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.

History and Film: an uneasy relationship

The power of film is no longer something to be marvelled at but simply something to be expected. The capacity for motion pictures to arouse emotive action and prompt spirited debate have long been recognised and used by individual directors and governments alike. Historical films often give exposure to events unknown, overlooked or forgotten by society. This can provoke a positive response by stimulating interest in a particular historical topic. However, it can also raise tension. The most recent example of a historical film dividing movie-goers and politicians equally is Yimou Zhang’s Flowers of War, a study of the atrocities committed by invading Japanese forces in Nanjing, China in 1937. The film claims to depict “the rape of Nanjing”, which is how the event is referred to in China, whose experts claim at least 300,000 civilians were brutally slaughtered. Yet, many Japanese historians and politicians do not acknowledge that a massacre took place in Nanjing, rather suggesting that the people that died were legitimate casualties of war. Considering the traditional enmity between the two nations such cultural productions carry an added political burden. Whether The Flowers of War can be considered a propaganda film is open to interpretation. Most impartial historians agree that a massacre did take place at Nanjing in 1937, but there is no consensus on the number of civilians killed given the lack of documentation and ruining power of war.

There is still no consensus as to how many people died at Nanjing in 1937

Perhaps the reason The Flowers of War has received added attention from the world’s media is because of its release date. 2011 is the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and its officials have marked it accordingly. Aside from brash naval displays and military parades, a number of overtly political films have been released. Sanping Han’s The Founding of a Party, starring famous actors like John Woo and Andy Lau, chronicles the events leading up to the CCP’s creation. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan’s 1911 depicts the Xinhai Revolution of that year, which saw the end of the Qing Dynasty and would set in motion the events that led to the rise of the CCP. Both these films have been criticised for their lack of historical accuracy and pro-Communist stance. Similarly in 2009, during the sixtieth anniversary of the CCP’s rise to power at the expense of the nationalist Kuomintang, Sanping Han’s The Founding of a Republic was released. Featuring a host of nationally-known actors, the film has also been derided as a propaganda piece for the ruling party.

Here lies the problem of historical films. Whilst they have the power to captivate and inform, they are often used to popularise a particular, controversial message. Perhaps more worryingly for the historical profession, filmmakers are happy to manipulate factual evidence if it means creating a more exciting story. To then say that the film in question is “based on true events” is more misleading than an overt propaganda piece. There is thus a difference between clearly-discernible propaganda films and historically manipulative films which both have an adverse affect on the educative powers of history.

Overt Propaganda Films

From its conception, cinema has been used for propaganda purposes. One need only watch D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic Birth of a Nation, with its denigrating portrayal of the African-American race and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan to see the early manipulative power of film. Indeed, the second incarnation of the Klan grew significantly in popularity in the period after the film’s release, showing the direct links between propaganda movies and social events. The reason the film’s message was so influential was because it was excellently made, on a grand scale and using techniques never before seen in the cinema. This would be a recurring feature of early propaganda films.

Black legislators - portrayed by white actors in blackface - were portrayed as drunk and ignorant

Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever films, from both the silent and sound era. Using fast editing, dramatic acting and a plethora of extras, the film depicts the mutiny aboard the said battleship during Russia’s disastrous naval defeat to Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. The political message comes from the fact that the ship’s incompetent and barbaric officers are part of the Tsarist elite, whereas the brutalised sailors are clearly working-class. Furthermore, the famous massacre scene on the Odessa Steps, when innocent civilians supporting the mutineers are mowed down by the guns of royal soldiers, is a clear sign of the ruthless, autocratic nature of Tsarist rule. This message was something the Communist Party perpetually emphasised throughout their cultural depictions, even after the 1917 revolution gave them power. Eisenstein therefore helped solidify the “enemy” in the people’s minds as the petty bourgeoisie and Tsarist remnants that were depicted so menacingly in his film.

Perhaps the epitome of the brilliant director/propagandist was Leni Riefenstahl. A filmmaker of great daring, capable of arousing fierce emotions through sweeping camera angles and dramatic displays of pomp and reverence, she became an integral part of the Nazi propaganda machine. Her Triumph of the Will (1935), depicting the Nazi Party Congress of 1934 in Nuremburg is a cinematic masterpiece. Stunning aerial shots, long focus lenses, thrilling music and exemplary editing of the Nazi leaders’ speeches create a spectacle of raw power. Those watching at the time would have found it difficult to dismiss the Nazi message of a return to German greatness. It remains the finest propaganda film ever made and, despite its overt support of the Nazis, was not dismissed as such.

One of many awe-inspiring stills from Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will

Any attempts today to present a similar message through film struggles to succeed. For a start, Riefenstahl’s success offers a stark reminder of the detrimental role film can play on one’s emotions and reasoning. People have become more wary of such presentiments. Additionally, despite its overt nature, The Triumph of the Will still possessed a subtlety in its message. It let the footage speak for itself. No need for a voiceover or dramatic reconstructions by actors; just a powerful message from a powerful party in an arena of mass jubilation. When looking at Sanping Han’s recent propaganda efforts for the CCP, they pale in comparison. Overly-explicit dialogue, coupled with blatant historical revisionism, means the films possess none of the subtlety of the earlier propaganda cinema. Rather, they offer a rather embarrassing spectacle that serves to diminish the CCP’s reputation rather than enhance it.

