Xi Jinping: A Cult of Personality?

A ChinaFile Conversation

By some accounts, Chinese Presdient Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader the country has  had 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? —The Editors


In early 2013, at the beginning of Xi Jinping’s administration he paid a surprise visit to a well-known pork bun restaurant in Beijing, stood in line like a regular customer, and plonked down 21 yuan himself, before sitting down to lunch and posing for photos with his fellow diners afterwards. With the resulting wellspring of local and international media coverage thus began Xi’s campaign for the hearts and minds of his people. A songwriter called Wu Songjin was inspired to capture the lunchtime interlude in Peking Opera style lyrics, lyrics soon after adapted and performed by Wang Shucai, the most famous practitioner of a traditional song style called Qin Shu. Wang’s version of the song, a heartfelt popular tale, went viral and is notable for expressing surprise that a Chinese leader of the modern era would mingle with the common people:

I went into the Pork Bun Restaurant for lunch | Someone stood behind me in line. | He’s tall, he’s strong, he’s dignified, his face is glowing, | Wait, why is he so familiar?

The pork bun song was indeed of The People, for The People, and the Xi administration noticed its reach. So did others. Later that year, in November, Internet chatter about Xi’s popular media exposure took a turn when a quartet of twentysomehing men from poor backgrounds in Henan province capitalized on their President’s popularity and fold his role as husband to his wife, the well-known folk singer Peng Liyuan, into a song that goes even more viral than their previous collective effort, the catchy nonsense song Nongshale. In their new song Papa Xi Loves Mama Peng, the four extoll China’s President and First Lady as a powerful example to the nation.

This kind of love is like a fairytale | Mama Peng loves Papa Xi | A world with love is most powerful | Men should learn from Papa Xi | Women should learn from Mama Peng | To love as they do Warm love can warm thousands of homes

This song also goes viral, thrusting its authors into the national spotlight as role models of good songwriting, songwriting with a message—a very specific message. Namely, that Papa Xi, like Mao before him, is to be emulated in all facets of life, including marriage. The song also makes immediate and direct reference to The East is Red, a Cultural Revolution era anthem that begins “China has produced a Mao Zedong.” The new song starts with the line “China has produced a Xi Jinping” and is covered by multiple singers online, each drawing massive online traffic and, potentially, a share of the accompanying advertising.

Fast forward to January 2016, a week ahead of the Lunar New Year. Hunan Satellite Television broadcasts a song and dance re-enactment of a storied 2013 visit by Xi Jinping to Shibadong Village in Hunan. There, local Chinese media reported, a 64-year-old local Miao minority woman told the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, ”I don’t know what to call you?” Speculation swirled. Did she not recognize Xi at all? (The village might not have a television, after all). Or, was she simply unfamiliar with protocol and proper terms of address? Xi, answering her question, reports told us, replied using a term that harks back to the Mao era, telling the peasant woman simply, “I am the steward of The People.”

The extravagantly produced, choreographed and costumed Hunan TV segment also features video of Xi entering humble village homes and sitting with the Miao, signalling his desire to mingle with the poor and listen to their concerns. The song tells us that the peasant woman and The People are singing to Xi with gusto:

We are in your hearts | You are in our hearts | You love us The People | We The People deeply love you | We don’t know what to call you | You take our hands in yours | We don’t know what to call you | You take our concerns to heart

Weeks later, a review of the song on the website of the state-run People’s Daily newspaper, revealed that the lyrics were commissioned by a high-ranking Hunan provincial propaganda official called Zhang Wenxiong, who, knowing the dire straits-conditions of Shibadong, was inspired to praise the changes there that he claimed were set in motion by Chairman Xi’s visit.

What’s lost in the mix is that this last song was written top-down, not bottom up like the pork bun song, and it was not—like the song by four enterprising youth—written to make advertising money flow or capture what it feels like to be a young man in search of a role model, but instead was written by a mid-level Party leader passing praise upward to Beijing, cynically trying to appeal to the heart of The People even as his focus is sycophantic praise of the leader on high. It is this latter song, and the trend toward official use of the media to praise Xi, that smacks of the building of cult of personality.

