There have been many articles written recently on what has been described as Xi Jinping’s ‘Cult of Personality’. In this post I would like to examine how this ‘cult’ is being manifested visually, the role of ‘image management’ in constructing Xi’s personal brand and the resultant intensification in propaganda and diversification of media- particularly digital media and new communications technologies that are being harnessed in this process.
In many ways, Xi has been described as the model of a modern multimedia leader. Over the last two years, he has made numerous appearances across a broad spectrum of digital platforms. His image has been rendered in cartoon form, visual tributes in the more traditional medium of oil painting have been plastered across government websites, songs have been written (and parodied) in his honour, there is a dedicated weibo account that provides daily updates on his activities and his writings have now been translated into at least nine languages. A recently released app combining many of these features is now available for download via the iTunes store (more about this later in the post). Clearly the importance of Xi’s image and the prominence of digital platforms in disseminating it cannot be underestimated, prompting an examination of why Xi’s leadership has chosen to prioritise visual media on a scale previously unprecedented in recent government history.
Let’s begin with Xi’s first cartoon appearance.The cartoon, which accompanies a detailed infographic, was released in February 2014 and posted on Qianlong.com, a website affiliated with the Beijing municipal government. According to a recent article: “The Chinese media reported that it was the first time that Mr. Xi had been portrayed in cartoon form by a state-run news outlet.” The cartoon version of Xi is depicted as a smiling generic everyman, attired in his customary ensemble of zipped grey jacket and navy trousers, his clearly rendered facial features and protruding belly resulting in a surprisingly candid portrait that renders him instantly recognisable.
The graphic is titled 习主席的时间都去哪儿了？“Where has Chairman Xi’s time gone?” —a reference to a question that was posed to Xi by Russian media when he made an appearance at the Winter Olympics held in Sochi last year. Xi’s response was that most of his time is naturally monopolised by his work, and the ensuing graphics in the cartoon provide a precise breakdown of Xi’s hectic work commitments in visual form. Since assuming leadership of the government in March 2013, the infographic describes how Xi spent 39 days conducting 12 inspections in 11 provinces, and a further 39 days visiting 14 countries on five different continents. When he’s not busy traversing the country on domestic inspections, participating in official meetings or conducting state business abroad, Xi has a range of hobbies, none of which he has the freedom to enjoy. The final image has Xi remarking in a speech blurb that ‘“Undertaking my kind of work, it’s no wonder I hardly have any free time”. The cartoon president is nevertheless shown encircled by a range of his apparent past times, which include reading, swimming, mountain climbing, playing football, basketball, practising Wushu and other activities. The purpose of the cartoon and its visual mode of presentation is clearly designed to humanise Xi, providing insights into his personal life and character in addition to presenting official statistics and data in a format designed to be more visually appealing than the conventionally sterile state announcements.
The cartoon seeks to conflate Xi’s multiple roles as tireless public servant, skilled international diplomat, willing workaholic and accessible everyman. The innocuous and somewhat kitsch visual format also provides a counterbalance to the infographics appraisal of Xi’s phenomenal leadership abilities, neatly sidestepping the machismo posturing of other world leaders such as Putin, whose superhuman feats and incredulous photo ops have frequently made him the subject of online ridicule. By emphasising Xi’s unswerving self-sacrifice, the president is also portrayed as a paragon of diligence, dedication and virtue, qualities which resound with the austerity drive initiated by Xi and the subsequent crackdown on corrupt and negligent officials.
