Whirlwind of Praise for Xi Ahead of Congress

With the set to begin in just six weeks and political sensitivities already well escalated, China’s state machine has kicked its adoration for President Xi into overdrive. As authorities follow tradition to ensure that the skies are free of smog as the world’s eyes turn to Beijing, internal and external media campaigns are highlighting the successes of Xi’s first term. At The Guardian, Tom Phillips reports on a recent propaganda campaign applauding Xi’s diplomatic record to date:

“Wherever he goes, Xi Jinping sets off a whirlwind of charisma!” hyperbolises a narrator from China’s Communist party-controlled broadcaster, CCTV.

The scenes are part of a four-and-a-half-hour television extravaganza being screened in China this week in a bid to burnish the president’s leadership credentials ahead of a key political summit that will kick off on October 18. “For the first time, China is standing at the centre of the world stage,” viewers of the six-part series Major Country Diplomacy are told. “This is is a new historical course charted by president .”

[…] This week, the focus has been on the overseas triumphs of a globetrotting statesman who has racked up more than 350,000 air-miles battling to make both China – and the world – great again.

In Major Country Diplomacy, Xi appears nursing a pint with David Cameron and being grinned at by Prince William. He hobnobs with Barack Obama, strolls through Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and entertains a plethora of world leaders from Raúl Castro and Nicolás Maduro to Shinzo Abe and Jacob Zuma. “Usually he doesn’t have time to dine,” Xi’s interpreter, Zhou Yu, says of his workaholic boss. “Once … his bodyguard [had to give] me a box of biscuits [so he didn’t go hungry].”

Kerry Brown, head of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, said the pre-congress propaganda blitz was mainly for internal consumption: “The audience for Xi Jinping’s travels abroad is always at home.” […] [Source]

Since just after his rise to the top of Party power at the 18th Party Congress in late 2012, has orchestrated a careful image-crafting campaign for President and General Secretary Xi. The campaign has utilized traditional mediamobile applications, and the “positive energy” of adoring fans. It has included official cartoon music videos promoting Xi’s policy agenda, a high-profile (and widely-mocked) lunch outing at a popular Beijing fast food restaurant, the creation of an endearing nickname for the president that would later become sensitive itself, and the elevation of Xi to the “core” of the Party leadership in official parlance—a title originally bestowed on Mao Zedong posthumously by Deng Xiaoping that would fall out of favor until Xi’s rule.

At Reuters, Michael Martina reports that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also been praising Xi for his diplomatic success and innovation, noting that Wang may be slated for an upcoming promotion:

[…] Xi’s “diplomatic thought” was a compass for foreign relations under new conditions and had become a marker of China’s soft power, [Foreign Minister] Wang [Yi] said in an article in the Study Times, the official paper of the Central Party School that trains officials.

“It also innovates upon and transcends the past 300 years of traditional Western international relations theory,” said Wang, who has been taking an increasingly high profile as China expands its presence on the global stage.

[…] Wang credited China with successes under Xi, including promoting talks and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, as well as helping to counter global threats posed by international terrorism, climate change and cyber security issues.

[…] Diplomatic sources believe Wang could take over later this year as China’s top diplomat from State Councillor Yang Jiechi, 67, Wang’s predecessor. Yang outranks Wang. [Source]

Under Xi’s lead, China has adopted a substantially more assertive foreign policy agenda, expanding its military reach, promoting and investing in its massively ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure and trade plan, and asserting willingness to take an international lead on defending free trade and battling climate change—a pragmatic response to Donald Trump’s successful 2016 “America First” campaign rhetoric. In The New York Times opinion pages, Brookings Institution senior fellow Eswar Prasad explains the motivations behind Xi’s drive to change the multilateral world order, and the strategy he is using to do so:

China is fashioning a new form of multilateralism, one in which it sets the tone and defines the rules of the game. This strategy will advance its economic and political influence in a far more effective manner than a unilateral approach built on brute economic force, a tactic that has produced mixed results for China so far.

With the United States apparently pulling back from multilateralism, China is deploying to great effect an approach that has been some years in the making but is now bearing fruit.

[…] The professed multilateral nature of its initiatives [for example, the Belt and Road plan] allows Beijing to pull other countries more tightly into its fold. It becomes harder for countries that do not share China’s values to stay on the sidelines. Many countries joining with China say they must do so to influence these new institutions from the inside rather than just complain about them from the outside. This was the justification when Britain, Germany and France signed up to become founding members of the Asian infrastructure bank, leaving the United States fuming.

[…] China’s strategy amounts to a systematic displacing of a multilateral system that was built on high ideals and trust, mainly of the United States but also of other advanced economies. Institutions like the I.M.F. and the World Bank were meant to improve national economies and global cooperation rather than propagate the power and influence of any particular country. While the United States benefited from its outsize role in these institutions, the values Washington espoused, such as free markets and democracy, were seen to benefit economic and human welfare around the world.