There are many conceivable hypotheses on Xi’s attempts to build a “personality cult.” I list here a couple that strike me as relatively plausible. The “truth”—if we can call it that—is likely a combination of (some of) these:

  1. Major Hypothesis One: Xi pursues this strategy because he (or his team of advisers) believes it will yield significant dividends—probably in the form of broader and deeper support among the general population. But why does he believe this? In other words, what does this strategy tell us about his understanding of China’s sociopolitical circumstances? There are at least three “sub-hypotheses”:

    a) He doesn’t really know whether the population will be receptive or not, but nonetheless believes that these tactics amount to a “show of force” that will help deter dissenting voices and buoy supporters. Essentially, he is trying to show—through these and other measures—that he is firmly in charge. Given the political tensions created by the anti-corruption campaign and the economic slowdown, such a show of force could, in fact, be very timely.

    b) He believes that such tactics might generate genuine goodwill among certain segments of the adult population. As I argue in a recent essay, there is reason to believe that China’s educated population is becoming increasingly ideologically polarized, and that a leftist intellectual movement is gaining force. Many leftists, particularly those that hold onto a highly positive image of Mao, might actually find the “personality cult” strategy—and its resonance with the Party’s pre-1978 past—rather endearing. If the population has an appetite for ideological tactics (and the pursuit of a personality cult, in the Chinese political context, counts as one) then perhaps it is only wise and prudent to cater to it. Especially if there are deeper divisions among the political elite that are difficult to observe from the outside, pursuing a populist, personality cult-based strategy could pay off handsomely in the medium to long run. Mao himself is a success story of this kind.

    c) Relatedly: He believes that the songs could actually catch the ear of younger generations and, over time, could help indoctrinate them with pro-Party ideas. For probably similar reasons, many, if not most, Chinese elementary schools continue to teach children revolutionary songs such as Dongfang Hong (The East is Red), which, as anyone who lived through the 1960s and 1970s can attest, were some of the most potent instruments of Mao’s personality cult. The target audience really is children, not adults.

  2. Major Hypothesis Two: Xi pursues this strategy not merely because it might be politically beneficial, but also because it appeals to his personal ideological leanings. This runs afoul of, to borrow a phrase from the political scientist Pei Minxin, the common belief in “the competent Chinese autocrat,” which assumes that Chinese leaders are both materialistically pragmatic and competent—but what if that assumption is, as Pei argues, more myth than fact? Pei’s criticism primarily targets the “competency” leg of the assumption, but can we go deeper and probe the “materialistic pragmatism” leg as well? This is not to question that Chinese leaders are deeply pragmatic people, but merely to suggest that even the most pragmatic of politicians can—or perhaps should—have ideological leanings. A purely materialistic and Machiavellian worldview is not necessarily a political asset (not even, I should add, in the age of Donald Trump): a dose of genuine ideological commitment can be enormously beneficial for the projection of charisma, for example. Why dismiss the possibility that there is a genuinely ideological side to Xi, or to other Party leaders, and a personality cult-based strategy truly appeals to their political aesthetics?

The budding “cult of personality” surrounding Xi Jinping marks a further breakdown of the post-1978 political norms governing reform-era China.

Other violations of long-standing norms since Xi’s rise to power include 1) the recentralization of power in hands of a single leader, 2) a breakdown in tacit élite rules  guaranteeing top-tier Party officials (such as Zhou Yongkang) immunity from prosecution, 3) a massive anti-corruption campaign that has induced a level of uncertainty and fear in the Chinese bureaucracy not seen for decades.

Based on such trends, it is not inconceivable that age- and term-based leadership succession norms will be the next domino to fall, with Xi Jinping or his anti-graft czar Wang Qishan staying on beyond their expected retirement dates.

