The following is the second of a series of analyses by Chinese dissident and expert Chris King, who is a Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project, on the personality cult of Chinese President Xi Jinping. King was an active participant in the student protests in China in 1989.
Mao Zedong’s cult of personality had the benefit of maintaining and consolidating his own power and establishing absolute authority to subdue his political opponents. The main feature of his personality cult was to arouse the masses to fight against his political opponents in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Nevertheless, a considerable number of people from among the masses and the party sincerely and fanatically worshipped Mao because his enormous personal stature and his political record and capital made the building up of a personality cult relatively easy.
Conversely, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s personality cult can only be pushed by his own power and the military he controls. As a result, the propaganda policy has no focus and is clumsy, while the dissent against Xi at home and abroad continues to be substantial. Contrary to Mao, Xi cannot dare to arouse the masses, since he knows he lacks prestige and political capital. For these reasons, he is afraid that without using repressive means, Chinese society would get out of control. In fact, Xi would have neither the courage nor the capacity to control the situation after a mobilization of the masses.
Xi’s Biggest Shortcoming Is His Lack Of Personal Prestige
The CCP is a revolutionary party, and the authority of its leaders is crucial. Xi’s biggest shortcoming is his lack of personal prestige and competence. The reason why Mao and Deng Xiaoping dared to give people a certain amount of “freedom” in a certain period of time was that both of them had strong personal abilities and accumulated supreme authority and contacts in the party, especially Mao. This gave them the confidence and the audacity to allow them some freedom, provided, of course, that their power and position were not challenged.
However, Xi Jinping is a different story. He has taken part in no military exploits and has no exceptional intelligence or skills. He was a mediocre member of the Second Red Generation, the children of revolutionary-era CCP leaders, and his rise to the leadership of the CCP was the result of a compromise between different factions within the party more than a decade ago. Therefore, it is more difficult for Xi to hold power than it was for Mao or Deng, since he is perceived as a weak figure. Nevertheless, Xi is at the same time ambitious (he has lifted his own term limit as head of state, paving the way for him to serve indefinitely), and has his own aspirations for China to prevail over U.S. dominance. In fact, at the very least, Xi wants to defend the so-called legacy of the older generation (i.e., the generation who founded the People’s Republic of China, such as Xi’s own father and Mao), the CCP’s dominance and, of course, his own power. The most troubling thing in an authoritarian society is when its top leader lacks wisdom and ability but wants to achieve more than what he is capable of doing. Such leaders can only resort to extreme control of society and people’s minds in order to ensure that their power is not threatened and that they feel safe. Xi is such a figure.
Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the CCP authorities have been laboring to pile on words, churning out a steady stream of books such as the most recent “Question And Answer On The Study Of Xi Jinping Thought On Socialism With Chinese Characteristics For A New Era” (Hereafter referred to as Q&A) designed to inculcate “Xi Jinping Thought” among party members and the public. For example, on the day Q&A was published by the CCP in late February 2021, the Propaganda Department and Organization Department of the Central Committee of the CCP ordered the entire CCP to study it, thereby starting a new round of brainwashing of the CCP’s 91 million members and of the entire population. This is another bungling product of Xi Jinping’s cult of personality.
Xi Jinping’s Era Is A Combination Of Mao’s Totalitarianism And Deng’s Authoritarianism
“Psychology tells us that the combination of conceit and arrogance is often a kind of camouflaged inferiority complex. Through the comparison of the three generations of leaders of the CCP, we can see the problem directly.
After all, Mao Zedong was a widely recognized reader, who read a lot and loved to do so. He wrote most of his published works, speeches and telegraphs himself, and wrote many editorials and articles for Xinhua News Agency and other CCP media.
Deng Xiaoping was not much of a bookworm, but he was able to wield enormous authority over various factions of the CCP by virtue of his party credentials, military exploits, sharp thinking and leadership skills, and his being a longtime follower and ally of Mao and having experienced his “three falls and three rises” in the CCP’s political struggles. He freely and frankly admitted that he did not like to read much, and did not delve much into Marxism-Leninism, joking that he attended a society university. In a 1986 interview with Mike Wallace, Deng Xiaoping said he worked only two hours a day and appeared to take great pride in himself and his style of focusing on the big picture.
Xi Jinping, on the other hand, pretends to be knowledgeable and fond of reading books. However, he has misread words in his speeches many times. During his visits to Russia and France, he memorized a long list of books in order to show his knowledge. The CCP and Xi have never said exactly how many of the articles in Xi’s so-called works that have now been published were written by Xi himself. This shows Xi’s deep lack of confidence. This may be why he often likes to talk about confidence, and why he needs to use the outrageous approach of a personality cult to enforce his position inside and outside the CCP to secure his power.
We might say that Mao Zedong’s era was a totalitarian era characterized by class struggle and mass movements. The era of Deng Xiaoping was an authoritarian era characterized by economic development at the center of a relatively open society while still ensuring the leadership and power of the CCP. Xi Jinping’s era, then, is a combination of the two, totalitarian and authoritarian. This is the misfortune and sorrow of China.