Souvenir plates bearing the images of Chinese President Xi Jinping and late Chairman Mao Zedong are displayed at a shop near the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. File Photo: Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon
Souvenir plates bearing the images of Chinese President Xi Jinping and late Chairman Mao Zedong are displayed at a shop near the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. File Photo: Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon

China’s – or, perhaps, more correctly, Xi Jinping’s – propagandists hail him as an exceptional leader. Yet with the country faced with several serious and rising problems, notably a deepening and damaging trade war with the United States, people may now realize that the Chinese ruler isn’t as great as they trumpet.

Just after the Communist Party of China’s National Congress – aka Xi Jinping’s congress, as he amassed sweeping power at the five-yearly conclave – last October, Xinhua, the highly-censored country’s official news agency, published a lengthy and glowing Xi hagiography.

The 7,649-word opus [in English] uses many obsequious titles to depict him. Among these are an [omnipotent] “man, who makes things happen” and “the unrivaled helmsman” who “will steer China toward [its] great dream” of becoming “a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence” by 2050.

It also applauds Xi’s skills as a “world leader” because since he took power in 2012, he has, among other numerous activities and achievements, “held candid talks with both former and current US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, enhancing trust while reducing suspicion and setting out the future of bilateral ties.”

His “wisdom and solutions have helped avoid a ‘clash of civilizations,’ the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’” [with the United States], Xinhua’s fawning profile said.

During the CPC’s 19th congress, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also lavished praise on Xi. In Wang’s view, with “great insight,” “new ideas, new initiatives and new strategies,” his boss has enormously elevated China’s say, status and influence on the international stage and enabled it to take “the initiative to tackle various global challenges.”

Wang even boasted that with its “diplomacy as a major country with Chinese characteristics”, initiated by Xi, “China can not only provide Chinese wisdom for the exploration of a better social system for mankind, but also can provide a new path for all developing countries to modernization.”

Wang is one of Xi’s ardent apologists and was elevated to the State Council, China’s cabinet, in March. Just before the party’s 2017 congress, he exulted Xi, portraying him as a diplomatic pioneer whose ideology “transcends the past 300 years of traditional Western international relations theory.”

Eulogization of Xi as an exceptional leader was elevated to another level when, in May, China Leadership Science, a journal published by the Central Party School, a top CPC academy, published a series of articles on “the international praise for Xi Jinping’s super-strong leadership in the new era.”

In its lead article, titled “Extraordinary Leader: A Study of the International Praise for the Super-Strong Leadership of Xi Jinping in the New Era,” the journal opined that since 2012, Xi “has made comprehensively pathbreaking and historic achievements in leading the [CPC] and the country … China’s international standing is now at a high not seen in modern times.”

What’s more, Xi’s “superlative leadership wisdom and leadership style has consistently drawn attention from international society, earning a high level of praise.”

For that reason, China Leadership Science called for a deep study of international tributes for Xi because such a study “will no doubt benefit [the Chinese] in … determinedly preserving [Xi’s] core status throughout the Party, so that in [their] ideas, politics and actions [they] may willingly maintain a high level of uniformity with the Central Party of which [Xi] is the core.”

Such an extraordinary veneration of Xi and promotion of his glorification led David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, who translated part of the article, to call it “China’s new science of sycophantology.”

Apparently, all praise of Xi now turns out to be not only sycophantic, but also false or even counterproductive.

After a meeting on July 31, the Politburo, a top decision-making body comprising China’s 25 most senior leaders, issued a statement saying China’s economy maintained steady growth with good momentum in the first half of 2018. However, it now “faces some new problems and challenges,” the body acknowledged.

More precisely, according to Xinhua, which carried the statement, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth stayed within the range of 6.7 to 6.9% for 12 straight quarters. “But a slight weakening was spotted in June in industrial output and investment, and worries have been on the rise that escalating trade tensions could bite into the economy in the future.”

While the state news agency didn’t specify, it was America’s rising tariffs against the Asian giant that caused the “escalating trade tensions” and led to China’s “new problems and challenges.”

In a piece on July 29, Li Hong, an editor with the Global Times, a party-backed nationalistic paper, said: “Under constant pressure from the Trump administration’s escalating tariffs and coercion, Chinese stocks have tumbled, shedding some 20 percent from their highs last year” and “partially affected by the trade tension, business activity in China has eased since April.”

Li also observed that “the world’s second-largest economy is due for a bumpy ride in the second half, as the [Trump] administration has increased the pressure by threatening to impose 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports at the end of August.”

In another sign of how the US’s tariffs badly affect China’s economy, it was recently reported that its stock market has been overtaken as the world’s second-biggest by Japan’s bourse.

What’s even more worrying for Beijing is that the Trump White House might increase the tariff rate to 25% on another US$200 billion worth of Chinese goods, up from the 10% it had initially proposed. If this happens, China’s economy will certainly face an even bumpier ride ahead.

Of course, the US will also be significantly affected if its government takes such a tough stance because, as it vowed on Wednesday, Beijing will probably take “countermeasures.”

But, with America’s economy doing well, its stock market faring better than China’s since the trade dispute began and with Trump making peace with the European Union, the US’s biggest trading partner and one of Washington’s closest and strongest allies, America is gaining the upper hand over China and thus is likely to ratchet up its trade war on China.

Beijing is thus faced with a big dilemma. If the trade war escalates, then it will certainly greatly damage China’s economy and Xi’s ambition. The fundamental factor behind the country’s emergence as a major power is its impressive economic growth over the past four decades.

Such an economic performance is also the ultimate reason behind Xi’s overt ambition of transforming it into a global power and leader. His failure to maintain high economic growth and to achieve the “Chinese dream” that he has ardently championed will make many within the Party and wider society question his unalloyed power and indefinite rule.

If he blinks first and makes concessions, his country will also suffer, though perhaps less severely. But the greater damage will likely come to his reputation, as any concession to Trump could make the Chinese perceive their supreme leader is weak and outplayed.

China’s relations with the US – its most important bilateral trading partner – have tumbled to their lowest ebb in years, if not in decades. If Xi, now regarded as “nothing less than [China’s] Chairman of Everything, Everywhere and Everyone,” were such a great leader who could “take the initiative to tackle various global challenges,” he would have prevented this vital relationship from going so drastically south.

The poor state of relations also indicates, contrary to what his apologists hail, Xi has failed to enhance trust and reduce suspicion in bilateral ties. Whilst the US and China are still far away from an actual war, their interactions are deteriorating not only on trade but also other fronts that bring the two sides closer to the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’.

Certainly, the rising tensions between the world’s two superpowers is not all Xi’s fault. However, as argued in a previous post, Xi shares a big part of the blame. All in all, China’s new problems should be a wake-up call that Xi isn’t that great and that his personality cult must be dialed down.

If it is true that Beijing has already toned down Xi’s glorification, with his most prominent protégés and sycophants singing less loudly his praises, or if there has been pushback against the strongman’s absolute power from party members and intellectuals, then all this is good news.

For an all too powerful, autocratic and forceful Xi will be bad not only for the world’s second-largest economy but also other countries if he is excessively and blindly worshiped.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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