What all this reflects is how unstable things are becoming in China.  As I have argued in a separate essay, the failure of China’s leaders to deepen political institutionalization during the reform era is now leading China’s political system to cannibalize itself.  At different points over the past three decades, China’s leaders had the opportunity to build alternative mechanisms to govern China—deepening legal reform or expanding political experiments with village elections, for example. But at each juncture, Chinese authorities strangled their own governance reforms in their infancy – precisely out of fear that such reforms were challenging Beijing’s bottom line with regard to maintaining one-Party rule.

Now, in the absence of other mechanisms, Xi is being thrown back on yet older tools in order to combat his internal rivals and push China’s bureaucracy to move in the direction he wants.  This includes 1) a swing back towards a more intensively ideological basis for Party rule (which Taisu alludes to), 2) jettisoning the Communist Party’s heritage as a secular modernizing force arising out of the May 4th movement in favor of embracing Confucianism and China’s imperial heritage as the basis for continued Party rule, and 3) cultivating a populist cult of personality around himself.

This is bad.  But it could get much, much worse. Much of what China is experiencing right now is at least still genetically related to the repressive political crackdowns that Chinese leaders have periodically mounted since 1978.  Vastly enhanced, to be sure, but still recognizable.  In particular, is still directed from the top.  So far, Xi has not sought to rely on 1950s and 1960s-style Maoist bottom-up mass movements – calling on his supporters to attack and savage his opponents.  But as Jonathan notes, at least some at the grassroots levels of Chinese society have already started to seek to use this burgeoning cult of personality for their own goals—whether to make a quick buck, ingratiate themselves with their superiors, or call disfavor on their rivals.

Fuse all of that together with a slowing economy, a one-Party political system lacking in effective checks on power, and a range of of social and economic grievances brewing in society at large, and you have a recipe for the reawakening of a strain of populist nationalism from China’s Maoist past, one which would put Donald Trump and the paroxysms currently engulfing the Republican Party to shame.

Unlike the disgraced former Chongqing party chief and his one-time political rival Bo Xilai, who peddled Maoist ideology and red classics for popular appeal, Xi Jinping does seem to be a genuine believer in the doctrines he preaches.

Having grown up under the sway of Maoist doctrine, Xi, Bo, and many of their contemporaries have inherited the legacy of left-leaning thinking, which manifests itself differently among various individuals as their lives intersect with different post-Mao periods. While the flamboyant Bo lived large during an era of extravagance when male virility was measured by purchasing power and concubinage, the steely Xi is living lean during an era of austerity driven by an anti-corruption campaign that calls for a spiritual cleansing as a countermeasure to a hedonistic lifestyle seen as influenced by the decadent Western culture. A return to the disciplined frugality of the Mao era seems to be a natural path for Xi, who came of age during the militant 1960s.

The same applies to his wife Peng Liyuan, a People’s Liberation Army-nurtured soprano renowned for her vocal prowess in delivering soaring Chinese revolutionary folk songs and nationalistic ballads. Unlike many of her contemporaries who turned to performing pop songs, Peng was uncompromising in her choice of music that adhered to revolutionary folkloric traditions. It is worth noting that another well-known soprano, Dong Wenhua, a contemporary and one-time competitor of Peng, turned to pop tunes in her singing as she sought monetary rewards. Dong was later embroiled in a scandal involving sex and money, which greatly tarnished her reputation. Peng on the other hand, stayed committed to Chinese folk songs and an occasional highbrow opera tune and later married Xi.

In comparison to Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, who was condemned as a femme fatale responsible for the downfall of her husband’s political dynasty, Peng’s seemingly impeccable political and moral standing and her celebrity status makes her a prized first lady. Together, Peng and Xi make a compelling first couple with a modern sensibility that helps to soften and humanize China’s global image. The last time China produced a charming couple was in the 1930-40s when Chiang Kai-shek, in well-tailored army uniforms and Chinese tunic suits, and Soong Meiling, with snuggly fitted Cheongsams and fluent English, wooed Americans.

