The line between propaganda and personality cult

Recent bids to endear Xi Jinping to the masses differ from the top-down deification of Mao in the 1960s

A building in Shanghai covered in posters of Mr Xi. Regardless of whether Mr Xi is cultivating a cult of personality or not, it can't be good for China if there is no room for constructive feedback to help improve government policies.
A building in Shanghai covered in posters of Mr Xi. Regardless of whether Mr Xi is cultivating a cult of personality or not, it can't be good for China if there is no room for constructive feedback to help improve government policies.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • Heartfelt ballads, emotive photos, action figurines - these are among an array of tools used by China's propaganda machinery to promote Chinese President Xi Jinping's image as a popular leader, a visionary thinker, a people's man and a loving family man.

There is also a proliferation of websites and social media channels linked to Mr Xi, along with academic studies on the Chinese supremo, who is affectionately known to the Chinese people as Xi Dada, or "Uncle Xi". His wife Peng Liyuan, a folk singer, is referred to as Peng Mama.

These efforts have fuelled debate on whether Mr Xi is building a cult of personality, banned in China since 1982 to prevent a repeat of the madness around Mao Zedong that culminated in the disastrous Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong weighed in on the topic when he was asked in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on April 6 whether Mr Xi has been setting up a cult of personality since he took power in late 2012.

"That is a normative, a pejorative statement. But I think he is putting himself front and centre because he thinks it will help him to get what he needs done, done. And he does have a personality and he is projecting it. You find it strange because several of his predecessors did not have any personalities publicly projected," said Mr Lee.

However, from as early as 2013 till as recently as this month, several Western media outlets have been running reports stating that Mr Xi is pursuing a personality cult. For instance, the Economist magazine published a piece on April 2, headlined "Beware the cult of Xi", in which it listed examples to back its stance that Mr Xi has flouted the party's ban on personality cults. These include the fawning in official media over "Uncle Xi" and his wife; and a video, released in March, of a dance called "Uncle Xi in love with Mama Peng", which has been viewed more than 300,000 times.

Time magazine's March 31 piece, headlined "China's Chairman Builds a Cult of Personality", cited how Chinese poets are heaping lavish praise on Mr Xi; bookstores are giving prime display to a book on Mr Xi's collection of speeches that has sold over five million copies; and his China Dream political slogan is being popularised in a rap video.

The Time and Economist websites have been blocked in China since their reports were published.

There are, however, China watchers who believe there is no personality cult around Mr Xi. Mr Jude Blanchette, a director at US business think-tank The Conference Board's China Centre for Economics and Business, wrote on his blog on April 1 that the publicity efforts amount more to an official promotion of a leader than deification as seen in the worship of Mao in many Chinese homes during the Cultural Revolution.

Referring to the Western media reports, Mr Blanchette wrote: "I respect these publications, but I think they're wrong: we're not seeing the return to a cult of personality, but rather the outcome of an authoritarian-communist system trying to get media savvy, which has the effect of looking like an incipient cult without actually being one."

He said that while the promotion efforts around Mr Xi are more intense than those seen for former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, the key attributes of Mao's personality cult - mass scale, ritualistic, pervasive penetration in the society - are clearly lacking.

Other sceptics of a Xi personality cult also point out that the increasingly educated Chinese people would not accept another Mao-like personality cult.

"Unlike the Mao era, when most Chinese people were cut off from the outside world, today's Chinese people know what is good for them and what is good for their country. Collectively, they do not want to go back to the Mao era and would not allow the country to go back to that era," wrote analyst Chen Dingding of the University of Macau on the Diplomat portal on April 4. He added that the self-promotion efforts may be the work of Mr Xi's political opponents, using the "death by flattery" tactic: overly praising someone's capabilities to trigger public disgust and backlash.

Both camps have put up compelling arguments. Varying dictionary definitions of a personality cult also make it hard to pick sides. The Oxford dictionary defines personality cult as excessive public admiration for or devotion to a famous person, especially a political leader; while the Collins English's definition is the deliberately cultivated adulation of a person. It's hard to ascertain objectively whether there's excessive admiration for Mr Xi or whether the adulation was deliberately cultivated. But it is worth citing key differences between the Xi-centric promotion efforts and the Mao personality cult.

First, there was a strong top-down element in cultivating Mao's public image as an ideological visionary, a political genius, a guardian of his people and a benevolent leader. His then ally Lin Biao, a top military general, had mobilised the People's Liberation Army in displaying public adoration of Mao. Mao's wife Jiang Qing also used artists to conjure grand narratives that put the "Great Helmsman" at the centre of China's socialist achievements.

In contrast, many of the Xi-themed propaganda tools appear to be ground-up efforts springing from genuine public affection for him, though one could argue that there's also a tacit state involvement, with the Communist Party condoning the ground-up initiatives like songs.

Second, the main purpose of the Xi-centric propaganda drive is to endear him to the masses rather than to evoke deity-like worship of him. Mr Xi's portrait is not omnipresent in Chinese homes; no one is chanting "Long Live Xi!"; and his book is not being waved in public parades.

A more accurate conclusion is that the Xi-themed propaganda drive bears the semblance of a personality cult, though it is limited in its intensity and reach - for now.

But there is no doubt that the Chinese President has been projecting his personality more forcefully than his predecessors, as part of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) return to a strongman leadership, which had been put aside by Deng Xiaoping from the 1980s in favour of a collective decision-making style of government.

There are two goals: to bolster the central leadership's ability to push back against powerful factions that are blocking much-needed reforms; and to increase affection among a public that has been disillusioned with the perceived weak leadership of Mr Hu from 2002 to 2012.

Also, it helps that Mr Xi does have a strong personality that is well received by the people. After all, the public response to his speeches and actions - from his first remarks as CCP chief in November 2012 to his first inspection tour in southern Shenzhen - has been encouraging.

Analyst Zhang Taisu believes the CCP's propaganda efforts around Mr Xi are also aimed at reaching out to the young through music videos and also at harnessing the leftist idealists among China's educated population, who find the "personality cult" strategy 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," wrote the associate professor at the Duke University School of Law in a post on the China File website.

Amid the debate, the more pertinent question perhaps is how Mr Xi has used his public persona and popularity, and whether there are risks involved for China in letting him continue to do so.

On this front, there is another debate over the impact and whether the pros exceed the cons.

Time and Economist both pointed out that Mr Xi's personality cult, which grew in tandem with an unprecedented accumulation of power by a CCP chief, has sparked discomfort among the establishment. They cite how some official media outlets have been complaining about media restrictions by Mr Xi and how a prominent businessman linked to the establishment had attacked Mr Xi publicly. But others say Mr Xi's strongman image and popularity have helped him to push through difficult reforms, such as military reforms, among other things.

Perhaps more time is needed to produce a clearer picture and appraisal of the CCP's strategy in returning to strongman leadership. Also, things may change after the leadership shuffle at the 19th Party Congress next year, where five out of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee might retire, and future successors to Mr Xi and Premier Li Keqiang may emerge.

But for now, it does not hurt to be vigilant against the possibility of the self-promotion efforts intensifying into a veritable personality cult for the CCP's self-preservation, and not for the country's benefit. A key part of personality cults is the suppression of criticisms against the leader and his policies, essentially turning the people into blind, unquestioning followers.

It can't be good for China if there is no room for constructive feedback to help improve government policies. The cultivation of a personality cult might even boomerang on Mr Xi if the suppression of contrary views or negative news leads to bigger public crises and challenges to his leadership.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'The line between propaganda and personality cult'. Subscribe