From the Light to the Shadows: China’s Increasingly Secretive Leadership

Xi Jinping (pictured) was in America recently. Who is Xi Jinping? That is the question that was asked right across the broad spectrum of American society. Xi Jinping is the vice president of China. Not only that, he is the leader-in-waiting of the world’s most populous nation. Indeed, Xi is expected to become the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) later this year and president in 2013, succeeding Hu Jintao in both cases.

Despite his prominent position, very little is known about Xi beyond basic details. Born in 1953, he is the son of Xi Zhongxun, one of the CCP’s founding fathers. He holds a doctorate in chemical engineering and has been married twice. That aside, all that is definitively known about the vice-chair of China’s powerful Central Military Commission is his political appointments. This, however, is not surprising. In fact, Xi’s obscure status typifies China’s modern leadership, who have retreated ever-increasingly into the shadows over the past couple of decades.

 

Mao’s Overt Propaganda

After securing victory over the Kuomintang in the civil war in 1949, Mao-Tse-Tung quickly set about overhauling every aspect of Chinese life through a prolonged communist revolution. Obedience to his “vision” was paramount. Commensurately, Mao began a propaganda drive to ensure his presence pervaded every home across the country. The old Soviet tactic of grandiose artistry and social realist imagery meant that within a couple of years nobody could mistake Mao for who he was.

Mao was portrayed as one of the common people, yet at the same time as superior to them

This bombardment of “paper propaganda” was supplemented by strategically-judged public appearances from the General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whether visiting agricultural communes or the de-capitalised industrial factories that sprung up around China, Mao was seen regularly in public, if not frequently.

Mao visits a car factory in 1958, in a carefully-publicised event

As long as the CCP pursued a rigidly-defined brand of communism (Maoism) that necessitated authoritarian control over the populace, Mao’s righteousness and benevolence had to be continually highlighted with overt public displays, be they one-off appearances or steady streams of propaganda. It is testament to the success of this propaganda that millions of Chinese grieved openly and genuinely on his death in 1976. This, despite the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the many other daily atrocities that were perpetrated in his name. Only the Kim dynasty in North Korea can be said to have had a similar level of emotional control over their downtrodden people.

 

Deng and China’s “Opening”

Deng Xiaoping emerged as the de facto leader of the People’s Republic after Mao’s death, having to survive a sustained period of political intrigue and manoeuvring before realising his power. Whilst he was never the General Secretary of the CCP, Deng’s leadership was unchallenged. However, rather than using propaganda to develop his own personality cult, Deng used it to modernise China.

In the 1970s Deng became a more visible figure to the international community than Mao had ever been. He toured Southeast Asia, visited the United States and even moved to normalise relations with Japan, China’s bitter wartime enemy.

Deng pays US President Jimmy Carter a visit in an era of greater openness

On the home front, meanwhile, Deng was a less pervasive figure than Mao. Concentrating on “opening up” the Chinese economy to market-oriented reform and foreign investment, his most public visits were made to burgeoning industrial centres, particularly the Special Economic Zones that were to transform China’s production output. Any publicity Deng sought was not for a strengthening of his own personal authority, but in a bid to mould the future of the Chinese economy and society.

One of Deng's most famous images - promoting the new Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen
Accordingly, Deng was quick to denounce the Tiananmen Square protests in a televised speech on 9th June 1989. Condemning the protesters and supporting the army’s heavy-handed response, Deng defiantly vowed to preserve the path of China’s economic and political development. As far as he was concerned, the one did not influence the other. The CCPs position looked tentative for a brief moment but Deng still had enough of the “strongman” about him to eradicate any thoughts of further protest. The blatant hagiographical nature of Maoist propaganda died with the “Great Leader”, yet Deng Xiaoping was not averse to the power of his own person.  Like his vision of China, he remained open to the wider world, and used his image as a symbol of economic reform rather than ideological control. No Chinese leader since has courted such attention.

 

Jiang Zemin takes a step back

Known for his comically-large circular spectacles, Jiang Zemin became a far more reclusive leader than either of his two predecessors. Rigidly continuing with Deng’s economic reforms, despite a growing income inequality in the country coupled with severe environmental degradation, Jiang initiated the ultra-cautious approach of modern China’s political leadership.

Gravely concerned by his public image amid widespread and (mostly) accurate accusations of corruption and cronyism against his rule, Jiang deliberately removed himself from the spotlight. Media references to the President were infrequent and highly doctored and Jiang saved his natural bellicosity and outspokenness for the international stage.

