“A Man Who Makes Things Happen”, “Communist Party Core Forged During ‘Great Struggle’”, “Servant of the Public”, “Strategist Behind China’s Reform”, “Top Commander Reshaping the Military”, “A World Leader”, and “Architect of Modernisation For New Era”. Those are just a few of the superlatives China’s massive propaganda apparatus has used to extol the virtues of President Xi Jinping since the 19th congress in October, when he secured a stronger mandate for his second five-year term as party chief and chairman of the armed forces. Not bad for someone dismissed by some self-professed China analysts as a weak and ineffective leader a little more than five years ago when he first came to power.
After nearly 3,000 deputies to the National People’s Congress unanimously re-elected Xi as president for his second term and approved the constitutional amendment to enable him to rule as long as he likes, a People’s Daily front page editorial last week came up with two new superlatives that have since been cropping up seemingly everywhere.
The newspaper described Xi as “the helmsman of the nation” and the “guide of the people”.
Indeed, the two superlatives came in handy for Xi’s passionate speech at the NPC’s closing ceremony on Tuesday, when he promised to steer the “China Mega-ship” carrying the dreams of more than 1.3 billion people victoriously into a future full of hope.
The newspaper editorial appears to be the first time that Xi has been described as “the helmsman” in such a public fashion.
The term carries a special significance in China’s political lexicography. Previously, it has been used only to refer to Mao Zedong, who was reverently addressed as the “Great Teacher, Great Leader, Great Supreme Commander, and Great Helmsman” during the heydays of the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) when the personality cult surrounding Mao was at its peak.
The four designations went on to symbolise the excesses and mayhem of the Cultural Revolution, which was responsible for the death of millions of people and nearly collapsed the Chinese economy.
Perhaps mindful of the historical comparison, People’s Daily used the Chinese word Zhangduozhe for Xi instead of the word Duoshou for Mao but in its English version, Xinhua seemed unable to find any variation other than “the helmsman”.
Immediately following Xi’s speech, Li Zhanshu, the newly minted NPC chairman, wasted no time in using his speech to heap praise on Xi.
“Comrade Xi is the core of the party, commander of the army, and leader of the people, who is supported by the whole party, loved, and respected by the people,” Xinhua quoted him as saying. “He is the helmsman of the socialist nation with Chinese characteristics in a new era and the guide of the people.”
Li, Xi’s former chief of staff, owes Xi his rise to the party’s seven member Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s highest governing council.
Other senior officials who have owed their elevations to Xi – like the Beijing party secretary Cai Qi and Tianjin party secretary Li Hongzhong – are also known for generously praising Xi.
But the speech by Li, the party’s third highest ranking official, made an interesting comparison to the one given by Wang Yang, the fourth highest ranking official and the newly minted chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at its closing ceremony on March 15.
Wang, who rose up through the Communist Youth League, the power base of former president Hu Jintao, mentioned Xi’s name at least eight times but in a noticeably dispassionate manner, mostly praising the capabilities of, and urging support for, the party leadership with Xi as the core.
Given China’s opaque politics, it is hard to make any assumption here based only upon two speeches, but it was an interesting contrast nonetheless.
Back in October, immediately after a South China Morning Post scoop which correctly predicted the seven leaders to be named in the top leadership line up, I tried to explain in this space the rationale behind the composition of the new line up.
I argued it reflected Xi’s careful consideration of representatives from other political factions, in particular Li Keqiang and Wang from the youth league and Han Zheng, former party secretary of Shanghai, the power base of former president Jiang Zemin.
Soon afterwards, I received an email from a reader, “rebuking” me on my “faulty” analysis, saying that there were no longer any factions within the party other than Xi’s.
Xi is certainly trying to ensure that is the case. The latest proof came on Wednesday when Xinhua reported each of the 24 politburo members, including the Politburo Standing Committee members, had submitted their work reports to Xi for the first time as part of efforts to safeguard and enhance the centralised and unified leadership.
According to Xinhua, Xi gave both overall demands and personalised comments on each report.
The reports covered seven areas, the foremost of which required each member to explain how they carried out their allegiance to Xi as the core of the party leadership and the core of the whole party. Members were also asked how they studied Xi’s political theory, ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, which is enshrined in the party and state constitutions and also how they had taken the lead in reporting to Xi important issues, problems and progresses in their work.
This makes a sharp contrast to the era of Hu Jintao when the then nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee minded their own turfs – a style of leadership known as the “Nine Dragons ruling the waters”.
The era was marked by weak policymaking and serious political infighting.
The lack of a strong and centralised leadership partly explained why Bo Xilai, then a politburo member and party secretary of Chongqing, was able to manage the municipality like his own fiefdom. In 2013, Bo was jailed for life on corruption charges but in recent years, official media have often suggested he was part of a clique involved in a plot against the party leadership in Beijing.
Looking at all sides, Xi’s rise in merely five years to become the most powerful leader since Mao is truly extraordinary. The recent NPC congress, which repealed the term limits on the presidency and cleared the way for Xi to rule indefinitely, should mark another pinnacle of power for him.
At a time when concerns over the building of a personality cult around Xi are rising at home and abroad, it is time for the country’s propaganda apparatus to dial down the rhetoric.
According to subsection six, article 10, chapter II of the party’s constitution, the party “proscribes all forms of personality cult” although it provides for efforts to “uphold the standing of all leaders who represent the interests of the party and the people”.
By any account, Xi’s standing is at an all-time high – and he already has enough honorifics to go by. ■
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper