Peak Xi Jinping?

At the start of the Cultural Revolution in May 1966, Lin Biao, the man who had created the Little Red Book of Mao quotations and who was the head of China’s People’s Liberation Army, declared: “Every statement by Chairman Mao is the Truth; one sentence of his is worth more than 10,000 sentences of ours.” He added: “Chairman Mao’s words are the guide for our actions. Whoever opposes him will be obliterated by the whole Party and denounced by the whole nation.” In a rambling speech at the same meeting, Zhou Enlai hailed Mao as the unparalleled leader of world revolution and Mao Zedong Thought as “the apex of Marxism-Leninism.”

Mao claimed that he had reluctantly agreed to the personality cult created by Lin Biao, but until his death in September 1976, his name was sacrosanct, his image sacred, and his words holy writ. For a time, when greeting each other or starting phone conversations, people were required to recite a Mao quote as a benediction. Families were expected to bow to Mao’s portrait first thing in the morning to tell him about their plans for the day; at night they would report back on the day’s revolutionary achievements. In the media, Mao’s words were featured in bold type, and a daily “Highest Directive” from the Chairman was printed in the top-right-hand corner of People’s Daily, where the weather forecast had previously been.

The adulation of Xi Jinping, China’s State President, Party General Secretary, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, has yet to reach similar lofty heights. However, on September 3, the official Beijing media took a brave step in the direction of Mao-era excess. In reporting on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and Xi Jinping’s meetings and talks with various heads of African nations, the front page of the People’s Daily featured Xi’s name no fewer than 45 times. Looking for all the world like an artist’s spoof, a work of Sino-surrealism, the front page may eventually become a collector’s item. Or does it represent China’s new normal? Rong Jian, a well known critic of Party-state absurdities, immediately commented via Twitter: “This is astounding; surely not the work of rational minds. Or is it really their mindset? Maybe there’s a medical explanation for it?”

“The Relevant Organs” Twitter Account

An image of the September 3, 2018 front page of the ‘People’s Daily,’ with mentions of ‘Xi Jinping’ and the Belt and Road Initiative circled.

Following his “selection” as head of China’s ruling party, government, and army in 2012-2013, Xi Jinping moved quickly to establish himself by creating a series of “leading groups,” with a hand-picked membership and himself in the chair. So many of these super bodies were announced in rapid succession that I took to calling Xi China’s “Chairman of Everything.” By the end of his first year in office, Xi had amassed more titles that Mao Zedong and, on paper at least, he was on his way to becoming the most powerful leader in Chinese history.

Autocracy is addictive. 40 years ago, Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues, including Xi’s reformist father, Xi Zhongxun, were aware of the enticements of unchecked power. That’s why they instituted binding limits on future leaders.

But it was not long before the ideologues revived a Mao-era slogan to encapsulate the re-invigorated Party domination of Chinese life that Xi Jinping envisaged. “Everything in China,” it was declared in January 2016 (echoing what Mao had said in December 1973), “is under the direction of the Communist Party: Party, state, army, civilian life, and education, as are all points of the compass, east, south, west, north, and the center.” Xi was not only Chairman of Everything, he was also Chairman of Everywhere and Everyone.

Then, in March 2018, the Party directed the National People’s Congress to vote down a 1982 article in the Chinese Constitution that limited state leaders to two five-year terms in office. Deng Xiaoping had introduced the stipulation as part of a series of measures aimed at frustrating potentially ambitious and power-hungry leaders in the future. Of course, in 2018, the supine state media praised the peerless wisdom of the decision; it was evidence of the country’s stability and the admirable policy continuity of the “New Epoch of Xi Jinping.” Now Xi enjoys the equivalent of “terminal tenure,” and China potentially has a President-for-Life.



The Chairmen, Trump and Mao

Geremie R. Barmé
The January 13, 1967 issue of TIME magazine featured Mao Zedong on its cover with the headline “China in Chaos.” Fifty years later, TIME made U.S. President-elect Donald Trump its Man of The Year. With a groundswell of mass support, both men...

Some months ago, Chris Buckley, the celebrated Beijing correspondent for The New York Times, suggested a new subfield of China Studies and China Watching: Ximiotics. This pursuit already involves the analysis of Xi’s “fashion choices, posture, expression, and girth,” as revealed in reports on his activities in the state media. For my part, I have been studying Homo Xinensis, the New Person of the Xi Jinping Epoch.

Xi Watching promises rich pickings and a rewarding future. From historical precedent, we know that autocrats and patriarchs like Xi Jinping share the same predicament: once they are ensconced in power, and even as they exercise it and hold sway over their dominion, the countdown to their demise has started. In dynastic China, superstitious sycophants tried to ward off the inevitable by hailing the emperor as “Lord of Ten Thousand Years.” In the dying days of the Maoist era, the Chairman’s inevitable demise was spoken of in hushed tones and courtiers employed euphemisms like “after one hundred years,” or “when he goes to meet Marx.” The old materialist himself mocked the refrain that was constantly on the lips of his devotees—“We respectfully wish Chairman Mao longevity for ten thousand years without end!” On August 18, 1966, only a few months after Lin Biao and Zhou Enlai’s hosannas quoted above, Mao responded to Luo Xiaohai, a founder of the original Red Guards, by scoffing: “Even a long life of ten thousand years has its limit!”

The new leader’s unlimited tenure, coupled with absolute titular authority, means that China Watchers, both in- and outside the People’s Republic, will henceforth be on a deathwatch for Xi Jinping, just as their predecessors were for Mao over four decades ago. Every appearance, or absence, every trip or statement, every handshake and costume change will be fodder for analysis. Whom he appears with, and in what order the names are recorded in media reports, or how the images are composed, when, how, and why he moves, acts, speaks, or eats will necessarily spark speculation. In the 24/7 world of social media surveillance, even an unexplained absence from the front page of People’s Daily generates feverish speculation, just as appearing on it 45 times in one day is grist for the mill.

And such is the perilous nature of sycophancy and one-man rule. After all, Chairman Xi did indeed meet with all of those African leaders attending the Forum in Beijing as they lined up for Chinese aid and largesse. Each mind-numbingly dull encounter was duly reported in meticulous detail according to the Byzantine pecking order of China’s global politics of ensnare, succor, and exploit. Reports in the media had to be cast in a carefully honed phraseology that reflects China’s rejigged concept of Tianxia, the China universe in which the world is arranged in a tiered hierarchy relative to Beijing. Which writer or editor would be foolhardy enough to go off script?

An old Chinese adage holds that “keeping the company of a ruler is as perilous as lying with a tiger.” For all of his extravagant praise for Mao, Lin Biao himself learned the perils of sycophancy: he died in mysterious circumstances after having failed in an attempt to foreshorten Mao’s “longevity of ten thousand years.” Henceforth, Xi Jinping will be just as worried about those who are too lavish in their praise as he is about those who have too little to say.