With its cutesy cartoon graphics, the image represents not so much the infantilisation of contemporary propaganda as much as its purposeful repackaging in a social media friendly format designed for mass consumption. What makes the image unique is that it is quite rare to see an officially sanctioned cartoon of a senior Chinese leader, as the art form is primarily considered to carry a satirical or critical function. Cartoons of political leaders are a much more common sight in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, yet another signal that Beijing may be adopting the marketing and social media strategies of its East Asian neighbours in a bid to make its PR initiatives more appealing to a younger audience. The infographic therefore demonstrates the renewed, political publicity intentions of China’s leadership, one that is perhaps best exemplified in the deliberate rebranding of the Zhōnggòng zhōngyāng xuānchuán bù 中共中央宣传部 ‘Central Propaganda Department’ as the ‘Central Publicity Department’, a clear signal that building a leader’s personal image and public interaction in plain but striking ways is a major goal of the new administration.
This isn’t the first time a cartoon of Xi has been officially commissioned. In October 2013, a video titled Lǐngdǎo rén shì zěnyàng liàn chéng de 领导人是怎样炼成的 “The makings of a Chinese leader” went viral online. The five minute video (which is available in both Chinese and English versions) purports to compare various ways political leaders are selected. Depicting Xi’s ascent to power, the video describes him, despite his family pedigree, as a symbol of meritocracy—“one of the secrets of the China miracle.” So far, the Chinese-language version of the video has been watched more than 2.8 million times.
The latest cartoons to emerge were released on February 17th of this year by 北京朝阳工作室 ‘Beijing Chaoyang Studio’ and include three works aimed at spreading the values of the Xi Jinping administration in a manner that is more accessible and considerably less stiff than traditional political propaganda. As a post on the nanfang.com notes: “One of the three cartoons is entitled “Has the mass line been truly implemented?” (群众路线动真格了?) The animation revolves around Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption, a phenomenon which runs counter to the Communist Party’s mass line.”
As Aris Teon, writing for the nanfang post notes: “an article which appeared recently in the 南方都市报 Southern Metropolis Daily reported that: “China has now entered a new era, which it describes as “the era in which every person has a microphone” and in which every citizen is involved in disseminating political ideas. The way the government gives prominence to the people is the adoption of a new style of propaganda. It abandons “the language of preaching” (说教腔调), which scares people away and is ineffective, because “if no one wants to listen, it does not matter how loud the voice is, it will be to no avail”. In order to reach out to the public, “it is necessary to adjust to its taste”, to resort to a more joyful tone. This strategy will achieve the goal of “convincing the public without compulsion” (说服而非压服).
One of the most popular scenes from the animation is displayed above and involves the cartoon version of Xi wielding a club to batter a cartoon tiger that is depicted with the traditional character for 王 or ‘king’ emblazoned on its forehead. Lǎohǔ 老虎 ‘Tiger’ is of course the term commonly used to refer to corrupt high-ranking Communist officials. “The image therefore aims at illustrating in a simple, direct and humourous way how Xi Jinping is single-handedly defeating corruption within the Communist Party as part of his anti-graft drive.”
If depicting the recent upheavals that have shaken the core of the CCP leadership, including of course the fall from grace and trial of one of its most prominent ‘big tigers’ Zhou Yongkang 周永康 in South Park-esque fashion appears simultaneously facetious and inappropriate, it could be said to provide further ocular evidence of how Xi is increasingly exploiting every available platform- including of course digital media, to demonstrate to the Chinese public his resolve in tackling endemic official corruption.
Cartoons are obviously not the only visual media that Xi has chosen to enlist in his campaign. A series of images that first surfaced online on the 17th January of this year saw Xi cast in an array of striking poses carefully selected to depict key moments from his career and portray his ascent to the presidency in a preordained light. These large scale oil paintings were first posted to the Ministry of Defence’s website and appear to be creative renderings of photographs that have also circulated online in recent months, part of an array of images that have accompanied a flood of packaging and publication of Xi’s articles and speeches. Predominantly painted in the academic oil painting style favoured by China’s art academies, they naturally depict Xi in an array of flattering and heroic poses, carefully curated to highlight his communist pedigree, his unstinting public service and his ‘man of the people’ persona, and thus ultimately to consolidate and cement Xi’s authority within the party. While some of the paintings appear more ‘professional’ than others, it is worth examining each in more depth.
