Helmsman Xi - one Mao is more than enough

March 10, 2015 09:02
China, in its adulation of Xi Jinping (right), needs to remember the tragic results of the cult of personality surrounding his late predecessor Mao Zedong. Photo: Reuters

Much attention has been focused on what Premier Li Keqiang had to say about slowing growth in the Chinese economy in his annual report to the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, and about a lower “new normal” in growth.

Just as important, if not more so, is what his speech revealed about the state of Chinese politics and of a “new normal” in that realm.

Li began his speech by giving credit to “the firm leadership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China headed by General Secretary Xi Jinping”.

When discussing foreign relations, he attributed the success of Chinese diplomacy to the personal intervention of President Xi, who, along with other leaders, “had visited many countries”.

Li credited the government’s achievements to “the overall planning and sound policymaking of the party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as General Secretary”.

Most unusual of all was an exhortation to the Chinese people to “put into practice the guiding principles from General Secretary Xi Jinping’s major speeches”.

Xi’s speeches have been compiled into a book, The Governance of China, and, according to The New York Times, it has been translated into eight languages, with 17 million copies reportedly sold or given away.

Before concluding his address, the premier urged everyone to “rally closely around the party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as General Secretary” so as to realize this year’s objectives and achieve “the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

Such effusive praise for the party leader has not been seen in China since the death of Chairman Mao Zedong almost four decades ago.

It began to be evident when Li presented his first government report last year.

Such deference on the part of the premier to the party leader, verging on being obsequious, is unbecoming to the holders of both offices.

The cult of the individual under Mao led the party and the country to disaster and cost millions of lives on several occasions.

Such things happened because no one, not even Zhou Enlai, who was officially No. 2, dared oppose him.

Today, Premier Li is No. 2 in the party hierarchy, and it appears that he, too, is a willing instrument in the creation of a new cult of the individual to satisfy the ego of another ambitious leader.

A look at the government work report presented by then premier Wen Jiabao in 2013 after 10 years in office working with president Hu Jintao is revealing of the extent to which things have changed in just two years since Xi assumed power.

In the lengthy 2013 report, Wen summed up the work not just of the previous year but of the previous five years, since it was the end of his second five-year term.

He did so matter-of-factly. Not once did he mention Hu’s name.

He, too, gave credit to the Communist Party’s leadership, but he did not mention the name of the general secretary.

The current move toward a new personality cult is not good news for China.

Because China is a one-party state, there are no institutions to check the authority of the Communist Party, which is above the law.

Now, the collective leadership that had been so painstakingly put in place by Deng Xiaoping for the last two to three decades has been swept aside.

Xi dominates the state-controlled media in a way that was not true of either Hu or of Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

Xi’s prominence has been greatly abetted by his wife, Peng Liyuan, a well-known singer within the People’s Liberation Army who was better known than her husband before he gained power.

Unlike the wives of Xi’s predecessors, whose names and faces are largely unknown, the glamorous Ms. Peng was appointed goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS by the World Health Organization in 2011, before her husband became the country’s leader.

Time magazine calls her one of the most influential people in the world.

What China needs at this point is the building of institutions, such as the National People’s Congress, and a stronger judiciary as well as the strengthening of civil society and non-governmental organizations.

But the government seems to be going in exactly the opposite direction, with a crackdown on human rights organizations, including women’s organizations just as the rest of the world was marking International Women’s Day.

China cannot afford to return to the days when one leader dominated the country whose word was law and whom no one dared to criticize.

One Mao is more than enough.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.