Tough, strong, generous: Xi Jinping’s reputation gets a polish ahead of key congress

An exhibition lays out the achievements of the Chinese president’s five years in power

Visitors arrive to attend an exhibition highlighting China’s achievements under five years of leadership by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Beijing Exhibition Hall in Beijing.  Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Visitors arrive to attend an exhibition highlighting China’s achievements under five years of leadership by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Beijing Exhibition Hall in Beijing. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

 

A glistening fleet of “Rejuvenation” bullet trains, the Liaoning aircraft carrier, an artificial island in the South China Sea, leaders at the G20 meeting in Hangzhou. A new ballistic missile unit of the People’s Liberation Army. An unswerving crackdown on corruption.

The common factor in these Chinese developments of the past half-decade is Xi Jinping, who is setting the scene for his ascent to supreme control at a vital party congress this month with a packed exhibition hailing his feats, illustrated with hundreds of images of the president and examples of China’s rise under his stewardship.

In the dizzying array of photographs of Xi, his expression of calm authority remains remarkably similar. The star of the Five Years On show is Xi Jinping.

It’s a technically accomplished exhibition and the most striking element is a hall celebrating Xi’s achievements in reforming the two-million strong military. Here, a boy takes aim with a model of the PLA’s latest assault rifle, the QZB03.

As he shoots, his mother acts as his spotter. “Come on, you can do it,” she says, criticising him when he misses. Fun is a serious business at the exhibition.

Behind him lies a stirring display of model missiles and rocket launchers, flanked by battleships and the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, all behind a giant red flag.

Groups of PLA soldiers visiting the event line up in formation and take photos with their comrades. The crowd is very mixed, and there are lots of families with children as it is the middle of the week-long National Day holiday.

People here are proud of how their country has developed in the past decades.

“He is strong. He is good for China,” says one elderly man, admiring a model of the country’s bullet trains.

A middle-aged woman watches a giant video screen showing PLA special forces in action and says: “They are so handsome.”

There is not a note of criticism to be heard, but then there wouldn’t be. Five years of constant pressure on civil society and heightened control of the internet means open censure of the state is all but impossible.

Instead the focus at Five Years On is on quantum satellites, deep-sea research submersible Jiaolong, and Xi’s vision of the “China Dream”.

The twice-a-decade congress runs from October 18th and will consecrate a new batch of top leaders and enshrine Xi as the most powerful leader since chairman Mao Zedong.

Mao’s cult of personality led the Communist Party into the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and since then China has steered clear of permitting too much attention on one leader. But Xi has been elevated to a “core” leadership position, which the party argues is necessary to ensure he has the backing he needs to steer the country through the next round of challenges.

During Xi’s tenure, China has become more aggressive in its claims in the South China Sea, upsetting its neighbours. One prominent display at the exhibition shows the island of reclaimed land in the South China Sea.

Turn a corner and you find yourself in a room devoted to Communist Party discipline, complete with the confessions of top cadres who have fallen foul of the graft crackdown.

Disgraced former security czar Zhou Yongkang and former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai are the big names here, as well as ex-leader Hu Jintao’s secretary Ling Jihua and the two former top generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou.

Also lined up is Sun Zhengcai, who succeeded Bo in Chongqing and was a surprise victim of the campaign as he had been tipped as a possible successor to Xi.

Chinese leaders traditionally secure their legacy by enshrining a political philosophy bearing their name into the constitution. The forthcoming congress should see the introduction of “Xi Jinping Thought”, which is focused on his idea of the “China Dream” of rejuvenation.

One section is given over to Xi’s books, including a book of speeches that Facebook chief Mark Zuckerburg urged his staff to read in 2014 so they “would understand socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Facebook remains banned in China.

There is a large tower of Xi’s books here, and a photograph of former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder clutching his copy.

This is an exhibition for domestic consumption. China makes great efforts in its public spaces to include English translations, or at least have characters in Romanised pinyin text. However, this show is all in Chinese.

The attention to detail is impressive, down to highlighting the frugality and generosity of Xi. When Xi went to Lankao county in Henan province in 2014, the president picked up the lunch tab. It was for 160 yuan (€20.40).

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