The Cult of Xi

Little is scarier to me than the phenomenon of personality cults. Think Jim Jones and his 900+ followers drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Think Stalin’s fanatical apparatchiks snatching food from Ukrainian farmers, leading to one of the worst man-made famines in history (twenty years later Mao would one-up him). Think the throngs of Hitler supporters surrendering their critical faculties to embrace a madman who would soon lead the country to catastrophe. Think Mao inspiring fanatical Red Guards to beat or even kill their teachers, wreaking havoc on their own fellow citizens and destroying national treasures in the name of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Think Falun Gong. Think Kim Jong Un.

And think Donald Trump, whose rabid supporters rushed blindly “into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell” to violently overturn the results of a free and fair election.

Which brings us to President For Life Xi Jinping. An excellent piece in the Atlantic draws parallels between Mao and Xi and warns us that China may yet again follow its leader down the path to catastrophe. And this time the peregrination could have global consequences.

…Xi’s approach has taken on aspects of old, Maoist mass campaigns. Mao conceived the disastrous Great Leap Forward based on his conviction that China could catapult into the ranks of the advanced economies by sheer public effort alone. Workers and farmers just had to labor harder and longer, and keep the Communist faith. So, too, does Xi seem to believe that COVID can be overcome by national willpower. Having declared the battle with the virus a “people’s war,” Xi and his administration have characterized pandemic measures as an almost militaristic movement against an “invisible enemy,” which has required “tremendous sacrifice” and “solidarity and resilience” to achieve “victory.”

But this time it’s different. Back in the 1950 and 60s the effects of Mao’s insanity were felt in China alone, where upon his death he left a nation mired in poverty and its people brain dead. The cult of Xi, on the other hand has the potential to rock the world.

This is where Xi really differs from Mao—in the China he commands, and in the wider impact he has. Mao’s disasters fell mainly on the Chinese people. That’s bad enough, but in a world where China is a rising power, with greatly enhanced economic and military might, how Xi governs will affect all of us. That means the whims of one man have the potential to lift or sink the global economy, or throw the world into conflict and turmoil.

As critical as I am of the CCP, credit must be given to China’s earlier leaders, from Deng onward, who navigated China to prosperity and global status, despite some disasters along the way (think the Tiananmen Square massacre). These leaders were careful not to repeat Mao era fanaticism. Until now. “Xi Jinping thought,” modeled on Xi’s writings and speeches, seeks to ensure that Party leadership and its philosophy of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” dominate life in China.

Content from Xi’s 2017 speech is used in public messages, described as being ‘pervasive’ by a Beijing correspondent for the New York Times. A poster featuring the slogan “Chinese Dream” comes from the speech, where the phrase is used 31 times. In July 2018, the carriages of a train in Changchun Subway were decked out in red and dozens of Xi’s quotes to celebrate the 97th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party. The train was described as a “highly condensed spiritual manual” of Xi Jinping Thought by the local government. In January 2019, Alibaba Group released an app called Xuexi Qiangguo for studying Xi Jinping Thought.

Xi faces no opposition. The decision-making process revolves around him. Just as with Trump, loyalty to Xi transcends all else, and if you want to move up the party ranks this loyalty is essential. The zero-Covid strategy is Xi’s baby, and those who criticize it have been sidelined. The Atlantic article lay out how the cult of Xi has led to confusion bordering on chaos: “Much like Mao, Xi’s mere comments can send officials scrambling. Last August, he gave a talk about ‘common prosperity,’ or narrowing income disparities, and the term instantaneously became all the rage, plastered across newspapers while executives rushed to open corporate wallets for poor farmers and other charitable causes.”

I remember my optimistic hope, sitting in my Beijing apartment in the winter of 2003, that maybe Hu Jintao would further open China up and lift the iron curtain of the Great Firewall. There seemed to be hope when Hu addressed the SARS calamity head on in March of 2003 and seemed to be initiating a new era of greater transparency. Of course, I was bitterly disappointed. Today, as China implements the most draconian surveillance apparatus in history and continues its repression in Xinjiang and Tibet, I fear Xi will continue to push China backwards, and in so doing possibly unravel the progress China has made since Deng. As the article concludes, “His insistence on zero COVID, erratic attitude toward the private sector, and hostile foreign policy are combining to sap the economy’s vitality, depress investor sentiment, alienate more countries, and isolate the Chinese from the world. None of that bodes well for China’s future as a great-power competitor.”

Xi’s cult of personality is mild compared to that of Hitler, Mao and Stalin. But it still has the potential to derail China’s status as a global leader and rattle the world’s markets. I fear for China. Personality cults rarely end well, and Xi’s ambition and lust for power could well drag China down the road to disaster. Again.