The “thought” of XI Jinping has been embedded in the Communist Party’s constitution—and will now be taught at some 20 Chinese universitiesby Isabel Hilton / December 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
In the closing years of the Cultural Revolution, as the personality cult around the ageing dictator Mao Zedong reached its zenith, there were a number of informal rules that could be applied to university essays to avoid a poor mark, or, worse still for a Chinese student, a political shadow.
The rules were simple: open any given section with a Mao quotation, introduced by the ubiquitous phrase, “Chairman Mao teaches us that…” , check the Party line on the topic under discussion, and repeat the exercise at regular intervals throughout the text. Failure to observe this code of practice could result in a mark that reflected the teachers’ obligation to enforce political conformity, often accompanied by a marginal note that pointed out that although the grammar is correct, the meaning is wrong.
In the weeks following the 19th Party Congress in Beijing in October, Party Secretary Xi Jinping was anointed as lingxiu, a term not used for any living leader since Mao and his short lived successor Hua Guofeng. Xi’s ideological “thought” has been embedded in the Party’s constitution as its guiding light, and some 20 Chinese universities have announced plans to set up departments to study it. Beijing’s Renmin Daxue, or People’s University was first out of the gate, announcing that it would establish a research centre dedicated to “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” before the ink had dried on the revised constitution.
Political personality cults do not simply spring up with a new Party document. Years of preparation had gone into creating the requisite degree of fervour around Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan—who, as a former army singer, is a veteran of the entertainment business, as was Mao’s fourth wife, the former film actress Jiang Qing. Images of the couple had proliferated in the press, along with fulsome tributes to their relationship. An “impromptu” visit by Xi to the downmarket Qingfeng Steamed Bun restaurant in Beijing precipitated a rush of imitators, keen to order the same pork buns, the same green vegetable dish and the same stewed pork liver and intestines that comprised Xi’s modest meal on that occasion: the receipt, for 160 yuan, was subsequently framed and displayed in an exhibition of China’s major achievements mounted by the Communist Party’s propaganda department.
“An ‘impromptu’ visit by XI to the downmarket Qingfeng Steamed Bun restaurant in Beijing precipitated a rush of imitators, keen to order the same meal”
This was not a subtle build up: everywhere there were images of Xi commanding the military, consoling the afflicted, hosting lavish high profile diplomatic occasions to show off his global convening power—which of course reflects the glory of the nation he has promised to “rejuvenate”; unhelpful images—including some that seemed to suggest the leader’s resemblance to Winnie the Pooh—were purged. A volume of interviews about the leader’s early life carried reminiscences of his selfless devotion to the people and his outstanding leadership qualities, even at the tender age of 15, when he, like millions of others his age, was sent to an impoverished rural area for a spell of socialist hardship. Songs were composed, documentaries televised, poster sites filled with his image. As the Party congress rolled to its triumphant conclusion, Xi filled the front pages of China’s increasingly compliant media.
In a museum in Sichuan, some 1,000 miles from Beijing, dedicated to the Cultural Revolution, there is an instructive display of successive New Year editions of People’s Daily through the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, as Mao consolidated his power and eliminated his enemies. As the years roll by, Mao’s image grows larger. Finally it fills the whole front page. A similar progression was evident in November, as Xi’s image pushed out all others, leaving the leader to dominate the imaginative landscape.
But these are different times: Mao had managed to inspire the nation’s youth with images of revolutionary struggle towards a socialist utopia, an extreme frenzy of ideological purification that culminated in the late 1960’s with enormous rallies of Red Guards shuffling through Tiananmen Square beneath the gaze of the Great Helmsman. Today, Tiananmen Square is heavily guarded and any gathering larger than a family group immediately attracts the attention of the security guards who saturate the area.
Mao identified his enemies as those in the Party who wanted to “take the capitalist road.” Xi is presiding over a China that has promoted state capitalism for more than three decades, with considerable success. The enemies Xi’s Party sees seem to be unnamed “hostile foreign forces” who allegedly seek to undermine China’s rise.
Xi has conducted a purification exercise on a bloated and corrupt Party, which, after the trauma of the Mao years, had settled for collective leadership and expressly warned against the resurgence of any cult of personality. He is speaking to a younger generation that has been educated to celebrate the Party’s account of China’s historical grievances, and instructed throughout their education that they must “love” the Party. Xi’s promise is to right those historic wrongs and make China great again.
The Party’s own historic crimes against the people do not figure in this narrative, nor, if Xi Jinping thought prevails, will they ever be mentioned, or accounted for, at home or abroad. For now, his people are acquiescent. It may take a little more to generate the love.