How does China pick its leaders? Xi Jinping and the reason for his popularity

As Xi Jinping took to the stage at the Communist Party Congress on the 18th of October flanked by his new Politburo Standing Committee, the symmetry with which they stood before their subversives and media perfectly showed the leading characteristic he has employed to helm the CCP: a rigid sense of order. Breaking history, Xi revealed his new Committee with the glaring omission of a successor. Conventionally an intended successor is unveiled at the party’s five-yearly Congress, so Xi’s failure to do this suggests he intends to hold power for the foreseeable future. As the arguably most powerful man in the world, it’s not a position one would be preparedto give up easily. The two leaders preceding Xi have kept to a fairly ordinary pattern of succession, giving up the reigns once their time is nigh, conscious of the shadow of Mao’s rather brutal legacy, but, not for the first time since taking power in 2012, Xi has suggested that he has ‘a readiness to write his own rules’.

 Jonathan Fenby of The New Statesman had dubbed Xi as ‘China’s most powerful leader since Mao’, and the emerging ‘cult of Xi Jinping’, seeping from politics into popular culture is evidence of this. The Chinese online newspaper ‘People’s Daily’ released a video campaign called ‘Who is Xi Dada?’  (Uncle Xi) ahead of his visit to the USA in 2015, which reeled off a dozen or so international students and expats in Beijing expressing their respect and admiration for China’s leader. The superbly scripted and biased comments begin with ‘very nice manner, well educated’, and slowly become more and more questionable. ‘Very cute face’ progresses even further to a Korean student confidently proclaiming that ‘if my future husband is like him, I will be very happy’. All the while a jovial ukulele edition of ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’ is playing in the background. It is hard to contain ones laughter when Benedikt, a camp Austrian student in a garish bright pink blazer bids his farewell to the clip with the less than punchy catchphrase ‘Xi Dada, so cute’ said in Chinese. Needless to say the cult of Xi Dada is not welcome on the Western medium of YouTube, which is banned in China: the video has just 292 likes, and over a thousand dislikes.

This video is consistent with Xi’s political objectives. He has never given any inclination that he would like to share his power. His rejection of the Western dialogue of liberal democracy could not have been clearer. He has spearheaded a strict anti-corruption campaign and propagated a tough and principled ideological line, largely characterised by a punishing ‘discipline inspection’ to crush any hint of dissent before it has the opportunity to swell. Whether this is aimed at a western interpretation of corruption is questionable. The Financial Times has reported an emerging and elaborate strategy amongst entrepreneurs to ‘funnel cash to the right officials’ in order to keep their turnovers flowing. On the international stage, China’s economic growth continues to exceed that of the rest of the world, and her foreign currency reserves, offering significant power for economic foreign policy, stand at a level higher than the next seven biggest reserve holders combined. So on the global scene as well as the domestic one, Xi remains unchallenged.

 Within the government itself it is not difficult to gather evidence of his strategy of power centralisation. Immediately after taking power in 2012 he set up four top-level national bodies under his chairmanship, and has reshuffled the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to promote loyalists, firmly giving himself a concrete power base on which to preside. And in the wake of all this is the most recent sign: his failure to introduce an obvious successor at this point, halfway through the conventional ten year ruling period. The lack of an obvious rival is good news for Xi’s political future. Indeed, whilst China’s leaders of the last few decades have engaged, albeit with varying levels of conviction, with the Western dialogue of liberal democracy, Xi has rejected it outright. His anti-corruption campaign has purged alternative bubbles of power across Chinese society, concentrating it right in the lap of Xi Jinping.  This shows us that the boundary between success and popularity is as unclear in China as it always has been: there is so much artificiality around the personality cult it is difficult to ascertain how much of it is genuine. Xi’s success in garnering authority and the image of popularity are for the same goal: to safeguard his pedestal, and it’s fair to say he has achieved this goal and more. 

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