In this diptych, two world leaders and their wives are conflated in the same picture space against a backdrop of leafy foliage and trees festooned in red lanterns. Barack and Michelle Obama are glamorously attired in tuxedo and glittering ballgown, complete with a cascade of pearls adorning the first lady’s neck, while President Obama holds a single red rose in his hand. Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan are depicted in the far more restrained and modest attire of matching black outfits. Whether the image is designed to present a not-so-subtly veiled comment on the excesses and ostentation of America in contrast to Xi’s austerity and frugality including his attempts to curb government spending and luxury, the image actually appears to be an amalgamation of the two photographs displayed below, which show Xi and Peng arriving in Moscow for their first state visit and the Obamas at an official function.
The next image depicts Xi surrounded by a group of Beida students following the president’s high profile visit to the prestigious campus in May of last year to mark the 95th anniversary of the May 4th Movement. May 4th, or Wu Si 五四 as it is more commonly known in China, is important not only to Beijing University but also to the CCP, which celebrates it as an event that helped put China on the glorious path to the “Liberation” of 1949. Aside from the male student standing to the left of Xi who is depicted in more contemporary garb, the music students clustered around Xi appear to be attired in period dress. In contrast to the above image, the setting here is obviously not arbitrary. As Rebecca Ericsson notes: “Beijing University has played a central role in many student struggles, from the great May 4th Movement of 1919, in which some future founders of the Chinese Communist Party took part, to the upheaval of 1989 that began in mid-April and ended with the June 4th Massacre. When Xi invoked May 4th this year, he worked not just to reclaim it for the Party, but also to distance it from past debates by wrapping it in decidedly 21st century associations such as his government’s newly pronounced “Chinese dream.”
Other images in the series show Xi as a young official, specifically his two year stint from 1988 to 1990 when he served as party boss of Ningde 宁德, a city in Fujian that lagged behind most others in the province. These images also invoke Xi’s now much publicised time in the small Shaanxi village of Liangjiahe 梁家河, where he was banished in 1969 as a 15-year-old during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Xi worked there for seven years during which time he joined the Communist party.
Other photos depict Xi talking to the elderly, surveilling the countryside and casually strolling through idealised pastoral scenes designed to highlight the natural beauty and abundance of the Chinese landscape.
Given that the images were part of a competition initiated and apparently sponsored by the Ministry of Defence it is not surprising that Xi is depicted in one of the paintings as China’s paramount military leader, casually chatting to troops in arctic conditions on China’s Mongolian border.
In one of the most unwittingly comic images from the series, a photograph taken at Dublin’s Croke Park during a 2012 visit to the Gaelic Athletic Association is subjected to a visual manipulation that sees the original bystanders substituted with a roaring crowd composed of ethnic minorities fervently waving national flags. This image cements Xi’s authority not just as paramount leader, representative (and uniter) of China’s 56 ethnic groups, most of whom are yet again essentialised and presented in “colourful” exotic form, but also presents an image of multi-national China that has more to do with constructing a majority discourse than it does about the minorities themselves, who in this instance merely serve as a foil for Xi’s superlative football skills.
These idealised images appear to employ visual tropes directly appropriated from Maoist imagery and thus naturally elicit comparisons with similarly idealised depictions of the Great Helmsman produced during the height of the Cultural Revolution. While the results of Xi’s contemporary images are frequently more farcical than patriotic, the deliberate visual continuities invoked by Xi’s positioning of himself as paramount leader and Mao’s ubiquitous and pervasive presence in most art works produced from the 1960s onwards naturally raised a few eyebrows. While the purpose of this contemporary hagiography is no doubt to consolidate Xi’s unassailable status, it also serves to highlight how so-called ‘traditional media’ such as oil painting still play an important ideological function in contemporary China’s political landscape. Rather than prioritising the original photographs on which the oil paintings were based, by depicting Xi in a format and medium usually reserved for the grand historical narratives of the State, Xi is positioned strongly and safely within the canon of Communist art.
