By D. S. Rajan*
As the end of the third year of China’s top leader Xi Jinping’s ascension to power approaches and a new year is to usher in, one does not fail to see the regularly appearing evidence pointing towards not so concealed efforts to boost the image of the already all powerful leader, touching all key fields like ideology, politics, economy and military.
Some analysts think that this evidence may signify moves to build a personality cult around Xi, as witnessed in the case of Mao during 1966 when huge publicity was given to the latter’s review of some 11 million ”Red Guards” in Peking, along with description that Mao was “ great teacher, great leader, great supreme commander and helmsman”. Such perceptions could be erroneous as against the usual understanding of the term ‘cult of personality’ as one similar to divinization, except that it is established by mass media and propaganda usually by the state. Xi is not being ‘divined’’; in the party hierarchy, he is still being addressed only as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), not as the ‘core’ of the leadership, the status once accorded to Jiang Zemin and leaders of generations prior to him, implying thereby that he as a leader is only primus inter pares and that a collective leadership is working in the country. In the long run, however, one may have to watch whether the present image building gets converted into a cult building; if that happens, the country’s post- Jiang Zemin collective leadership system is certain to come under strain.
Undeniable are Xi’s drive to concentrate power. He is already the General Secretary of the ruling CCP, President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Chairman of the CCP and State Central Military Commissions and the head of the newly created National Security Council. He leads the CCP’s many ‘leading small groups’, dealing with important areas such as foreign affairs, financial and economic work, cyber security, information technology and military reforms. Altogether, Xi occupies a total of 11 top posts in the country’s most powerful leadership bodies. This would mean that all institutions of the party, state council and military are now directly reporting to Xi. As the authoritative journal Caixin puts it (“Xi Has Vision to Guide Party to 2049”, Yang Guangbin, March 16, 2015) , Xi Jinping has become the de facto CCP Chairman. US President Obama has said that “Xi has consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping”, when revealing his worries on human rights situation in China and the PRC’s relations with its neighbors.
Coming at a time, when Xi’s power is already at its peak, the evidence surfacing give rise to a question as to why the there is a need now to boost the image of Xi. Considering that the adulation cannot be taking place without the acquiescence of Xi himself, the leader’s motives merit focus and this is what is being attempted in the following analysis.
A prominent indicator to the moves being made to boost the image of Xi Jinping is the media treatment of the leader. Departing from normal journalistic practice, the party and state controlled press in China continues to overdo the coverage of the activities of Xi. A study of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project finds (July 2014) that Xi’s name had occupied the pages of the People’s Daily more than any other Chinese leader since Mao. It discloses that in the first 18 months since he rose to power, Xi was mentioned by name in the paper 4,725 times, compared with 2,405 and 2,001 times for his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin during a similar period. It is also being seen that the national broadcaster China Central Television is devoting nearly its entire evening newscast to Xi during his travels abroad. The state media is promoting Xi’s speeches both at home and abroad through organizing online quizzes, cartoons and publicizing the leader’s books. As support to build Xi’s popularity, the media also highlight the activities of his wife Peng Liyuan.
Specific instances of adulation of Xi, noticed since he assumed power in late 2012, are mentioned below:
February 2013: A Weibo micro-blog called ‘Fans Group to Learn from Xi’, begins operation, signifying efforts to project Xi in the social media.
August 2013: Chinese media praise Xi’s speech given at a national conference on publicity and ideological work as reflective of “innovating ways of publicity and presenting new concepts, new categories and new expressions so that China’s story can be told and China’s voice heard”. They add that “this is the first time that a China’s top leader has ever made such comments”.
December 2013: The People’s Daily publishes nine commentaries highlighting Xi’s instructions on areas including “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the Chinese dream, economic and political reforms, culture, foreign policy and Party construction. It glorifies Xi’s “brilliant talks and instructions” as representing “new ways of thinking, new perspectives, new conclusions and new demands”.
May 2014: The CCP Literature Office brings out a book called “Excerpts of Xi Jinping’s Remarks on Overall Deepening Reforms”, containing the leader’s 274 quotes in the period November 2012 to April 1, 2014. The media say that some excerpts have been made public for first time.
August 2014: The CCP Central Party School journal “Party Construction” praises the “spirit of the series of important speeches delivered by General Secretary Xi Jinping” for its ‘prime’ goal of “attaining the Chinese dream and two fundamental points—comprehensively implementing reforms and upholding the line of the masses.”