The Papa Xi Loves Mama Peng music video accentuates the loving relationship between Xi and Peng rarely seen among the Chinese political couples. In fact, a montage of shots of Xi holding Peng’s hand and Xi’s glancing dotingly at Peng promotes a gentlemanly demeanor rarely seen among macho Chinese men! Though the song owes its origin to the grassroots, the carefully choreographed images of Xi and Peng together as a couple owe much to a Shanghai based PR firm that conducted opinion polls about what people desired to see in their leaders. I was told by a communication scholar in China that one suggestion coming out of the research is to have Xi hold Peng’s hand as he steps out of the airplane during their international visits and to encourage Xi slow down and wait for Peng as he strides to greet people. A careful review of early footage of Xi and Peng reveals Xi often steps out of airplanes and strides off alone, paying scant attention to Peng as she—in high heels—tries to catch up. Recent footage of the couple together captures a more attentive Xi, reaching out to Peng or casting an adoring “male gaze” her way. Multiple shots of Xi’s westernized gaze—a certain type of Chinese man learned how to treat women by watching Hollywood films—casts Peng as the object of desire: refreshing to Westerners, if not secretly thrilling to Chinese women. The image of China’s amorous first couple further sets a benchmark for the country’s cultural cleansing campaign extolling devotion and harmony in marriage. I will not be surprised if pre-marital co-habitation and adultery are soon outlawed in China. Both were punishable during Mao’s China, though Mao himself amply indulged in sexual relationships with multiple women. A recent state decree in China bans depiction of homosexuality, pre-and extra-marital affairs in Chinese TV dramas. I’m not sure if House of Cards will pass muster this time around.

The heart of the matter is that as Chinese economic reforms deepen, the CCP leadership cannot but intensify an unlimited, nationwide cult of the party leader. Otherwise, it risks losing power since communist parties cannot exist without the cult of personality. Ultimately, the middle class, which is developing rapidly as a result of market reforms, will inevitably come out in support of democracy. In other words, sooner or later, reforms in the economic sphere will undermine the foundations of the communist dictatorship. And only the Stalinist/Maoist model of an authoritarian regime, which has been preserved in the PRC up to the present, can preclude such a development. This is why Chinese leaders strive so assiduously to strengthen the authority of both the late Chairman Mao and the new leader Xi Jinping. In this connection, all manifestation of free-thinking are suppressed, and the mass media, even including the Internet, are strictly regulated. As it was under Mao, the inhabitants of the PRC, unlike their compatriots on Taiwan, still have no civil freedom. The communist dictatorship established by Chairman Mao in Mainland China continues to restrict the daily life of Chinese citizens.

One should also take into account the ongoing intraparty struggle between Xi’s and Jiang Zemin’s factions. Xi needs to strengthen the cult of personality around him to isolate Jiang’s faction. Mao did the same. In the early period of the Cultural Revolution Mao asserted that “there was need for more personality cult” in order to stimulate the masses to dismantle all his opponents.

One of China’s most influential modern writers, Lu Xun, had a lot to say about the role of ideology in Chinese society and politics. More precisely, he often had a lot to say about the lack of ideology.

In one essay, after allowing for occasional acts of self-sacrifice and idealism by Buddhist monks or other such rare, exceptional personalities, he nonetheless emphasized that “history’s accounting can’t be as exact as that of mathematics, keeping track of things to many decimal places; it can only follow vulgar people in rounding to the nearest whole number … [And] if you look at the integer of Chinese history, there’s never been any ideology in it.”

So if there hadn’t been any ideology, what had there been? In his view, just two things: “fire and the sword.” As he would go on to suggest, these would go on dazzling, intimidating, wounding, and blinding ordinary Chinese people for as long as they failed to truly commit to collective action in political movements, guided by a shared philosophical basis, and welded together by some ideological glue.

It is not far from Lu Xun’s praise for the idealistic element in political life to Xi Jinping’s statement at his landmark 2014 speech on the arts that “core values are the spiritual tie that binds together and maintains a nation, as well as a country’s common intellectual and moral foundation.” Nor are such echoes accidental. Lu Xun was mentioned and endorsed more often in this official Party statement on culture than any other cultural figure—even Mao Zedong (who was, after all, a prolific poet).

