Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, July 28, 2014

Back to the "good" old days?

Those of us who have studied Chinese politics for a long time might see President Xi's campaign to personalize his power as more of the same old, same old.

However, William Wan, writing in the Washington Post, might be right that Xi's consolidation of power might look new to people who have more recently begun to examine Chinese politics. Wan's reminder is that this development is a return to an old theme of Chinese politics.

State media promoting China’s leader Xi with intensity unseen since Mao era
For decades, China has shunned the cult of personality, a result of the tumultuous years when Mao Zedong elevated his personal brand to mythic proportions.

But state worship of leaders appears to be making a comeback, according to a new study by University of Hong Kong media researchers. They say China’s state-controlled media have been promoting the image of President Xi Jinping with a frequency and intensity unseen since the Mao era.

The study comes as China experts and outside observers debate whether Xi is positioning himself to be a Mao-like strongman with a more firm grip than his predecessors over all levers of power. Or whether he is simply channeling the Communist Party’s desire for stronger action and control.

In the study… researchers examined the People’s Daily, the party’s flagship paper.

They compared its coverage of eight top party leaders… [and] focused on the first 18 months after each leader had taken power…

Among past leaders, Mao and Hua were mentioned most frequently, unsurprising given the fervent state leader worship during their time…

But when the chaos of the Cultural Revolution abated and Deng rose to power as the next paramount leader, he criticized the cult of personality and said it was not only unhealthy but also dangerous to build a country’s fate on the reputation of one man. In 1980, the party’s Central Committee issued directives for “less propaganda on individuals.” Party leaders have since continued to feature in propaganda and party-controlled newspapers but with less frequency and intensity.

According to [the] study, however, that trend against leader worship has eroded gradually over the years, with the change accelerating especially rapidly since Xi’s elevation in 2012…

[T]he numbers suggest an intensification in propaganda exalting China’s top leadership position…

Since Xi took control of the party in 2012, he has concentrated his power over almost every aspect of state affairs. In January, he became head of the newly formed national security commission. He leads six other Central Committee groups, personally overseeing overall government reform, cybersecurity, finance and military overhaul.
Shop offering Xi and Mao souvenirs
Xi has also launched the most severe anti-corruption campaign in decades. It has brought down high-ranking and low-level officials alike, including senior military officers and ministerial-level leaders.

Besides cementing his power within the party, there are signs that he is also tightening his control over civil society, especially on the ideological front…

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