September 2014: The PRC State Council and the CCP Party Literature Research Office jointly publish a book captioned “Governance of China” containing speeches of Xi Jinping delivered from November to June 2014. Considering that there is no similar compilation of speeches of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao given during their regimes, the appearance of the book assumes significance. The Vietnamese version of the book was launched in Hanoi prior to the Chinese leader’s state visit to Vietnam. According to reports, more than three million copies of the book have been sold since its publication- it has been translated into five languages and all party workers down to village levels, own a copy. Xi’s “Chinese Dream” idea is mentioned 115 times in the book, which includes photographs of him shoveling dirt to prevent a river flooding, frying food for elderly people in a nursing home and handing out blankets to villagers during a harsh winter.
October 2014: The CCP’s fourth plenum for the first time puts “the spirit of the series of important speeches by General Secretary Xi Jinping” on par with “Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, Jiang Zemin’s thoughts of ‘Three Represents’ and Hu Jintao’s ‘Scientific Outlook on Development”, clearly marking elevation of Xi as a theoretical master.
November 2014: A pop song dedicated to Xi-Peng Liyuan love story, written by four musicians in the central province of Henan, becomes an Internet hit garnering an audience of more than 20 million people in 5 days.
November 2014: Shanghai’s Jiaotong University publishes a book captioned “The Charm of Xi Jinping’s Words” similar to Mao’s “Little Red Book”.
Late 2014: The CCP’s Guangming Daily says that “the Spirit of Xi Jinping amounted to new chapters in the Sinicization of Marxism, opening up new vistas for the Party and country.”
February 2015: CCTV News calls Xi the Supreme Commander; so far such a title was given by the Chinese media only to Mao, not to any other leader including Deng Xiaoping.
February 2015: The party and state media describe Xi Jinping’s principle of “Four Comprehensives,” namely, “comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepening reform, comprehensively governing the nation according to law, and comprehensively administering the Party with strictness”, as “ unique system of ideas that demonstrate boldness in innovation ” and as “ a synthesis between Marxism and the practice in China.” They demand that Xi Jinping’s series of important speeches should be taught in classrooms.
June 2015: A song “Grandpa Xi Is Our Big Friend” is released for singing by school children.
June 2015: The CCP’s propaganda department sets up Xi fan-clubs on the Chinese equivalents of Face book and Twitter. Its latest creation is a Xi Dada app, which has been dubbed by some a 21st- century electronic Little Red Book (a reference to Mao’s collected writings and speeches). The app gives Xi’s followers up-to-the-minute reports of the leader’s whereabouts, as well as his latest pronouncements.
September 2015: Xi inspects military parade in Beijing; marks the leader’s high status.
September 2015: People’s Daily makes a propaganda video showing foreign students displaying affection to “uncle Xi” (Xi Dada), coinciding with Xi’s first state visit to the US.
October 2015: The CCP propaganda department approves a TV series featuring stories on farmers and the “educated youth” in the 1970s in Liangjiahe village, Shaanxi Province, where Xi spent seven years in his youth. About 100,000 tourists now flock to see Xi’s former abode each year, according to media.
October 2015: Xi’s speech originally delivered an year ago asking the writers and artists to adhere to party ideology gets sharp media focus on October 14. The speech was comparable to Mao Zedong’s talk at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942. Mao through his rectification campaign in this period removed rightist intellectuals from the party and thus consolidated his leadership position; Xi seems to reenact what Mao did, so as to consolidate his political position through removing his rivals with the help of his drives against corruption and party discipline violations.
November-December 2015: Personality cult around Xi Jinping appears to be growing fast in the military field also. Heavy stress is now being given to the role of “CMC Chairman Responsibility System” signifying Xi’s efforts to gain complete control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
In connection with the above, notable are comments made in two articles, both published in the Liberation Army Daily, a signed one on November 30, 2015 and the other contributed by the PLA General Political Department (GPD) on December 7, 2015. Their publishing came after Xi’s “important” speech on military reforms delivered at the Reforms Work Conference of the Central Military Commission (CMC) (Beijing, November 24-26, 2015). As already known, there were firm indicators in the speech that the military reforms to be completed by 2020, are going to be massive – the CMC is to be made in charge of the overall administration of and command over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese People’s Armed Police; a three-tier CMC – Battle Zone Commands – Troops command system is to be established ; a command mechanism under the CMC over and above the four Headquarters Staff Departments is to be set up ; a general command centre for land forces is to be established and the existing Military Regions is to be regrouped into Battle Zone Commands to be supervised by the CMC.