As if to compound this trend, recent reports suggest that the 北京工业大学 ‘Beijing University of Technology’ required 12,000 applicants to sketch Xi as part of their entrance exam for its arts programme. The university’s admissions process awarded up to “200 points” (it doesn’t specify out of how many) for an exceedingly good portrait of Mr. Xi, and required students use only pencils or charcoal to execute their sketches.
As the China Digital Times notes in a recent article “During his career as China’s President and Communist Party General Secretary, crackdowns on dissenting Party ideology, corruption, civil society activism, and liberal online voices have garnered Xi Jinping numerous comparisons to his notoriously heavy-handed predecessor Mao Zedong.” A study undertaken in July last year by Qian Gang and student researchers at the University of Hong Kong’s ‘China Media Project’ examined the People’s Daily, the party’s flagship paper. Their results found that China’s state-controlled media have been promoting the image of President Xi Jinping with a frequency and intensity apparently unseen since the Mao era. In his first 18 months in power, Xi was mentioned in 4,186 articles in the first eight pages of the People’s Daily, while in comparison former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao appeared in fewer than 2,000 reports.
Xi’s use of Maoist imagery, rhetoric and strategy therefore sets him apart from his two predecessors. This is further evidenced by a forum organised by Xi last year on the topic of Literature and Art which naturally drew parallels by State Media to the artistic regime laid out by Mao in 1942 in his famous ‘Talks at the Yanan forum on literature and art‘ which became the guiding principles of party policy towards the arts and whose legacy can still be felt today. Xi’s apparent embrace of Maoist rhetoric and ideology is seen as especially ironic given that it was Xi’s opponent, former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai—once a heralded hero of Maoist revivalism in China—whose subsequent high profile arrest and fall from grace will no doubt be remembered as one of the most dramatic political power struggles within recent Chinese history. That Xi would adopt the same tactics and ideological leanings of the country’s furthest fallen was interpreted as yet another power play designed to appease the hard leftists and former supporters of Bo by providing clear evidence that he had fully absorbed their political agenda.
Which brings us to the ‘Little Red App’ mentioned at the outset of this post. Launched in March this year and created by a website run by the Central Party School of the Communist Party, the free app offers intensive lessons on most of Xi’s existing writings and speeches. The twelve features offered within the app include (moving clockwise from top left): 新闻 ‘news reports on Xi’, 实景地图 ‘a live map tracing his travels’, 微课程 ‘micro-courses on his writings’, 知识地图 ‘a knowledge map’, 习大大词条 ‘entries from ‘Xi Dada’, 专家解读 ‘expert analyses’, 评论精选 ‘featured comments’, 电子书 ‘electronic books’ and 理论文章 ‘theoretical articles’. The app is entitled Xuexi Zhongguo 学习中国, which translates directly as “Study China,” but is also a play on Xi’s surname, and could therefore suggest the alternative reading of “Study Xi’s China.” Illustrating that while wordplay has been frowned upon in advertising and broadcasts, apparently it is still acceptable in official apps. User comments and reviews from Chinese downloaders have naturally drawn allusions to Mao’s famous collection of quotes, dubbing the smartphone app a quasi ‘Little Red Book’ for the digital age. Although it was among the top five downloaded iPhone education apps in China at the beginning of April and has so far received a relatively positive 3.5 star rating, as a techinasia report notes, its spike in popularity may be a reflection not of Xi’s lionisation but of users downloading Xi’s app as an ironic gesture.
