In 2015, the world’s most watched annual broadcast with a viewership of about 800 million, the Chinese New Year’s gala, featured something odd for Chinese politics. Clips of the Chinese president Xi Jinping visiting citizens and troops, broadcasted to the tunes of a song stating “I give you my heart”, were proof of the personality cult that President Xi has built around himself. Compared to the style of former Chinese presidents, noted for their lack of stardom, Mr Xi represents something very different. What are the reasons behind the rise of Xi Jinping as a star politician? This article will investigate the question and highlight three possible answers.
Let’s start with his background. To understand Xi Jinping, one needs to remember that he is a man born into political power. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a founding member of the Communist party, former Vice President, and a revolutionary hero. Eventually, the elder Xi fell out with the party and with chairman Mao, which led to his exclusion from political power. With the father jailed, Xi feared that he would be next and escaped to the small village of Liangjiahe in the Shaanxi province. Living in a cave and working as a farmer, Xi laid low while mapping out his comeback to politics. He eventually came to live in Liangjiahe for seven years. Xi has himself said that it was during this time, performing hard labour and living in rough circumstances, that he learned the true meaning of struggle and of socialism. Combining his father’s reputation as a revolutionary hero and Xi’s years in Liangjiahe, the foundation for becoming a future man of the people was laid out.
The next piece of the puzzle to Xi Jinping’s stardom is his wife, Peng Liyuan. The role as the Chinese “first lady” has been an insignificant one for decades, however this all changed when Peng Liyuan entered the political scene. Being a renowned singer, having featured on television for a long time, her celebrity status was far bigger than her husband’s at the time he was elected President. She was, and still is, an immensely popular figure in China, and has been compared to high-profiled political spouses like Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni – a comparison unthinkable for former Chinese first ladies. Mrs Peng is widely respected by the Chinese, and especially by the youth. Many admire both her charity work and sense of fashion, and see here as a model for “brains and beauty”. Peng’s fame is also exemplified by her unique relationship with the president. Numerous clips of Xi Jinping, treating Peng “as an equal” in the gender unbalanced country of China, have gone viral on Chinese websites. The personal cult of Xi Jinping has undoubtedly been strengthened by the stardom of his wife, and one could argue that without her, it would not have been possible to achieve.
The last piece of the puzzle is spelled populism – the President has been able to create an image of himself as being a regular guy. Not being stiff and formal like his predecessors, Mr Xi is seen as someone who has the ability to interact with the common citizen. He was once spotted at a budget dumpling restaurant in Beijing, buying steamed pork buns and paying for himself – an unusual thing to do for a Chinese president. Politically, his harsh crusade against corruption has been uncompromising. Xi has not been afraid to go after top figures in his own party, who up until recently held a kind of informal protection from the law. The image of Xi Jinping as a normal man who’s able to bring the rich and powerful to their knees has pleased the Chinese population. Mr Xi also uses common tactics to rally the Chinese around nationalistic values, with speeches addressed to making China as great as it once was and speaking about “the Chinese dream”.
Examples of the personality cult are many, and Chinese media coverage of Xi Jinping clearly outnumbers the coverage of any of his predecessors. He and his wife are often called “Papa Xi and Mama Peng”, both by media and everyday people. Art students sketching his portrait as part of their university applications, and songs about Xi and his wife going viral on Chinese websites, are amongst a few examples. All in all it is clear that Papa Xi is a new type of Chinese leader, and we’ll see whether this is merely an exception to the low-key, faceless Chinese politician, or perhaps an upcoming trend in Chinese politics.