A Modern Cult of Personality? Xi Jinping Aspires To Be The Equal of Mao and Deng

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 5

Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Having been in office for just over two years, President Xi Jinping has already laid claim to being the third most powerful politician of post-liberation China, just after Chairman Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic reforms. Having gained control over what Chinese commentators call “the gun and the knife”—a reference to the army, police, spies and the all-powerful graft-busters—the Fifth-Generation titan is quickly growing his body of dictums and instructions on ideology, governance and related issues. The zealousness with which the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda machinery is eulogizing Xi’s words of wisdom smacks of the cult of personality that was associated with the Great Helmsman himself, Mao.

“The Spirit of Xi Jinping” Haunts CCP Ideology

What Xi’s publicists call “the spirit of the series of important speeches by General Secretary Xi Jinping” (xijinping zongshuji xilie zhongyao jianghua jingshen) is being accorded the same status as Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory. It was at the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee held last October that “the Spirit of Xi Jinping” was elevated to the same level as the teachings of Mao and Deng. The Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Advancing Rule of Law, which was endorsed at the Fourth Plenum, was the first top-tier official document that put “the spirit of the series of important speeches by General Secretary Xi Jinping” on par with “Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thoughts of ‘Three Represents’ and the ‘Scientific Outlook on Development,’” which were deemed guiding principles of the Party and state (see China Brief, November 20, 2014; China Brief, February 20; China Brief, January 9).

Xi’s ambition to become the equal of Mao and Deng will be dramatically illustrated during the military parade scheduled to take place at Tiananmen Square on September 3. The ostensible reason for this year’s demonstration of China’s hard power was to mark the 70th anniversary of the “triumph in the global struggle against fascism,” which is the CCP’s phrase to describe the surrender of the Japanese Imperial Army in 1945. The military parade, which will feature Xi inspecting the PLA’s latest hardware such new generations of stealth aircraft and ballistic missiles, will above all buttress the Fifth-Generation leader’s status as what liberal Chinese intellectuals call “the Mao Zedong of the 21st Century.” The extravaganza is yet another example of Xi breaking with tradition in order to project his own authority. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, such extravaganzas have only been held three times—in 1984, 1999 and 2009—to mark important anniversaries of the founding of the People’s Republic (China Brief, February 20; 21st Century Net [Guangzhou] September 27, 2014; Phoenix TV, September 24, 2014). The same foot-dragging seems to be the case with the reform of the 100-odd yangqi, or centrally-controlled state-owned-enterprise conglomerates. The only Xi dictum which seems to be working with these mammoth state monopolies is that the salaries of senior managers would be drastically cut in line with the strongman’s clean-governance crusade (Changsha Evening News, [Hunan], September 3, 2014; South China Morning Post, August 31, 2014). The lack of obvious achievements for economic reform has reinforced the belief that Xi is consolidating power out of a Maoist-style self-aggrandizement rather than a genuine commitment to Deng-style liberalization.