Criticising Japan’s apparent refusal to give a heartfelt apology for their war atrocities in mainland Asia, and raising tensions over maritime territorial disputes in the East China Sea, Jiang manufactured a deterioration in relations with China’s island neighbour which Deng had fought so hard to normalise. Keenly observant of the rising tide of nationalism within Chinese society, particularly amongst the powerful People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals and their politburo patrons, Jiang’s foreign policy rhetoric was fairly aggressive. At home, however, he was more docile.

Jiang saved his bellicosity for abroad

Rather than using the tested methods of state propaganda to boost the image of his regime, Jiang covertly authorised the siphoning-off of government money to fund large and unnecessary infrastructure projects around the country in a bid to halt brewing dissent. Ironically, this gesture of pork-barrel politics allowed him to avoid the severer charges of corruption and mismanagement thrown against him. These would later resurface in his retirement and will no doubt hound Jiang until his death.

Jiang was the first of the PRC’s leaders without revolutionary experience. Therefore, it is not completely surprising that he was markedly different to both Mao and Deng in his engagement with the Chinese people. His successor, Hu Jintao, had clearly been taking note. The most withdrawn leader in the history of the People’s Republic was about to emerge.

 

Hu Retreats to the Shadows

Hu Jintao is seldom seen in public. More than any other powerful world leader he has withdrawn himself from the media spotlight. That is not to say that the Chinese president remains absent from the daily news. Indeed, reports and editorials praising Hu’s wisdom and judgement regularly appear in many of the Xinhua-affiliated newspapers and their online companions. In reality, however, these articles are tame and neutered affairs, steering clear of any controversial statements about the supreme head of the CCP.

Freedom from controversy is what Hu desires the most. Like his predecessor Jiang, he is desperately conscious of the corruption scandals surrounding much of the Chinese political hierarchy. Whilst he himself has not been as closely linked to corrupt practices as Jiang, Hu knows the continued legitimacy of the CCP rests on a perceived morality from the increasingly-globalised public. In the light of new, invasive forms of social media, politician integrity is becoming harder to preserve. Although China has an effective internet censorship system in the Great Firewall, new avenues for dissent are opening.

It is consequently illuminating that Hu’s name has remained largely untainted, particularly given the politicisation of China’s younger, often western-educated, generation. Only one biography has been written of a man whose power on earth is almost unrivalled; such are the lengths Hu has gone to in order to shelter himself from scandal.

Despite his prominent position, Hu does not seek attention

It is little surprise, then, that Hu leaves most of his public duties to his loyal deputy Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister. Wen goes on far more foreign visits than Hu, as well as having a much more prominent public profile at home. It is Wen who visits technology parks and industrial plants; it is Wen who visits the bereaved during China’s frequent natural disasters; it was Wen who was responsible for re-opening the National People’s Congress, the last time this will occur under the current leadership. The remainder of the parliamentary session will take place behind closed doors, with the plans for Hu’s succession not deemed to be of public importance.

Wen has complimented Hu perfectly

What Hu’s startlingly-reserved persona ensures is that when he speaks, people listen. CCP anniversaries; military displays; global meetings; these are the events at which Hu has commonly taken centre stage. His promises of reform, greater accountability, increased military strength, continued economic development and veiled warnings to the West are all aired on such occasions. The rarity of such speeches give them greater authority; a brief insight into the “true” intentions of the Chinese political leadership. He may be nowhere near as recognisable as Chairman Mao, but his authority is every bit as strong.

 

Concluding Thoughts

If, as expected, Xi Jinping becomes China’s next leader, he looks set to rule in the same mould as Hu. This is a man who is far less recognisable, and has received far less global media attention, than the infuriating Republican presidential candidates in the US, none of whom are likely to succeed in their bids to topple Barack Obama. Despite some initial interest, Xi’s trip to the US was largely overlooked as the Republican circus rolled on.

This highlights the stark contrast between the political landscapes of the world’s two most powerful nations. In America, a politician needs to be seen all the time. He needs to be newsworthy, to be regarded as a “normal human being” like his electorate.  The Chinese accept a mythic quality in their leaders; someone to carefully guide their country from afar, without the bold promises that so often cause the downfall of politicians in the West. Such is the luxury for politicians in an undemocratic society.

For the Chinese, the historical trend is one of public retreat, from the brazen propaganda of the Mao years, through Deng’s economic populism, and the prolonged invisibility that Jiang initiated and Hu perfected. The Chinese president today is more like one of the ancient warlords or emperors of his country, whom few were ever allowed to see in person, and whose comment was reserved for a select few.

Tucked away in the Forbidden City, he can shield himself from the new media forms that threaten his unchallenged authority. It is a fortress both real and metaphorical. Do not expect Xi Jinping to change it.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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