China’s vision of multilateralism will certainly serve China well, allowing it to expand its economic and geopolitical influence in a manner that will become ever harder to resist. Whether this will be good for the world remains to be seen. [Source]

The Congress, set to begin on October 18, will see a sweeping transition in the top echelon of Party leadership. Observers have long expected the event to further consolidate the already heavily reinforced power of General Secretary Xi Jinping, who has been regularly promoting key allies to powerful Party positions as his own list of concurrent official titles has been growing longer. At least 10 of 25 Politburo members are expected to retire at the Congress, though there has been speculation that Xi may attempt to bend an unwritten rule that since 2002 has dictated retirement for any member over 68 as Congress convenes. Such a move could pave the way for him to extend his own rule past the traditional two terms. (The Economist Intelligence Unit recently forecasted that Xi would attempt to serve a third term.) Reuters’ Benjamin Kang Lim and Philip Wen report that the number of allies on the Politburo after the 19th Party Congress will be a “key measure of Xi’s power” going into his second term, and survey the possible Xi supporters who could rise next month:

esident Xi Jinping of China is expected to place trusted allies in the Communist Party’s key decision-making Politburo during a leadership reshuffle at the 19th party Congress this autumn, according to multiple Chinese sources and foreign diplomats.

A key measure of Xi’s power will be how many of his allies are installed on the 25-member committee.

[…T]he youngest Politburo member, Sun Zhengcai, 53, is out of the running. He served as Chongqing party boss before being put under investigation in July for disciplinary violations, Communist Party jargon for corruption.

The fate of the top corruption watchdog, , 69, is also the subject of widespread conjecture. It is unclear if he will retain his seat in the elite seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, despite his age, and therefore his spot on the wider Politburo. […] [Source]

At the South China Morning Post, Nectar Gan reports further on speculation regarding Wang Qishan’s future on the Politburo Standing Committee, noting that the corruption czar and unofficial “second most powerful man in China” appeared on state media this week after a month of silence:

Wang, who has largely maintained a relatively low profile in the past five years, was thrust into the spotlight in the lead-up to a key leadership shake-up scheduled for next month.

Widely known as a long-time ally of President Xi Jinping, whether the 69-year-old will stay on the Politburo Standing Committee – the pinnacle of power in China – for another term despite exceeding the unofficial retirement age has been one of the biggest questions surrounding the 19th party congress.

[…] As the meeting approaches, Wang’s every move and word are being closely watched by observers and overseas media. But in contrast to the intense attention, his whereabouts have become even more elusive, fuelling all sorts of speculation. […] [Source]

The cache of power the president has accumulated over his first term was on full display last month as Xi, clad in military garb and without the traditional company of his Party elders, oversaw a military parade marking the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army. At the parade, PLA general Fan Changlong referred to Xi as “lǐngxiù” (领袖), an honorific title formerly only used in reference to Mao Zedong and his immediate (and momentary) successor Hua Guofeng. Some state media outlets have since begun using the title for Xi. In another report for Reuters, Philip Wen, Benjamin Kang Lim, and Ben Blanchard examine the symbolism of the official reincarnation of the title, and note that despite his many empowered allies, there is internal resistance to Xi’s further consolidation of power:

Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Centre, said the “lingxiu” title would suggest Xi had succeeded in one of his key aims to “centralize as much authority and charisma under his own person” as possible.

But as Xi’s supporters promote his agenda, some party insiders, wary that he will accumulate too much power and effectively end three decades of collective leadership, have delayed agreement on who will end up on the party’s Standing Committee, the apex of power, currently made up of seven men.

“There is opposition to Xi getting too much power,” said a source with ties to the leadership.

[…] “There is an anti-Xi faction forming up,” said a Beijing-based diplomatic source, citing meetings he has had with Chinese officials. “It remains to be seen if he’ll get it all his own way for the Standing Committee.”

[…] “If Xi becomes ‘lingxiu’ at the congress, it would be tantamount to being party chairman,” another source with leadership ties said.

[…] “It would be a life-long tenure,” the source said, adding that adopting such a title would be easier than amending the party charter to resurrect the chairmanship, which was abolished in the early 1980s to prevent another Mao-like personality cult. [Source]

The South China Morning Post’s Kinling Lo quotes Chinese political analysts who say that the length of the Congress may be an indication of how much support Xi is enjoying among the top Party leadership:

Chen Daoyin, a political scientist at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said he would not be surprised if the meeting lasted a day or two longer than usual, as the personnel reshuffles at the provincial level over the past year have made it difficult to predict who will secure the elite jobs.

“There are obviously many different power groups inside the party, and therefore we must watch to see if Xi has settled all the struggles before the meeting starts,” he said.

If he has not, there will be “fierce discussion that is likely to lengthen the meeting”, he added.

“The longer the meeting lasts, the more likely people are going to doubt Xi’s ability to unite the party. Therefore, no matter how fierce the debate has been behind closed doors, Xi will want to present an image of a strong and stable leadership by keeping the meeting to the traditional length.”

While the duration of the congress – of about 2,300 delegates – is never stated at its outset, the past four have all lasted seven days. […] [Source]

For more pre-Party Congress analysis, including a survey of the heightening political sensitivities and media controls ahead of the gathering, see prior coverage via CDT.