Xi Jinping: all-powerful, all-popular

Xi Jinping enjoys high approval among China’s youth – helped by censorship and political apathy

Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the Communist Party’s 19th congress. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the Communist Party’s 19th congress. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images


One of the most popular smartphone apps in China is a game in which people applaud a 3½-hour speech at the Communist Party congress given by Xi Jinping, freshly anointed as the most powerful leader since the Great Helmsman himself, Mao Zedong.

Every time “Xi Dada” or “Big Uncle Xi” mentions concepts of national rejuvenation or the China Dream, the user pushes the screen to clap as many times in 19 seconds (this was the 19th party congress).

With more than a billion claps and counting, it’s no exaggeration to say Xi Jinping is going down a treat among China’s under-30s – who were born after the bloody 1989 crackdown on democracy activists.

At last week’s Communist Party congress, a key meeting that takes place only twice a decade, Xi Jinping cemented his grip on power, enshrined his philosophy, “Xi Jinping Thought” in the constitution and named a leadership team made up chiefly of his allies, without naming a successor.

In the run-up to the congress, there were constant reminders of how the party under Xi has brought China newfound status in the world and well-being at home.

Youngsters in the cities have credit in their WeChat electronic wallets, which they use to pay for almost everything. They have better prospects than ever for studying abroad. And China is no longer a closed, poor rural backwater; it is a “moderately wealthy society”, to quote Xi himself, with its eye on even greater global influence.

The online activities of these under-30s are encircled by the Great Firewall of China to keep a lid on seditious material. And they know little about the suppression of democracy activists in June 1989. The media too is tightly controlled.

There is no sense of a generation chafing against control by the Communist Party. Partly because news of legal activists being detained or feminist rights’ defenders being jailed doesn’t make it past the vigilant net nannies.

And, as in other countries, there is no guarantee the serious news would not drown in the seemingly endless waves of celebrity gossip.

‘More open’

“My feeling is that China is moving in a good direction, and is being more open,” says Milo, a 23-year-old editor who lives in Beijing. “The publicity style of the government is becoming very youth-oriented.

“I don’t feel too much about the leaders except for Xi Jinping. Politics is remote so I don’t pay much attention to it. I feel okay with Xi Jinping. He has kind eyes and kind looks. In the US, the presidential candidates have to make speeches, campaign and have charisma. China doesn’t have that, so it is important to look decent,” he adds.

“China is getting more liberal than before, although you see there are things getting banned – the virtual private network is not working again – but there is always a way if you keep looking,” says Milo.

His views differ starkly from those of his parents.

“My father grew up with Mao’s ideology. He adores him and he lives in the past forever. He thinks Mao is the sun, there is nothing good about his successors, or what they are doing to Mao’s legacy. I don’t agree with my father on this,” says Milo.

Zoe, a 29-year-old civil servant living in the wealthy eastern province of Zhejiang, says her mother paid more attention to this week’s party congress than she did, and she is content to be guided by her mother’s views.

“She felt it was encouraging and will make ordinary people’s lives better. My parents are so excited about Xi becoming the president. They think he is a hopeful leader,” she says.

“I personally think the issues that the congress addressed, like the IT industry, big data and artificial intelligence, will create more jobs and provide more opportunities for young people,” she adds.

Chinese young people can appear apolitical, but they do receive a lot of political education, and party doctrine is part of the school curriculum and university syllabus.

Xi was steeped in politics from the day he was born in Beijing in 1953, as the son of the revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun, a co-founder of the Communist Party.

Xi Zhongxun was a close ally of Mao, though that didn’t stop Mao imprisoning him in 1962. The elder Xi had already survived purges in the 1930s, before becoming China’s youngest vice-premier in the 1950s and after the Cultural Revolution, an effective reformist during the 1970s.

In an article in The Cipher, the psychiatrist Dr Kenneth Dekleva, who has written psychological profiles of leaders such as Radovan Karadzic and Kim Jong-il, believes that to understand Xi Jinping, you need to look at Xi Zhongxun.

“To truly understand China’s president Xi Jinping is to accept his quintessential Chinese qualities – resilience, and psychological strength – and to conceptualise Xi not as merely another Mao or ‘Red Princeling’,’ but rather, as his father’s son,” he says.

Aged 14, the younger Xi was arrested by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, threatened with death on numerous occasions, then forced to perform hard labour in Shaanxi province for seven years.

His mother was sent to a labour camp, his father was purged by Mao, the family was in constant turmoil. But Xi turned the time in Liangjiahe village in Shaanxi to his advantage, saying he “grew up” there.

He did not turn against the party, a not unusual thing. The Irish Times has spoken to numerous victims of the Cultural Revolution over many years, including one sportsman who emptied a cesspit in Xinjiang every day for 10 years. Few are ready to criticise the party.

Crackdown on corruption

Xi Jinping’s flagship policy has been a crackdown on corruption, which has netted 1.34 million “tigers and flies” among the ranks of the party since starting.

The anti-corruption campaign has also taken some senior scalps, including rivals. Bo Xilai, a former rising star, was jailed in 2013 on corruption charges, while Zhou Yongkang, one-time security supremo and a member of the standing committee, has also been jailed.

Xi distances himself from Mao, but is not afraid to praise Mao’s achievements on occasion. The Mao era was spent trying to stabilise a nation, and after a decade in power in 1959, Mao oversaw the Great Leap Forward collectivisation disaster that caused a famine that killed millions.

The “new era” that Xi talks of is the next stage of this development. After just five years in power, he leads a party that runs, with an iron grip, a country that has been transformed in the past four decades. He has overseen a tightening of control, and has increased pressure on dissenting voices, civil society, the media and the internet.

In the run-up to the party congress, Xi was everywhere. An exhibition extolling the party’s achievements contained hundreds of images of Xi in all areas of life. He is firmly ingrained in the fabric of the party, and therefore into Chinese public life in a way not seen since Mao.

He is married to Peng Liyuan, a popular singer in China who has shared the limelight, in a modest way, since he became president. They sent their daughter, Xi Mingze, to study at Harvard University, and she now lives in Beijing.

Sun Xianglei, a 25-year-old designer living in Beijing, is happy to trust China’s destiny to Xi and the party.

“I think China continues to grow at a stable yet fast rate. I am very happy about Xi Jinping and other leaders, so I don’t need to pay too much attention, and I trust their decisions,” he says.

“I admire the stance China took on fighting corruption, it’s being responsible to the people. I think China is pretty liberal, and of course we want for my country to make more progress,” says Sun.

“My parents and I hold very different views. Our views are basically from two generations . . . I am not a party member so these things are all what I honestly feel. In short, most young people in my generation don’t care about politics. We care about self-development, self-improvement and looking after ourselves.”

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