China: Personality Politics


One Party Politics

The Chinese government is arranged under a one-party system. There are no conservative or liberal parties and subsequently, no major disputes between opposing political bodies. The Communist Party of China (CCP) has been the sole ruling party of the governing body since 1949.

The Chinese Communist Party is gargantuan. As a party composed of over 89 million members, the Communist Party in China outnumbers the entire population of the country of Germany by almost 7 million people.

This unique centralization of power by the Chinese Communist Party is overseen by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, a committee of 205 standing members who vote for and on behalf of the members of the Communist Party as a whole. Though it’s hard to generalize an institution so large, it is safe to say that one of the main objectives of the CCP is to hold onto power.

True control over the Communist Party is held in the Standing Committee of the Central Committee, also known as the Politburo Standing Committee - a body of seven members including the leader of the Communist Party - the State Chairman, also known as the General Secretary of the Communist Party. While Chinese citizens have the right to vote for lower-level officials, the candidates for offices such as the Standing Committee must be endorsed and elected from within the Communist Party’s inner circles of influence.

The title of the President of the People’s Republic of China is a central post of the Chinese government as the formal head of state, acting through legislature and representing the country’s interests abroad. However, the post is ceremonial in nature when compared to the role of the General Secretary, who leads the Communist Party and holds unilateral authority. Because of the nature of the post of General Secretary and President has potential for divided interests, both titles have been held by a singular individual in office since the 1990s.

This bureaucratic but organized, hierarchical system of government has given China a decided economic edge. The decision-making process within the country is direct and agile. The country is able to quickly respond to changes in the global economy due to unilateral power wielded from above. The Communist Party in China is active out of what seems to be a clear and simple goal - to hold to power. This goal, however, requires for the ongoing bolstering of its economy, keeping foreign military threats at a distance, and maintaining control by stifling any potential for internal conflict in the country, i.e. opposition or dissent.

During his leadership, General Secretary Deng Xiaoping established an unspoken but formalized system of transition for leaders by placing both future Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who preceded current President Xi Jinping, in positions for gradual succession. Secretary Deng’s focus on dispersing and dividing power between the Standing Committee and Chairman.

Such a division of centralized power has not been without reason. With unilateral power, China has achieved enormous successes in the past four decades. The country’s gross domestic product per capita grew almost 49-fold from 1978 to 2014 as the nation, whose economy paralleled Zambia’s grew to become an international superpower. Almost 800 million Chinese citizens were lifted out of poverty in less than 40 years. In the same span of time, the average life expectancy in China grew by almost 10 years.

While there is efficiency in such a system of government, there are severe sacrifices the nation must make in its focus on human rights. Depending on the priorities of the single party, those governed must be willing to give up individual rights for the authority of a centralized, communal body of governance.

In their 2014 World Report, Human Rights Watch remarked:

"Rapid socio-economic change in China has been accompanied by relaxation of some restrictions on basic rights, but the government remains an authoritarian one-party state. It places arbitrary curbs on expression, association, assembly, and religion; prohibits independent labor unions and human rights organizations; and maintains Party control over all judicial institutions."

One is forced to reflect on the supreme authority and power held by Chairman Mao Zedong, founder of the Chinese Communist Party, who wielded untethered power from 1949 until his death in 1976. Unilateral decision-making led by Mao led to the terrifying “Great Leap Forward” in Chinese history, a period of brutal and violent change in which legal, punitive responses of the state were dramatically reformed alongside agricultural and economic processes. It is estimated today that over the course of the four years of the Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1962, over 45 million Chinese people were starved, worked and beaten to death.

The Three Titles of Xi

It is important to understand the nature and priorities of the Chinese one-party system in light of the rise of President Xi Jinping, who assumed the office of the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in November 2012. As the General Secretary, Xi has further assumed the “trinity” of the most powerful offices in the Chinese government. This includes the chair of General Secretary, the title of President of the People’s Republic of China (since March 2013) and the role of Chairman of the Central Military Commission (since November 2012). As the General Secretary, Xi stands as the head of the Communist Party. As the President, President Xi stands as the Head of State and the nation’s legislature. As the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping is the commander-in-chief of the Chinese armed forces, also known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA is currently the largest military body in the world with over two million personnel.

This position of clear, unchallenged leadership is one in which a centralized figure is able to wield a great deal of power with almost absolute authority. It has been a norm for the head of the nation for the head of the nation with both former Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

However, in contrary to his predecessors, President Xi has shown no signs of adopting a successor to lead the Communist Party in China. While all of Xi’s predecessors passed on their authority to younger, rising leaders following their two five-year terms by placing such individuals within their immediate vicinity in office, much of the legislature passed by Xi has done the opposite. Signs that President Xi was planning to extend the term of his position in the “trinity” of offices began in October of 2017 when no candidates for leadership were introduced with a newly inaugurated Standing Committee. With the abolition of the five-year, presidential two-term limit in February of 2018, commentators noted that the reformist era of Chinese politics may be coming to a close and that President Xi intends to long outstay the former 10-year limit to his position.

President Jiang and President Hu, who became General Secretaries of the Chinese Communist Party from 1989 to 2002 and from 2002 to 2012, each served 2 terms of presidency and proceeded to transfer their authority in orderly and systematic methods that focused on the collective governance and the transition of power to rising leaders. Many elements of President Xi Jinping’s rise to power indicate that China is now returning to an even more centralized and autocratic form of governance as Xi makes no indication of appointing a successor to transfer his authority to in the coming years.