More important than the type of military reforms being revealed, is the attempt in the comments, to boost the image of Xi Jinping to new levels ; there is now a sharp focus on the need for the PLA to follow the “CMC Chairman Responsibility” system, in other words to obey Xi’s orders. This becomes clear while going through the English translation of the comments given in the Annexure. The central message being conveyed to top level cadres in the military through them is that they must maintain the party’s absolute leadership over the army, further strengthen the centralized and unified leadership of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and fully implement the “CMC Chairman Responsibility System”. The last mentioned call is of recent origin as addition to the traditional principle of party commanding the gun. Standing out is its meaning that the CMC Chairman, i.e Xi, alone will be responsible for making military policies.
More explicit has been an earlier comment (Liberation Army Daily, January 29, 2015) describing party control of the military not as an “abstract principle” but a “fundamental system”, “the core of which is that the highest leadership authority and command authority of the military units belong to the party Central Committee and the CMC led by its Chairman”. Making a mention of the term “CMC Chairman Responsibility System”, it said that the term meant all PLA officers and men should make a pledge to “resolutely follow Chairman Xi’s orders, resolutely execute Chairman Xi’s demands, and resolutely fulfill the tasks laid down by Chairman Xi.” Question arises as to why the “CMC Chairman Responsibility System” terminology has been introduced. A possible explanation could be that it appears a move of Xi Jinping with an eye on consolidating his control over the PLA at the current sensitive time when the military is getting modernized, but with anti-corruption campaign subjecting it to considerable stress.
December 4, 2015: People’s Daily runs no fewer than 11 headlines and one sub headline mentioning President Xi on its front page.
From the data given above, becoming clear is a definite tendency now to boost the image of Xi Jinping. What is the need for Xi who is obviously encouraging it? Firstly, it is of interest to note how the Chinese themselves feel in this regard. A view ( Professor Shen Dingli, “ With Xi’s new power, is collective leadership over?, October 19,2014, http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2014/10/19/with-xis-new-power-is-collective-leadership-over/collective) indeed admits Xi’s “return to a more centralized system”, but observes that it seems to be part of Xi’s efforts to manage effectively the power relations so as to prevent violation of party rules by leaders like former politburo standing committee member, Zhou Yongkang.
One may or may not accept the view of Chinese scholars on Xi’s motives. But one thing is certain- the image building exercise cannot happen without the tacit approval of Xi. By sheer logic, it looks justifiable if Xi blesses that exercise in order to tighten his grip over the regime. Looking from such angle, four motivating factors for Xi can be discerned. The first may relate to Xi’s possible thinking that his strong leadership is required to prevent a regime change in China. He remarked (December 2012) that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union lost its command of the military which led to its collapse, and that “there was not one person who was man enough to turn back the tide”. Useful to note that regime change is also in the minds of other leaders .For the first time, Wang Qishan, a powerful leader in charge of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, has touched upon the need for the CCP to acquire legitimacy through winning trust of the people “in the present complex situation”. Secondly, Xi may be feeling the urge to confront the emerging liberal voices in the country; influential intellectuals like Zhang Lifan and Li Datong are already alleging that a cult is being built around Xi. One should not miss in this connection Xi’s call to the military to stand against ‘political liberalism’, which appears to suggest his concern over reservation within the PLA on the principle of party controlling the army. Thirdly, Xi may have ambitions to establish strong foundations to realize his ideas of the “Chinese dream” and “Double century goals” by middle of the century, while he is in power. Finally, Xi, who is expected to rule till 2023, may eye garnering more support to his leadership ahead of the next party congress scheduled for 2017 when a politburo reshuffle is bound to happen.
To sum up, it can be said that there is indeed a concerted effort in China to boost the image of the already powerful Xi Jinping; but this by itself is not sufficient to conclude that a cult of personality is being built around Xi. In any case, the boosting progresses it has the potential to negatively impact on the existing ‘leadership collective’ system. It will be ideal if Xi realizes the possibilities of such an impact and does not allow any development of a cult around him. The question is will he do that?