Going back to the Cultural Revolution, too, it is important to remember that even during the height of Mao mania, there in fact was another figure who was treated with near-equal reverence: Lu Xun. As one typical poster put it, the idea at the time was to “Study Lu Xun’s revolutionary spirit, [and] be revolutionary pioneers in criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius!” The difference, of course, was that Mao was a living figure who could maneuver for power within the Party and articulate his own vision for it, while Lu Xun was not. Nonetheless, the latter could still inspire political action and engagement. So too could “model Communist” figures like Jiao Yulu and Lei Feng. It is easy for us to interpret these propaganda figures in an authoritarian register, of course, but they also stand for the normative position that some amount of self-sacrifice and political idealism is needed in order to bind people together into a common cause. This, in turn, remains an attractive idea for many distressed by the corruption and hyper-capitalism of the Reform Era.

It is beyond doubt that Xi’s effective omnipresence marks the return of a “personality principle” to Chinese politics, as well as a renewed focus on ideology. But, as is perhaps suggested by a recent Party media report on the occasions when he has been moved to tears, Xi is not necessarily depicted as a superhuman visionary. Rather, he is portrayed as a tireless, self-sacrificing servant of the people and of their revolutionary project. There’s every sign that many in the Party and society have in fact broadly welcomed this new vehicle to promote “spiritual ties” and ideological glue, at least so far. As for Xi himself, who’s to say that he isn’t primarily interested in making his addition to the “integer of Chinese history”? For him, as for Lu Xun, ideology may even be necessary for China’s stability and success—and his self-understood role may be to spread this wisdom far and wide.

Happy “Study Lei Feng Day”, by the way.

Recently, there are indeed songs extolling Xi Jinping being created. It started with grassroots songwriters, and now government officials have also participated. The disseminating channel has also gone from the Internet to government-controlled media, for example, provincial TV stations.

Xi has sought to concentrate power around himself through establishing a series of “working groups.” He has also sought to establish his authority through prohibiting Communist cadres from “improperly discussing party policies,” or “wangyi zhongyang.” Local officials have one after another quietly espoused Xi as the “core” leader. The emergence of these songs corresponds to Xi’s intention to concentrate power in his own hands. From China Central Television’s Lunar New Year Gala becoming the exponent of Xi’s policies and achievements and from Xi’s sister-in-law Peng Lijuan being the producer of the Gala, we can see that Xi at least acquiesced or allowed these songs to be propagated.

Xi tries to establish his personal authority, but it doesn’t necessarily mean his “cult of personality” strategy will succeed. From my observation, even within those WeChat groups that have a high concentration of conservatives, these songs have not been circulated widely. My own mini-survey of a 500-person leftist WeChat group shows that none of them can sing any of the songs.

I think ordinary Chinese people, writers, artists and Communist cadres may try to show this “cult of personality” phenomenon through creating such songs, but I don’t think anyone would sincerely worship Xi. Apart from Xi, I don’t think anyone would believe this “cult of personality” to be real. Because of the slowdown of China’s economic growth, ordinary people don’t feel they are benefiting from Xi’s policies. Therefore, they likely won’t be feeling the sense of warmth and happiness expressed in the government propaganda. The overwhelmingly negative reception of this year’s CCTV Lunar New Year Gala is a good example.

It is evident from his first three years in office that Xi Jinping’s top priority is to legitimize his authority and rejuvenate the Party. Therefore, any resources he can marshal to that effect—be it revival of nationalist fervor, the espousal of “red” rhetoric, or songs in praise of his personal and professional conduct—can only further this objective. It is an open question what the precise role his cult of personality will play in the larger agenda but its successful cultivation surely figures as a political gain.