It should be noted that the method in which President Xi has amassed his power has been legal, but subtle and intentional. When halfway through his first five-year term as the leader of the nation, Xi began a battle against governmental corruption that segwayed into an incredible collection of controlling roles and investigative privileges. An extensive New Yorker biography on Xi’s rise to authoritarian control writes:

“In the name of protection and purity, he has investigated tens of thousands of his countrymen, on charges ranging from corruption to leaking state secrets and inciting the overthrow of the state. He has acquired or created ten titles for himself, including not only head of state and head of the military but also leader of the Party’s most powerful committees—on foreign policy, Taiwan, and the economy. He has installed himself as the head of new bodies overseeing the Internet, government restructuring, national security, and military reform, and he has effectively taken over the courts, the police, and the secret police.”

Xi’s position as the watchman of government leaders has allowed him to garner a great deal of authority while calculating the removal of his political rivals. According to the BBC, an extensive 1.34 million officials in the Chinese government have been investigated under President Xi’s purge as more than 170 ministers and deputy-ministers of official standing have been terminated or imprisoned for corruption and misconduct in their duties. Currently, President Xi is widely regarded as the most powerful leader to have led his nation since Chairman Mao.

Media Control and “Xi Jinping Thought”

A cult of personality often revolves around the elevation of a leader for the purpose of solidifying a reverence toward their authority to wield totalitarian power. This may include, but is not limited to, the use of media, propaganda, and patriotism to engineer a sense of unity under a widely worshipped leader.

President Xi’s amassed influence is not only accredited to his ability to take political office but his widely growing cult of personality throughout the country using a variety of mediums.

Perhaps the clearest example of this Xi’s exquisite ability to influence the content circulated in China’s news agencies and popular media. Media campaigns have pushed to reflect positively on the patriotic champion of anti-corruption, President Xi, since 2016.

Following President Xi’s abolition of the presidential term limit, a wave of negative responses and objections arose on China’s internal social media platforms. Criticism, however, did not make it to the public for larger audiences outside the internet as a thorough censorship program erased much of the discontented commentary from the web. News outlets controlled by the government swiftly responded to such disapproval with a surge of propaganda that reflected China’s ongoing need for recent legislative changes to the presidency and its term limit. Censorship has grown severe and focused under Xi’s regime. Dissident journalists have received harsher responses from governmental regulators. Deng Yuwen, a political commentator on China’s current policies, notes, “Control of the press is at an unprecedented level.”

Chinese intellectuals such as Xu Zhangrun have accused President Xi’s growing attempts to build a cult of personality grounded in profound and increasing nationalism in China and ideological indoctrination. As President of the People’s Republic of China, however, Xi has firmly grasped control over censorship, propaganda and seizing national sentiment.

Sweeping through the academic and popular channels of discussion in China is also President Xi’s propagated form of political philosophy and doctrine of reflection “Xi Jinping Thought.” In a three-and-a-half hour speech to the nation and the Chinese Communist Party congress in 2017, President Xi delivered his philosophy on governance and socialism. “Xi Jinping Thought” is now being systematically integrated into intellectual institutions and being taught in universities and public schools through textbooks. News outlets have published diagrams and thought charts that help to break down Xi’s doctrines for a public audience. China’s second most watched channel, Hunan, has recently aired a five-episode game show in its prime evening time slot, targeting young audiences to review the biographical mythos of President Xi and his political philosophy.

Unwanted: Religion and Foreign Influence

“Xi Jinping Thought” has also taken center stage in the government’s active and personal entry in the homes of its citizens. In a 2014 program entitled “Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Get Together the Hearts of the People,” over 200,000 Chinese government agency representatives were dispersed throughout the nation to visit public institutions and regularly survey citizens. The goal of this program has been to “safeguard social stability” and garner greater unity within the nation’s people.

The 2016 “Becoming Family” campaign sent over 110,000 officials to the homes of Turkic Muslim Chinese families in the Xinjiang region to create “ethnic harmony” with the minority religious population. The program expanded in 2017, sending millions of Xinjiang authorities to Muslim families in a homestay project to live with and watch their members. The project, in 2018, required that each family had an official living with them at least five days of every two months.

Officials who are tasked to stay with families in the Xinjiang Muslim population must teach Mandarin, instruct and lead in singing patriotic songs of the Communist Party, and participate in a flag-raising ceremony with their homestay hosts. The project has expanded throughout the region in 2018 with varying intensity and lengthening requirements for the population to host Communist Party representatives. Representatives will report any suspicious or unpatriotic behaviors and thoroughly instruct families on “Xi Jinping Thought.”

The religious Muslim minority in Xinjiang has experienced several forms of forced assimilation in the past year, including but not limited to the recall of passports to inhibit travel abroad, imprisonment for foreign relations, and the forced use of Mandarin as an official language.

President Xi’s notorious rejection of foreign influence and religion also extends into his pressure on Christianity. Churches and Christian homes in major population centers in China have been encouraged, beginning in 2017, to remove any iconic Christian images and replace them with portraits of President Xi. Some provincial leaders have begun detainment of religious leaders and forced both households and churches to comply with the government’s growing restrictions on religion.

Major cities are not excused from the government’s growing anti-religious, anti-foreign sentiment. Beijing’s largest house church with over 1,500 members, Zion, was placed under a blanket ban in September 2018 for refusing to install security cameras in its facilities.

Following the religious group’s refusal, government officials began to harass and interview its members extensively, eventually forbidding its mass gatherings entirely.

Churches, seen as far too Western in their influence and as a rejection of Chinese values, have been experiencing diminishing and growingly constricted religious rights throughout major population centers in China. Religious foreigners, in particular, have been experiencing more pressure not to interfere with the population. Communist Party members who are religious have also been encouraged to leave their government roles.