Inside the packed exhibition hall in central Beijing is a showcase of China’s recent achievements: the country’s first operational aircraft carrier; a gleaming fleet of high-speed trains; happy villagers lifted from poverty. While the display officially celebrates the accomplishments of the Chinese people over the past five years, it is made clear that President Xi Jinping is the man to thank. To enter the exhibition, staged by the Communist Party’s propaganda department, visitors pass through a circular antechamber with red walls emblazoned with slogans inspired by Xi’s concepts on governance. Hundreds of images of Xi adorn the walls in each of the exhibition’s ten halls: in combat fatigues surveying the troops, holding court with foreign dignitaries, even showing his softer side by petting a baby elephant. By contrast, photographs of other party leaders are much smaller and displayed in less prominent spots. Even a dinner receipt for 160 yuan ($24.25) bearing Xi’s name is on display, reflecting his frugality.
Alongside radio shows and documentaries lauding Xi’s achievements on state television, the exhibition is part of a propaganda push to bolster the stature of China’s leader ahead of a key Communist Party Congress on Oct 18. At the conclave, which takes place every five years, Xi is expected to further cement his status as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Although it is typical for the party to sell its key achievements ahead of major events, the propaganda effort is the most effusive for a Chinese leader in years. Xi is being lionised as the one responsible for China’s recent successes, including an unswerving anti-corruption campaign, a buoyant economy and growing stature on the world stage.
The effort appears designed to justify Xi’s expanded powers, said Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In recent years, Xi has stamped his personal leadership on reforms to the military, economy and cyberspace. The Communist Party is trying to show that “only a strongman can marshal the forces and pull off these near-miraculous achievements which he is supposed to have achieved in the past five years,” Lam said. The State Council Information Office, which also acts as the party spokesman’s office, did not respond to request for comment.
CULT OF PERSONALITY?
Chinese leaders do not make explicit appeals to the public for support, as, in theory, the Party confers the power of the people onto the leadership. In reality, the images of top leaders are carefully cultivated by the Party’s propaganda arm. An avuncular image of Xi during his early years in office, which led to a folksy nickname – “Xi Dada”, or “Uncle Xi” – and syrupy songs about his looks, was stamped out in early 2016 to avoid creating a cult of personality. Kitschy souvenirs, like mugs and plates with images of Xi and his wife, the famous singer Peng Liyuan, have become harder to find. Censorship of images that mock Xi, including an internet meme that plays on his supposed likeness to Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon character, has also tightened in recent months.
Still, personal touches have not completely disappeared from Xi’s carefully crafted public image. On Sept 1, the 30-year anniversary of Xi and Peng’s marriage, a WeChat account posted an article of old photos and personal details about the couple. A source with direct knowledge of the matter said the account was run by an official reporter who travels with Peng whenever she accompanies Xi overseas and is designed to share select details of the first couple’s life together.
DIGGING WELLS, TRANSCENDING THE WEST
For the most part, the latest wave of propaganda casts Xi as all business, focusing on his dedication, his aptitude and his personal role in guiding China into a new stage of development. One documentary on state television applauded Xi’s prowess on the global stage. Foreign Minister Wang Yi published an essay in an official newspaper saying his contributions to diplomacy had transcended 300 years of western theory on foreign affairs. A popular section of the Beijing exhibition is devoted to Xi’s pledge to transform China’s military into a world-class fighting force, including a display of model missile launchers, battleships and the Liaoning aircraft carrier, all under a giant red flag. “It’s inspiring,” said one visitor, a retired automation engineer who only wanted to be identified by his surname, Ma. “The speed of China’s development has been very quick, and the ordinary people have benefited.”
A book on Xi, a 452-page collection of interviews of his years in rural Shaanxi province during the Cultural Revolution, has also been heavily promoted in recent months. Some of the anecdotes are reminiscent of Party mythology about heroes who selflessly work for others – such as Lei Feng, an idealised soldier of the Mao Zedong era who was upheld as a model citizen after his death. In the book, villagers who knew him say Xi showed signs of greatness even then, describing in one anecdote how he led villagers to dig a well so they had access to drinking water. “It was icy cold to the bone but Jinping was down the well, his legs deep in the mud,” one villager, Liang Yuming, said. “He’d work for a long time, until he really couldn’t take it any more.”