Analysis: China begins sending signals that Xi should stay

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

TOKYO — In a video clip prepared for the internet, state-run China Central Television put the spotlight on the love story between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife and popular singer, Peng Liyuan.

The headline, “Hand in hand,” is a quote from the “Classic of Poetry,” an ancient work of Chinese literature also known as the “Book of Songs,” and the clip notes that Xi and Peng have been together for more than three decades.

The story was reposted on Chinese social media in rapid succession. Many past photos are embedded in the article, including that of Xi and Peng smiling side by side on a two-seat swing during their visit to India.

Aug. 14, the day the love story dominated China’s internet discourse, fell on July 7 of the old Chinese calendar, when the Qixi Festival — the tale of “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl” — takes place.

The celestial myth has it that the cowherd and the weaver girl were banished to opposite sides of the Milky Way, but on one day of the year, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, they would meet on a bridge formed by a flock of magpies.

On the same day, state-run Xinhua News Agency distributed a long, no-nonsense political article titled, “Riding the wind and breaking the waves to create a new phase — With Xi Jinping as the core, the Party Central Committee kicks off the 14th five-year plan in steady fashion.”

In documentary fashion, the article chronicles the leader’s visits around the country to prepare the five-year plan.

The move drew the eyeballs of Beijing watchers, as it came more than 10 days after the seven members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee — the top decision-making body — disappeared from center stage, likely attending the annual meeting of incumbent and retired leaders at the beach resort of Beidaihe. 

Ahead of the documentary’s publication, on Aug. 11, the Central Committee and the State Council jointly released a blueprint for building a “rule-of-law government” from 2021 to 2025.

Taken together, the emphasis on the “five-year plan” and the “2021 to 2025” time frame seem to say that it doesn’t make sense for Xi to step down as China’s top leader in 2022, when the party’s national congress takes place.

The signals coming out of state media suggest Xi will likely maintain his status as the “core” of the party and stay in power in one way or another.

Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, in Fujian Province. China scholars are wondering what to make of the trend toward a Xi personality cult.   © CCTV/Reuters

The lingering question, however, is what to make of the trend toward a Xi personality cult.

It has now become customary in the Xi Jinping era to watch stories about him and his parents as well as his wife on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the day of the Qixi Festival that hold up Xi and his family as good examples for the public.

Not all the propaganda is going well. In March 2016, Tibetan delegates to an annual session of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, sparked controversy as they appeared wearing badges featuring a photo of Xi on their chests.

The Tibetan delegates were each sporting two badges, one featuring Xi and the other collectively featuring five successive Chinese leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi. In other words, the Tibetan delegates had two faces of Xi on their chests.

It was enough to evoke memories of the personality cult built around Mao during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

During the Cultural Revolution, many people in China wore Mao badges on their chests and carried copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, which contained his teachings. Frenzy generated violence, resulting in the loss of many lives and the destruction of the economy.

The Xi badges worn by the Tibetan delegates became a big internal issue. When the delegates appeared at a plenary session of the National People’s Congress a week later, the Xi badges were missing from their chests.

Tibetan delegates sported two badges. One featured five successive Chinese leaders, including Xi. The other featured Xi alone. (Source photos by Akira Kodaka and Katsuji Nakazawa)

It was proof that, even in 2016, at the height of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, the party rule banning “any form of personality cult” was being strictly observed.

Yet, Xi and his team have not stopped.

That same year close aides to Xi launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to elevate Xi to “core” status, which he attained in October 2016 at the sixth plenary session of the party’s 18th Central Committee.

That came during the political strife season ahead of the party’s national congress the following year. And it is that season again as the party now looks to its 2022 national congress.

When it comes to badges of leaders, North Korea and a badge of former leader Kim Il-sung generally come to mind. North Korea is perhaps the only country where public servants and others still wear badges featuring their leader.

But recently an event that turned the clock back took place … at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Two Chinese cycling gold medalists wore Mao badges when they attended the medal ceremony.

Chinese people who have learned of the devastation caused by the Cultural Revolution, which claimed untold numbers of victims, and of the horror of a personality cult the hard way, including party members, would not dare wear a Mao badge today.

For them, doing so would be anachronic and embarrassing. 

To be sure, Mao badges are sold as souvenirs in front of the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where Mao’s embalmed body lies in state, in the center of Tiananmen Square in Beijing as well as at revolutionary holy sites like Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi Province.

Chairman Mao Zedong makes an appearance at the Tokyo Olympics. Many Chinese athletes that participated in the games are young and have been strongly influenced by “patriotic education.”   © Reuters

But those who buy Mao badges are, curiously, foreign tourists and Chinese people living abroad.

There have also been cases in the past of Chinese Olympic athletes wearing Mao badges during medal ceremonies.

It is unclear why the two Chinese cycling gold medalists did so at the Tokyo Games, but the appearance of badges at the Tokyo Olympics in the Xi Jinping era, which is pursuing a “post-Deng Xiaoping” path, is symbolic.

Many young Chinese athletes that participated in the Tokyo Olympics were born in the 1990s. They have been strongly influenced by “patriotic education,” which has become clear since the mid-1990s, following the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Most of their parents and others of the same generation who know how disastrous the Cultural Revolution was have mixed feelings about Mao while being grateful to Deng for introducing the policy of reform and opening-up.

There is a considerable perception gap between parents and children.

If young generations are losing their allergies to the Cultural Revolution and Mao badges, long-standing political traditions could go by the wayside: the firm maintenance of the collective leadership system and the thorough vigilance against any emergence of another personality cult.

And if the thinly veiled trend toward a personality cult being built around Xi comes into the open, there is even a possibility that the Xi badges shelved five years ago due to internal pressure will make a comeback in a different form.


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