portraits or the Chairman or who discarded newspapers with his photograph or writings could become targets of harrowing loyalty investigations. Families saved virtually every item with Mao's image because it was politically dangerous to discard them." (Pg. 277-278)

We could go on and on: the loyalty dance, the mango craze, the frenzied crowds of Red Guards who packed TIananmen Square to get a glimpse of the Great Helmsman in 1966, the omnipresence of the "Little Red Book," etc. As Daniel Leese writes in his book on the Mao cult, "by its sheer extent surpassed every other twentieth-century leader cult," and while Stalin was no slouch when it came to cult-building, Mao had no equal. This was a nation-wide phenomenon driven by both fear and faith; the public and ritualistic nature of it made it nearly impossible not to join in, but it's also clear that the frenzy was heartfelt as well. Wang Shaoguang, in his book on the Cultural Revolution in Wuhan, stresses that participants in the excesses of the Mao craze were "rational true believers," in that while "the majority of followers really believed in Mao's natural talents and identified with him, others accepted his initiatives because they feared punishment if they deviated.  Still others were neither mesmerized by Mao's personal mystique nor subjugated by their fear of punishment, but followed him because they perceived his positions, skills, and information to be most appropriate for their own situation."

Are we seeing something analogous with Xi JInping today? Let's look at the evidence for a cult offered by several of the recent indictments.

1. "Official media are filled with fawning over 'Uncle Xi' and his wife, Peng Liyuan, a folk-singer whom flatterers call “Mama Peng”. A video, released in March, of a dance called “Uncle Xi in love with Mama Peng” has already been viewed over 300,000 times. There have been rumours recently that Mr Xi feels some of this has been going a bit far. Some of the most toadying videos, such as “The east is red again” (comparing Mr Xi to Mao), have been scrubbed from the internet." (The Economist, "Beware the cult of Xi")

2. "By some accounts, Chinese Presdient Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader the country hashad since Mao Zedong. One arrow in his quiver that echoes Mao’s armory is Xi’s embrace of popular song, listened to these days not on the radio or over a loudspeaker so much as via the Internet, where some 700 million citizens are connected to China’s heavily censored version of the world wide web. Dozens of these songs about Xi have gone viral. What is behind Xi's efforts to cultivate a cult of personality? How significant is it to the shape of Chinese politics going forward?" (ChinaFile, "Xi Jinping: A Cult of Personality?")

3. "As Xi moves into his fourth year as president of the world’s most populous nation, the two musicians are part of a growing chorus of Chinese minstrels singing the praises of the man they call “Xi Dada” which translates as Uncle or Big Daddy Xi..... Part of the fast-growing Xi repertoire seems to be genuinely spontaneous tributes to a leader whose high-profile anti-corruption campaign has won him many fans.  Other works – such as a big budget television song and dance extravaganza that was reportedly bankrolled by the government of Hunan province – appear part of a coordinated propaganda push to bolster Xi’s standing.... Some detect a troubling attempt to build a Mao-esque personality cult around Xi.  ( Tom Phillips, The Guardian, "Singing Xi's praises: chorus of Chinese pop songs celebrate president")

4. "Debate is heating up among ordinary citizens as well as intellectuals in China -- albeit not publicly -- over President Xi Jinping's personality cult.  A Tibetan delegate attending the annual meeting of the National People's Congress is interviewed in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5. The two pins he is wearing are noteworthy.  A controversy was recently sparked by Tibetan delegates at the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, during the opening session in Beijing on March 5. During their appearance at the Great Hall of the People, the Tibetans were all wearing pins bearing Xi's picture. Actually, they were each sporting two pins -- one picturing Xi alone, and the other featuring the past five Chinese leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi." (Nikkei Asian Review, "Xi's burgeoning personality cult stirs controversy")

A Xi Jinping pin. A song and dance routine. Some homemade (and official) viral videos. Taken together, these don't seem to me to be a cult of personality, or even the beginnings of one. They may be creepy and a break with the recent experience of the Hu-Wen era, but the official promotion of the leader is not the same thing as the deification of the leader.  This is not to deny the full-throated assault to bring Xi Jinping to the front and center of social and political discourse. From the proliferation of Xi-themed official websites and Wechat channels to the intra-Party campaigns to "Study the important Speeches of Xi Jinping,"  we're seeing much more of Xi than we did of Hu Jintao or even Jiang Zemin. Yet the key attributes of Mao's cult -- it's mass scale, it's ritualistic nature, it's penetration into the deepest levels of society, are clearly lacking. Given Xi's concentration of power and the assault on intellectual (and actual) freedom, we're right to be on guard, but let's make sure we're making the right diagnosis.

So for now, I think we should put aside the easy analogies (Xi is the new Mao!) and get to work on the much harder question: what the heck is Xi Jinping doing, and what will this mean for China and the world? I suspect the answer to this question, if we ever find it, will both surprise us and teach us much about how the CCP operates in the 21st Century.