Magazine article The Spectator

The Cult of Papa XI - Cindy Yu

Magazine article The Spectator

The Cult of Papa XI - Cindy Yu

Article excerpt

The cult of personality behind China's president

For the first time since the death of Chairman Mao four decades ago, a leadership personality cult is emerging in China. You can see it in Beijing's streets, where President Xi Jinping's face appears on posters on bus stops, next to those of revolutionary war heroes. Scarlet banners fly with bold white letters saying: 'Continue Achieving the Successes of Socialism... with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core'. The city has this week been hosting the Communist Party Congress, during which Xi was affirmed for a second (and supposedly final) five-year term. But it looks and feels like a coronation.

To those who remember Mao's iron-fisted rule and the cult around him, the emerging Xi cult might seem like a great leap backwards. After Mao's death in 1976, the Party made plain that it was leaving behind, at some considerable speed, the nightmare years of the Cultural Revolution when child was set upon parent, student upon teacher, and neighbour upon neighbour. It was blamed on Mao Zedong, who had unfettered rule, being swayed by bad advice. So no president since him has served for more than two terms -- and it is a mark of Chinese modernity that the reins of power were passed from one president to the next without tearing the country apart.

It ought to be unthinkable that in today's China, a personality cult should be right around the corner. Yet the past five years of Xi's tenure have been softening up the Chinese people and leadership to accept this. Of course, Chinese leaders have always tended to attract adulation: ancient emperors were once known as 'sons of heaven', and modern Chinese leaders have been always and everywhere praised for their incredible ability to rule, their omniscient foresight, their unbounded benevolence. This is just the way politics and power are seen in the Chinese mind. But there's something about Xi.

Take the anti-corruption campaign that has become his trademark. In the last five years, some 100,000 people have been indicted on corruption charges, of whom more than 120 have been high-ranking party officers. The offences can be either scandalous, or trivial. When I spoke to a cousin who works for the Communist party earlier this year, he was full of tales of colleagues who were disciplined for accepting as little as a bottle of wine. Some met with worse fates because they had been caught on tape accepting valuable gifts. The campaign is explicitly intended to root out extreme corruption, but it has allowed Xi to conduct a fairly pitiless purge of the Communist party's new talents.

The most famous case was Bo Xilai, four years ago. He was a high-profile rising star in the party: handsome, charismatic, well-versed in Mao's writings. His wife was successful in her own right and their son read PPE at Oxford. Within months, however, this picture of perfection was dismantled and scandal was heaped upon scandal. The accomplished wife was embroiled in a murder investigation following the mysterious death of the British businessman Neil Heywood, and their son was accused of Bullingdon-style decadence -- which is bad enough in Britain, but anathema to the average Chinese citizen. With the scene set, Bo was arrested on corruption charges, given a sham trial and life imprisonment. A model modern Communist family had been meticulously destroyed -- and the world knew that Xi was serious.

A strong-handed approach has become his signature. The modest mantra of the former president, Hu Jintao -- of China 'rising peacefully' in the world -- has been supplanted by Xi's more forceful methods, especially in diplomacy. …

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