For years, the Chinese public have been inured to the excesses and incompetence of officialdom. The image of politicians living large on the people’s dime, lawlessly luxuriating in ways that directly contradict what the Party preaches, has assumed the cast of dark comedy. In China, both the young and old sometimes will sing me catchy little ditties about the profligacies of guanyuan—officials—and resign themselves to the unbridgeable chasm dividing these guanyuan from ordinary citizens. What’s more, the stiffness of technocrats such as Hu, his stilted manners and near total absence of charisma, has only contributed to the perception of Chinese leaders as necessarily devoid of warmth and vitality.

In contrast, the comparative charm of Xi and Peng, and the liveliness of their demeanor, suggest a greater awareness of self-presentation and perhaps, shrewder public relations. To echo Professor Ying Zhu above, I also think it’s highly possible that due to upbringing and personal taste, Xi may indeed believe and practice the doctrines he propounds, that more than mere theater, he truly hopes to reform the behavior and depravity of the Party.

Whatever factors that make up Xi’s PR campaign, they are less worrying than his growing intolerance for any opinion that diverges from the official line. Recently, during a highly televised visit to the three main Communist Party and state news organizations, Xi affirmed that “the party- and government-run media are a propaganda front and must be surnamed ‘party.’ ” When a real estate tycoon and influential media blogger criticized the increasing controls the government wielded over news media, his weibo account was shut down immediately. The expediency of the government’s censorship has cast a chill over the ongoing National People’s Congress.

Such tightening of the ideological sphere poses the greatest danger to the prospect of a healthy civic society. No matter how readily Xi is willing to exhibit his personal virtues and how genuine they are, the repression of free speech does unequivocal harm to the nation he is trying to better.

Speaking of songs gone viral on the Internet: please search, on YouTube last week, Barack Obama’s performance at the celebration for Ray Charles at the White House. It’s only the latest example: whenever this U.S. President enjoys an evening with pop stars—some sing-along, a little dance—social media go crazy all over the world. Obama with Steve Wonder at the White House. Obama with Bob Dylan. You name it. These are true hits: viral, global. Same thing whenever the Obamas go to a Broadway show (lately, it was “Hamilton”): scalpers see their revenue boosted afterwards. Also, as a role model for marriage, family values, the importance of a fatherly role in the education of children (see the South China Morning Post story “If you want to marry, marry someone like Xi Dada”), Barack Obama has been admired/promoted consistently as the perfect antidote to the collapse of African-American families. The cult of personality was probably invented by the Pharaohs, but in a modern society and in the era of mass media it flourished with unsurpassed subtlety in the U.S.

I don’t want to downplay the discussion on the peculiar cult of Xi Jinping. Obviously the cult of personality in any authoritarian regime can lead to terrible consequences—see Hitler and Mussolini, Mao and Stalin. But the outcome is scary because of the regime, not because of the marketing in itself. On political leaders’ personality marketing no one does better than the U.S. Any modern cult of politicians was invented here: see “Citizen Kane,” the movie directed by and starring Orson Welles (1941). The Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Reagans: who could possibly do better? And yet. The latest creature being The Donald, it might surpass anything we have seen before.

On the technique, China is just catching up, belatedly. I was still living in Beijing when Obama won the 2008 election. I distinctly remember the admiration among my Chinese friends: the new First Couple were so “cool”! They really craved for something like that, instead of the uninspiring Hu Jintao. By the way, political power couples were also “patented” in America with Franklin and Eleanor, John and Jackie, Ronald and Nancy, Bill and Hillary.

Now the Chinese are getting their own version, at last. Also, let’s read again, carefully, what Jonathan Landreth has written about Xi’s “entering humble village homes and sitting with [the local people] signaling his desire to mingle with the poor and listen to their concerns.” Ever seen that? I’m covering the U.S. primaries these days, and it sounds familiar to me.

Again, don’t get me wrong: there are “yuuuge” differences between the cult of personality in China and the U.S. These differences are mainly related to the accountability of elected officials, the rule of law, open competition among candidates, and a free press. But when leaders are being selected for office, or when they use the bully pulpit of the presidency, or when they promote their families as role models on social media, the masters of this beauty and popularity contest are the Americans, by far. The Chinese have been watching and studying the superior model they want to replicate. They are generally good at that.