*The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Contributing date- December 14, 2015. Email: [email protected]
English Translations of Two Liberation Army Daily articles in Chinese (Reference earlier paragraph. Translation done by the writer).
A signed article in the authoritative army paper of the PRC (written by Wu Ming, Liberation Army Daily, Chinese language edition, November 30, 2015) entitled “Reshaping the Leadership Command Structure in our Army is the Inevitable Choice for Building a Strong Army”, finds the existing military structure “outdated and too centralized which challenged the absolute leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the army”. It alleges that “as the situations and tasks developed , the limitations of the structure became increasingly prominent , which made it difficult to cope up with new demands arising from needs to wage wars under information conditions and to equip our army to effectively perform tasks under a new situation. There is thus a compelling requirement now for new military reforms”. Viewing the current leadership command structure in the headquarters, other formations and the military regions, as “one combining decision making, enforcement and oversight functions into one, thus exposing many drawbacks”, the article observes that “especially the excessive concentration of power in the four general departments at headquarters has in reality led to an independent leadership hierarchy taking over many of the functions of the Central Military Commission (CMC), thus objectively affecting the CMC’s centralized and unified leadership”.
The article adds that “ to strengthen CMC’s centralized and unified leadership as well as the CMC Chairman responsibility system, the centralization of power of top military leadership and command in the party central committee and the CMC, is a must and all armed forces should obey the command of party Central Committee , the CMC and Chairman Xi”. It further discloses that “after reform to leadership command structure is over, the present General Staff system with highest concentration of power would get transformed into a multi-department system under the CMC management with powers divided among the departments”. The article further says that “the military regions will no longer be vested with excessive powers and will be converted as Battle Zone Commands. All formations will look after their own building. These will create a new situation in which the command system can pay separate attention to looking after its duties of building its capacity and doing administrative work. This will be beneficial to strengthen the CMC’s centralized and unified leadership and better implement the CMC Chairman Responsibility system. The military reforms to be implemented are most basically for further concretizing and perfecting the basic principle and structure for the party exercising absolute control over the army”.
The second is a front page commentary entitled “ Resolutely Winning the Battle to Deepen Defence and Military reforms; Studying thoroughly and in depth the Important Comments made by Chairman Xi on deepening defence and military reforms ”, contributed by the General Political Department (GPD) of the People’s Liberation army (PLA) (Liberation Army Daily, Chinese language, December 7,2015). It describes Xi’s sayings on military reforms as an ‘enrichment’ of the ideas on the subject which came from Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and cautions that “military reforms have entered a crucial phase and are in deep waters”. Pointing to existence of “many outstanding contradictions and problems in the military building such as the leadership and management system is not scientific, joint operational command system is not perfect, the power structure is not reasonable, reform policies and systems are lagging behind and so on”, it lays stress on “getting rid of the confusion” prevailing on military reforms. The GPD then declares that the “guiding principle behind army building should be to firmly grasp the right direction of the fundamental reform now under implementation, i.e maintaining the party’s absolute leadership over the army, further strengthening the centralized and unified leadership of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and fully implementing the CMC Chairman responsibility system”. It instructs the military to “always maintain a high degree of consistency with the CCP Central Committee and the CMC Chairman”.
The GPD Commentary exhorts the leadership mechanisms and leaders at high levels directly responsible for reforms to act as models in the job and ensure that they “always keep their mind stable, do not interfere with the reform tide, do not allow drop in standards and remain dedicated to the reform work”. It adds that “while the reforms are in progress, the leaders should strictly abide by the stipulated disciplinary rules and adhere to political discipline, organizational discipline, personnel discipline financial discipline and confidentiality discipline. They should resolutely support the authority and seriousness of the reform measures of the party central committee and the CMC. They should resolutely oppose liberalism in political and organizational acts. They should never make irresponsible remarks, never do reckless talking, never allow self-assertion, never allow double face and never allow compromise. While addressing a number of tendentious issues, the opinions of officers and men on ideological and political work should be given close attention and their interests should not be harmed”. The Commentary in the end calls upon all military officers and men to “closely rally round the party central committee with comrade Xi Jinping as general secretary”.
 Original Chinese language version at http://news.sina.com.cn/o/2015-12-01/doc-ifxmainy1492402.shtml
 The original Chinese language article is at http://news.sina.com.cn/c/nd/2015-12-07/doc-ifxmhqac0079161.shtml