Xi and the art of power maintenance

Asian Affairs’ Special Correspondent examines moves by the Chinese president to consolidate his authority and create a cult of personality modelled on leaders of yesteryear.

 

China’s political landscape appears to be moving back to the future as President Xi Jinping sets about building a personality cult along the lines of the nation’s political giants of the past.

In an unprecedented move running counter to the shift to collective leadership of the last few decades, he has demanded that journalists devote themselves to promoting personal loyalty to the leader and the communist party line.

And for the first time since taking power three years ago, he has carried out very public visits to front line media offices to emphasise the new reality.

Savvy media folk were quick to pick up on the new direction, even if some them took it a little far. One news agency editor penned this ode to his leader:

 

‘We listen to Big Brother’s

earnest words and wishes.

 

You smile and cup your

hands in greeting:

“I wish you all a happy new

year, and the felicitations for the

Year of the Monkey.”

 

General Secretary,

my eyes follow in your wake

And in these eyes,

my verse takes shape.

My mobile grows hot as my fingers write.

But for so long this poem has been brewing.

It gnashes at my guts.

It clinches my veins and nerves.

 

It pitches on the Yellow River and the Yangtze.

It joins the camel bells of the One Belt, One Road,

 

And the mighty wind  of the high-speed rail.’

Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, the official Xinhua News Agency, and the state broadcaster China Central Television took turns hosting the Chinese president one day recently. He urged reporters to do more on-the-ground research and write stories that ‘the public likes to read’.

At a meeting with state media executives and journalists, Mr Xi called for the ‘strict adherence to Marxist journalistic values, the proper guidance of public opinion, and an emphasis on positive publicity’.

‘Journalistic work by the party’s news media should reflect the party’s will and views, protect the authority of the central party leadership, and preserve the party’s unity,’ CCTV quoted the president as saying.

STEP ON THE LADDER: Membership of the CYL has always been a fast-track to the upper echelons of the party
STEP ON THE LADDER: Membership of the CYL has always been a fast-track to the upper echelons
of the party

His message echoed that delivered by his predecessor in 2008, the last time a Chinese president visited state news outlets. Then-President Hu Jintao delivered a major speech on media policy during a tour of the People’s Daily, urging more efforts to shape public opinion. But Mr Xi has been much more assertive in getting what he wants than his predecessor.

Mr Xi’s visits to state media, his first since taking power three years ago, come amid widening efforts by the Communist Party to curb internal dissent and stifle public criticism.

It’s a very sensitive time economically even without the downturn, as the country must now face up to profound reform while confronting a whole array of social issues that make media and information control more of a priority.

The government’s grip has grown tighter in recent months. In October, the party introduced a new rule against ‘improper discussion’ of national policies, and just weeks later dismissed the chief editor at a state-run newspaper for publicly contradicting government policy.

Such moves appeared to exasperate even the top editor of the party-run Global Times tabloid, who called on Chinese authorities to show greater tolerance for dissenting opinions.

 

The publicised elements of Mr Xi’s tour featured routine remarks on media responsibilities. At Xinhua’s premises, Mr Xi said ‘reporters must delve deep in their investigation and research, and get a grasp of the situation first hand’, according to the agency.

 

The president also clicked ‘like’ on a Xinhua mobile app that allows users to show appreciation for Chinese journalists, the agency said. A Xinhua staffer later told Mr Xi, ‘Your encouragement is our driving force.’

At the People’s Daily, Mr Xi conducted a live video chat with villagers in southern China who received aid from a poverty-alleviation programme. He also dabbled with social-media tools, offering festive greetings via an Internet voice call that was released through the People’s Daily’s social media accounts.

‘Greetings everyone!’ Mr Xi boomed in the message. ‘As the traditional Chinese national holiday of yuanxiao approaches, I wish everyone good health, success at work, and happiness for your families,’ he said, referring to the festival that falls on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year. Mr Xi’s call concluded with an option to dial him back.

CCTV, for its part, invited the president to try his hand at newsreading. Flanked by top party propagandist Liu Yunshan, officials and news anchors, Mr Xi took the hotseat on the studio set used by the broadcaster’s flagship evening news bulletin, Xinwen Lianbo.

But there are more profound moves afoot to fundamentally alter Mr Xi’s position in the party and the balance of power within the national polity. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre there has been a consensus that party factions do not attack each other in public.

But starting with his anti-corruption drive, which he used to intimidate and attack rivals, he has used media articles written anonymously and planted in the provinces to attack members of the Communist Youth League (CYL), whose members include prime minister Li Keqiang and former prime minister Hu Jintao. Membership of the CYL has always been a fast-track to the upper echelons of the party and bureaucracy but it appears that Mr Xi may be trying to change that as he heads off any potential rivals for the leadership.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection—the party watchdog unleashed by Mr Xi against rivals accused of corruption—has criticised the ‘mentality’ of CYL members and warned against those who form their own circles within the party while singling out the ‘petroleum gang’ around the purged security chief Zhou Yongkang and the ‘secretary gang’ around Ling Jihua, a close aide to Hu and former CYL stalwart. Ling is already under arrest on bribery and corruption charges.

Describing people as members of gangs is a classic communist tactic of party infighting as a prelude to destroying them.

Mr Xi looks well on the way to creating his own Mao-like cult of personality.

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