BEIJING — His smiling visage beams from decorative plates and plastic trinkets sold in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. State television coverage is wallpapered with his signature slogans, and his every pronouncement and meeting with foreign dignitaries leads the nightly news broadcast.
Not one, but two books collect Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speeches and favorite classical Chinese allusions—highly unusual in that they have been published so early in his tenure instead of after his retirement.
Barely two years into office, Xi has attracted an extraordinary degree of attention to his public persona that veers perilously close to a full-blown personality cult. Such a phenomenon has not been seen since the days of Mao Zedong, with successors wary of the turmoil his leadership unleashed and generally favoring a dry, rule-by-consensus approach.
While the attention on Xi reflects his popularity with the public, it’s also a sign of how thoroughly he’s consolidated power by sidelining or reducing the influence of rivals in the ruling Communist Party. Like Chairman Mao, Xi even has a popular personal sobriquet: “Xi Dada,” roughly translated as “Daddy Xi.”
The son of a party elder, Xi has always had a sense of destiny about himself, say observers and those who knew him as a younger man, believing that he and others in the “second red generation” are the rightful inheritors of the communist state.
The portly, round-faced Xi isn’t about to replace the portrait of Mao hanging from Tiananmen Gate in the heart of Beijing. But he’s becoming more and more of a ubiquitous presence in Chinese life, and a nearly unstoppable force behind the scenes.
“It’s as if Xi is saying, ‘It’s my party and I’ll have it the way I want to,’” said June Teufel Dreyer, a China politics expert at the University of Miami.
Xi is front-and-center again as the national legislature holds its annual session in Beijing, seated in the heart of the vast Great Hall of the People and meeting with delegates from across the sprawling nation. The National People’s Congress session, which opened Thursday, includes a report summarizing the accomplishments of the past year and laying out the agenda for the next 12 months.
Formally, Xi’s power is derived from his three main titles as Communist Party secretary-general, president of the People’s Republic of China and chairman of the Central Military Commission that controls the 2.3 million-member armed forces, the world’s largest standing military.
Yet, he has significantly augmented his authority by heading up a long list of leadership panels on key issues from the economy to Internet policy, leaving Premier Li Keqiang, supposedly his partner in governance, a much diminished figure. Xi even established a new national security council with himself as chairman, a feat attempted but ultimately abandoned by his predecessors.
“We certainly see an attempt to cultivate a personality cult, and this is only natural because he wants to concentrate power in his hands, to have the momentum and the political force in order to promote his program,” said Joseph Cheng, chair of the political science department at the City University of Hong Kong.
An imposing personal presence may be a prerequisite for shoving through Xi’s ambitious agenda. With planning and patience, Xi has prosecuted a sweeping anti-corruption crackdown that has ensnared top generals and party officials. He’s injected China into world events where former leaders feared to tread, struck a bold climate agreement with the U.S. and launched a sweeping vision for a “New Silk Road” linking China to markets in western Asia.
That authority seems to have given him and his close supporters the confidence to spread his personal maxims, pronouncements and policies as far as they can go.
“I think it is all kind of somewhat more reflective of the leadership style under Mao Zedong or [successor] Deng Xiaoping, as compared to anything we’ve seen more recently,” former U.S. ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman said at a recent Council on Foreign Relations forum in Washington.
Efforts to boost Xi’s image were underscored at last month’s nationally televised Lunar New Year gala, with his political themes, particularly his concept of the “Chinese Dream,” saturating the cavalcade of skits, songs and filmed segments. In one highlight, performers crooned a syrupy musical tribute titled “I Give You My Heart” in front of film clips of Xi handing out blankets, chatting with farmers and otherwise humbly serving the Chinese people.
Xi’s pet slogan also made it into the final applause line of Premier Li Keqiang’s annual address to the national legislature on Thursday, in which he told delegates that achieving the year’s goals would help realize “the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
State broadcaster CCTV’s nightly coverage of Xi’s events include meetings with visiting dignitaries no matter how obscure. His visits to other cities and rural areas, meanwhile, are packaged in a manner reminiscent of European propaganda of the 1930s.
Xi’s hosting of President Barack Obama and other world leaders at last year’s meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing was a particular showcase of his glitzy, personality-driven diplomacy. On the evening before the summit, CCTV ran hours of coverage of Xi greeting visiting heads of state at an elaborate banquet, joined by glamorous wife Peng Liyuan, a former diva with a military song and dance troupe, who often accompanies him on high-profile visits abroad.
A major military parade planned for the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II on Aug. 15 offers a further opportunity to place Xi front and center.
Predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao also presided at military parades, but only in the twilight of their terms in office, points out Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong’s Chinese University. By associating himself so early with such powerful images, Xi is showing that he sees himself as China’s third major leader after Mao and Deng, Lam said.
“The cult of personality around Xi is being built at full throttle, and Xi himself is responsible for this,” Lam said. “It’s getting to ridiculous levels.”
At the same time, Xi has sought to burnish his credential as a man of the people, appearing unannounced at a Beijing dumpling stall, kicking around a football and carrying his own umbrella. Such poses shouldn’t be confused with candor or accessibility, however: Xi almost never speaks to journalists and his personal life remains largely off-limits to the media.
And unlike Mao, Xi shows no sign of directly appealing to the public to join him in any political campaigns—as with the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution era in which Mao appealed to the masses to help him purge China’s establishment of reactionaries. On the contrary, Xi’s administration has made it clear that the party—and only the party—must be in control, and has squashed any efforts of citizens to mobilize, even on behalf of priorities that the party has professed, such as fighting corruption among officials or improving education.
An early indication of Xi’s rising stature was the publication last November of “Xi Jinping: The Governance of China,” a 500-page volume of his collected speeches, talks, interviews, pronouncements and correspondence, with photos of him with his family, meeting world leaders, and carrying out the duties of head of state and chief of the armed forces.
Chinese leaders regularly publish such tomes, but only well after they’ve left office.
A more recent volume tracks Xi’s use of classical Chinese allusions in his public statements. Published by the party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily, “Xi Jinping Uses the Classics” cites 135 examples on topics from law to self-cultivation, drawn mainly from works associated with the ancient sage Confucius, as well as Song-dynasty administrator and literary figure Su Dongpo.
Xi’s image is also branching out into the arts. In February, 12,000 applicants to the Beijing University of Technology’s art program were required to sketch a portrait of the leader in pencil and charcoal as part of their entrance exam.
No matter to what comfort level Xi consolidates his power, experts see little chance he’ll use his clout to implement democratic reforms that might challenge the party’s predominance.
“Xi is actively trying to rein in precisely those elements of Chinese socio-political life—intellectual pluralism, popular participation, institutional checks and balances—that most of us would see as necessary for generating a more open, participatory political system,” Boston University China expert Joseph Fewsmith said.