For the first time since the death of Chairman Mao four decades ago, a leadership personality cult is emerging in China. You can see it in Beijing’s streets, where President Xi Jinping’s face appears on posters on bus stops, next to those of revolutionary war heroes. Scarlet banners fly with bold white letters saying: ‘Continue Achieving the Successes of Socialism... with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core’. The city has this week been hosting the Communist Party Congress, during which Xi was affirmed for a second (and supposedly final) five-year term. But it looks and feels like a coronation.
To those who remember Mao’s iron-fisted rule and the cult around him, the emerging Xi cult might seem like a great leap backwards. After Mao’s death in 1976, the Party made plain that it was leaving behind, at some considerable speed, the nightmare years of the Cultural Revolution when child was set upon parent, student upon teacher, and neighbour upon neighbour. It was blamed on Mao Zedong, who had unfettered rule, being swayed by bad advice. So no president since him has served for more than two terms — and it is a mark of Chinese modernity that the reins of power were passed from one president to the next without tearing the country apart.
It ought to be unthinkable that in today’s China, a personality cult should be right around the corner. Yet the past five years of Xi’s tenure have been softening up the Chinese people and leadership to accept this. Of course, Chinese leaders have always tended to attract adulation: ancient emperors were once known as ‘sons of heaven’, and modern Chinese leaders have been always and everywhere praised for their incredible ability to rule, their omniscient foresight, their unbounded benevolence. This is just the way politics and power are seen in the Chinese mind. But there’s something about Xi.
Take the anti-corruption campaign that has become his trademark. In the last five years, some 100,000 people have been indicted on corruption charges, of whom more than 120 have been high-ranking party officers. The offences can be either scandalous, or trivial. When I spoke to a cousin who works for the Communist party earlier this year, he was full of tales of colleagues who were disciplined for accepting as little as a bottle of wine. Some met with worse fates because they had been caught on tape accepting valuable gifts. The campaign is explicitly intended to root out extreme corruption, but it has allowed Xi to conduct a fairly pitiless purge of the Communist party’s new talents.
The most famous case was Bo Xilai, four years ago. He was a high-profile rising star in the party: handsome, charismatic, well-versed in Mao’s writings. His wife was successful in her own right and their son read PPE at Oxford. Within months, however, this picture of perfection was dismantled and scandal was heaped upon scandal. The accomplished wife was embroiled in a murder investigation following the mysterious death of the British businessman Neil Heywood, and their son was accused of Bullingdon-style decadence — which is bad enough in Britain, but anathema to the average Chinese citizen. With the scene set, Bo was arrested on corruption charges, given a sham trial and life imprisonment. A model modern Communist family had been meticulously destroyed — and the world knew that Xi was serious.
A strong-handed approach has become his signature. The modest mantra of the former president, Hu Jintao — of China ‘rising peacefully’ in the world — has been supplanted by Xi’s more forceful methods, especially in diplomacy. New toys such as the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, have been flashed around the Taiwan Strait, especially during Taiwan’s elections last year. Elsewhere, China has used a persuasive combination of economic reward (meaning access to its market), military threat, and diplomatic pressure to manoeuvre its neighbours and other nations into more convenient, malleable positions.
At home, the People’s Liberation Army is being pulled apart and efficiently put together again with Xi’s rule at the centre. Military power was traditionally split around four main power bases: staff, logistics, politics and armaments. Under Xi, these were broken up and replaced with 15 agencies, none of which can offer much resistance to his own authority. To soothe army concerns, Xi made a calculated decision to inspect his troops wearing battle fatigues in this year’s military parade. The troops, in turn, synchronised their march steps with fierce yells of adulation for the great leader.
Xi’s visions for a modern China, free of slimy, unsustainable politicking and equipped with a modern army and economy, has quite a constituency. It’s common, now, to hear him referred to as ‘Xi Dada’ — Papa Xi. Viewed from the West, all this might seem like terrifying authoritarianism and an affront to democracy and human rights. But it looks very different in China. When speaking to Chinese university students earlier this year, I was struck by the extent to which they are inexpressibly proud of Xi Dada. Grateful for the stability and prosperity they believe he has brought, they didn’t seem to mind the idea of a new personality cult. They also seemed angry about western criticisms of the Chinese model: to them, recent election results in America and Europe are not a great advert for democracy.
In another era, this year’s Party Congress would be the time to think about succession. Xi’s own rise was signalled at the 2007 Congress, when he was inaugurated into the Politburo Standing Committee with Li Keqiang, who was later to become his Premier. Their simultaneous appointment into these top positions was no accident. Xi and Li’s future roles had been decided already, and the event itself was little more than a signal of the fact. But this time, any potential successor to Xi had either to renew his pledges of loyalty or suffer the consequences.
Sun Zhengcai, the youngest politburo member, was tipped as a president-in-waiting until three months ago, when he was abruptly dismissed on corruption charges. Even in the lower echelons of the provincial leadership, the shake-up has been extraordinary, with 23 of the 31 party secretaries reassigned in the last year alone. The message to Xi’s opponents and supporters is crystal clear — don’t covet his job or stand in his way.
Over the summer, China’s public spaces were plastered with the ‘Communist Party Core Values’ — a short manifesto with two-word platitudes of what the government supposedly believes in. ‘Democracy’ was placed second only to ‘prosperity’ in this list. You can read them across the country. I found them in cable-car stations in the foothills of the Himalayas and in the crammed metro stations of the developed East. But as the stars align for Xi, the prospect of genuine democracy for China has never seemed more remote.