China widens personality cult around 'unrivaled helmsman' Xi

BEIJING — The village where he labored as a teen has become a shrine, a tree he planted an icon. State media applaud him endlessly, private businessmen praise his speeches and universities are devoting new departments to his theories.

At the start of his second five-year term as leader of China's ruling Communist Party, Xi Jinping is at the center of China's most colorful efforts to build a cult of personality since the death of the founder of the People's Republic, Mao Zedong, in 1976.

Efforts range from the trivial to the borderline hysterical, such as when state broadcaster China Central Television led its evening national news bulletin Friday with more than four minutes of uninterrupted clapping for Xi as he met with adoring citizens.

"I am a servant of the people," Xi is described as telling an illiterate villager in a profile Friday by the official Xinhua News Agency that ran several thousand words and also hailed him as an "unrivaled helmsman." It said Xi led over 60 million people out of poverty in his first term, a statistic repeated ad nauseam in state media.

A Russian translator was so engrossed with reading a recent speech by Xi, Xinhua said, that he skipped lunch and dinner just to finish studying it.

"We're now in a new round of the god-creation movement, similar to the Mao era," said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political commentator. But access to the internet and other information sources undermines the party's efforts, resulting in mostly hollow proclamations intended to show loyalty at a time when dissent has serious consequences, he added.

"During the Mao era, many people believed in Mao from the bottom of their hearts," Zhang said. "But now, this is mainly for effect, to show the leaders their loyalty and protect themselves. It is more of a performance."

President Donald Trump's Beijing visit this month also offered an opportunity to cast Xi as a leader of global standing representing an ancient culture reclaiming its place at the top table. Xi and his glamorous songstress wife, Peng Liyuan, hosted the first couple at the ancient Forbidden City palace complex as part of what China described as a "state visit-plus," topped by the signing of a quarter-trillion dollars in economic arrangements.

Xi's reappointment as Communist Party general secretary at last month's twice-a-decade party congress represented an apotheosis of sorts. He was written into the party constitution alongside Mao and Deng Xiaoping, who launched economic reforms in 1979 — cementing his status as China's most powerful leader since Mao.

Provincial officials wasted no time finding creative ways to hail his leadership. A group visited a paulownia, or empress, tree planted by Xi eight years ago in Henan province's Lankao county.

"Like a bright red flag, it instructs the masses of party members to not forget the mission, to stay the path and forge ahead," a local news report said.

Some Chinese provincial news outlets have even begun pushing the margins of state-sanctioned praise by bestowing additional accolades on Xi: A newspaper in the southern province of Guizhou referred to the president as "The Great Leader Xi Jinping," in another throwback to the Mao era.

Many of China's wealthiest tycoons and private conglomerates have also chimed in with praise. Wang Jianlin, head of real estate and leisure conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, was quoted by a Beijing newspaper as saying that he was "overwhelmed by emotions" listening to Xi's speech at the party congress.

Chen Feng, co-founder and Communist Party secretary of HNA Group, a private airline and real estate conglomerate, led a recent gathering of thousands of employees in celebrating Xi and the party's leadership.

"The most important and crucial reason for achieving world-renowned achievements is that our party has at its core General Secretary Xi Jinping," Chen said. HNA Group has drawn scrutiny over a series of eye-catching global acquisitions and for its murky ownership structure.

The government of Zhejiang province, where Xi served as party secretary for five years, has launched a public outreach campaign called "What's My Favorite Xi Jinping Quote," arousing memories of Mao and his "Little Red Book" of revolutionary quotations. The Zhejiang village of Yedian has renamed its cultural center the "Xi Language Hall of Honor," boasting a permanent exhibition of his speeches and writings along with a pictorial representation of the "China Dream," a central motif of Xi's first term in office that envisions growing national prosperity and global clout.

Xi's personality cult stems from his family background as the son of one of Mao's comrades in arms, Xi Zhongxun, who rose to the position of vice premier and was admired among the party faithful. During his teens and early 20s, however, when his father was purged by Mao, Xi spent six years as a "sent down youth" living in a cave and doing hard labor in Shaanxi province.

Today, the village in which he worked, Liangjiahe, has become a place of pilgrimage for party members.

Such reverence is not unusual within China's political culture, which has long placed special importance on places of significance to the lives of its leaders and the revolution they led.

Xi's true popularity is impossible to determine due to the absence of objective polling data. But the domination of his image in official propaganda evokes, for some, the painful memories of the upheaval of the 1960s and '70s, when Mao was accorded the status of a near deity.

"The cult of personality did great harm to the Chinese nation. Many people retain deep lessons from it," said Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based political commentator.

Not to be left out, universities and colleges across the country have established research centers for "Xi Jinping Thought."

Such moves are driven more by competition for research funding than genuine regard for Xi's political consciousness, said Hu. Yet, they still pose a danger in promoting vested interests above society as a whole, he said.

"If going forward this is for only personal interests or the interests of certain groups, then this kind of personality cult is meaningless and harmful," Hu said.


Associated Press researcher Shanshan Wang contributed to this report.

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