That is not to say that effective propaganda films do not still exist. Michael Moore’s documentaries are a fine example. For instance, his Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) presented a completely prejudiced account of the Bush administration’s response to the Twin Tower attacks, using cleverly-scripted voiceovers to give an impression of gross incompetence on the Republican government’s part. Yet, the politicians targeted were given no opportunity to expand on their decisions through interview. The film being released shortly before the 2004 US Presidential Election was surely no coincidence, as campaigns to remove Bush began in earnest in democratic circles. Moore’s “ultra-liberalism” is therefore as potentially dangerous to the historical record of events and people as any other propaganda film message. This did not stop Moore from being showered with awards for his clearly biased portrayal of a watershed event in global history.

Moore's much-heralded film was a sinister propaganda piece

The history of film is thus infused with propaganda pieces, ranging widely in their effectiveness and subtlety. The best films of this nature are invariably those made by pioneering directors who used cinematic techniques to sidetrack the audience from the more radical elements of a particular message. When Riefenstahl portrayed Hitler at Nuremburg people got the impression of a man of great power and leadership, rather than concerning themselves with what he was actually saying. Whether we are historians or not, we should always be wary of overt propaganda pieces in film. They may often appear phoney and unbelievable, but their appeal to emotion is a powerful mass weapon.

Historical Inaccuracies in Film

In contrast to overt propaganda movies, which willingly distort the truth for political effect, other history films alter fact in the name of fiction. This may seem a harmless enough procedure given that the purpose of movies is to entertain. However, when depicting real events and real people, one must be careful not to portray their fictitious versions as a definitive characterisation of the original. Too often history films claiming to be based on archival research and academic advice fall somewhat short of scholarly accuracy, making them just as misleading, if not as politically potent, as deliberate propaganda films.

A recent example of this historical perversion in film comes from The King’s Speech (2010) by Tom Hooper. Focusing on King George VI’s difficulties in overcoming a debilitating stutter with the help of an Australian speech therapist, the film suggests “Bertie” struggled for years to overcome his problem. It is even shown in the film that the impediment had not been brought under control by the time World War Two began, seven years after George VI acceded to the throne. In reality, Bertie’s stammer had been overcome in the space of a few months in the 1920s, before he was king. It also offers a rather debatable characterisation of King Edward VIII, who abdicated in favour of Bertie, and the royal family’s political involvement in general. Such changes for the sake of drama may seem trivial to the average movie-goer. Yet they irk historians. In a profession keen to improve its engagement with the public at large, such movies play a detrimental role in historical education. As with the propaganda films, the power of cinema makes the events being viewed seem believable, meaning more people are likely to take their historical cues from a film rather than a well-researched book. When politicians and social theorists continue to emphasise the importance of having an appreciation for one’s national history, such films hamper the process of awareness.

Colin Firth as King George VI - The King's Speech was entertaining but historically misleading

Biographical dramas are particularly vulnerable to historical alteration. Making a movie about a boring, unpleasant or uninteresting individual is hardly going to have people flocking to the cinema. Therefore, mythologizing becomes a reality of these films. Take Amadeus (1984) by Milos Forman for instance. Yes, it was based on the play of the same name by Peter Schaffer, thus hinting at its fictionalised nature. Yet the film still claimed to be based on real events. Which parts are real are naturally not elaborated upon. Therefore, with Tom Hulce portraying Mozart as a childish buffoon whose demise is brought about by the scheming of F. Murray Abraham’s insanely-jealous Antonio Salieri, we have a film whose only historical accuracy is the names used. How such seemingly innocent historical misinterpretations come to be taken as fact by so many is brilliantly highlighted by an episode of The Simpsons. In “Margical History Tour”, Marge Simpson takes the liberty of enlightening her children about the life and works of Mozart. However, as Lisa quickly points out, Marge’s “history lesson” is based on the movie Amadeus rather than real historical events, to which Marge acts dismissively. Therefore, though it is unlikely that Forman wanted to mislead people over Mozart’s history, it is surprising how easily popular culture is taken at face value, particularly when a film begins with the fated words “based on true events”. From King Arthur to William Wallace, Michael Collins to J. Edgar Hoover, people from history are “dressed-up” for a wider audience. Though directors quickly point out after the film that they never intended their works to be completely historically accurate, they are happy enough for you to believe that they are while you are watching them.

Tom Hulce clowning around as Mozart in Amadeus

This may seem like a petty attack on a popular medium which provides entertainment to many and spruces up the dull aspects of history. Yet the fact remains that, whether it is desirable or not, history is often far less glamorous than it is portrayed on screen. Such portrayals lead to misunderstandings, inaccurate nationalist convictions, and a devaluing of proper historical research. They may not be as blatant as the overt propaganda films of the Nazis or the Chinese government flunkies but in their own way contribute to the misrepresentation of history and reality in the public domain.