Some of these more ironic commentaries have also manifested themselves visually. One such example is the satirical cartoonist Badiucao’s image for the China digital times. As the CDT explains: “For his latest cartoon, Badiucao reimagines a revolutionary propaganda poster promoting the “little red app.” The caption at the bottom reads: “Resolutely download the Quotations of Chairman Xi’s app!” The faces are images of steamed buns, in reference to the president’s nickname of “Steamed Bun Xi” (another publicity stunt designed to boost Xi’s everyman image); the mobile devices being held aloft are emblazoned with 习，Xi’s surname which also means “study” in the app’s title.
In this context it is worth mentioning that the first video shown in this post 领导人是怎样炼成的 “The makings of a Chinese leader” which visualised Xi’s ascent to power was produced by the Fuxing lushang gongzuo shi 复兴路上工作室 ‘Road to Rejuvenation studio’. Although some commentators have assumed that the name is merely a reference to 复兴路 Fuxing Lu in Beijing, the location of the former headquarters of CCTV and the head office of the 国家广播电影电视总局 ‘State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television’ (SAPPRFT)’ and therefore a pseudonym for state produced propaganda, a Southern Metropolis report on the video found that information about the studio appears to be scant as it was uploaded by an account with only two other videos.
As an NY Times article notes, the phrase “Road to Rejuvenation” is closely associated with official propaganda in China. A slightly different phrasing Fuxing zhi lu 复兴之路 is used in an exhibit in the National Museum of China that depicts the deprivations of 19th and 20th century Western and Japanese imperialists and the role of the Communist Party in building China.”
In essence the exhibition, which is on permanent display at the Museum, represents the master narrative of the CCP rendered in visual form. It opens with a giant sculptural installation by Tian Kuiyu 田奎玉 entitled ‘为了中华民族的伟大复兴’, ‘For the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.’ Rendered in rich red brown hues that deliberately evoke the fertile loess soils around the Yellow River- the official ‘birthplace of Chinese civilisation’ the installation depicts ‘key symbols’ of Chinese civilisation, layering them densely within the walls of the exhibition space to form historical strata that can be excavated from the past to form a highly selective archaeology of the present.
The exhibition wends it way through an extensive four floors of the Museum’s North Galleries, thus requiring visitors to step outside of the exhibition halls on several occasions to climb the stairs to the next level. In the process of these interludes you are confronted with floor to ceiling vistas of the Museum’s immediate environs, including of course Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, views which crystallise the intended narrative of the exhibition and present China’s ‘5000’ years of civilisation as leading inexorably to the founding of the CCP. Some of the most interesting sections of the exhibition can be found on these upper floors and relate to the CCP’s more recent post-reform history, one section in particular is pertinent to our discussion.
In a small glass vitrine positioned against one of the walls, a selection of mobile phones are neatly arranged next to one another like prized art objects. The disparity of size, display, functions and colour amongst the various models, from the clunky and cumbersome ‘brick phones’ of the 1980s to the credit card-sized versions of today are designed to highlight progressive technological advancements and the meteoric development of the domestic electronics industry. Wall plaques hanging above the display case proudly present statistics on mobile phone usage and are intended to serve as striking barometers of social change and economic prosperity, visualising the success story which is integral to the party’s legitimacy and its claim to power.
It is striking that one of the only other videos to be released by the ‘Road to Rejuvenation’ Studio emerged on February 8th of this year, and is entitled Zhongguo gongchandang yu ni yiqi zai lushang《中国共产党与你一起在路上》“The Communist Party of China Is With You Along the Way.” The video visualises Xi’s concept of 中国梦 ‘The Chinese Dream’ a phrase that he significantly first uttered in a speech delivered when he visited the very same ‘Road to Rejuvenation’ exhibition on November 29th, 2012, shortly after his election. At the exhibition, Xi announced his vision for the achievement of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” reflecting a “national aspiration for a ‘Chinese Dream’ which would make the country stronger through development”. Since then the phrase Zhongguo Meng ‘The Chinese Dream’ has become increasingly conspicuous within the cultural and political landscape of contemporary China, its visualisations allied with sagacious ‘one-party’ rule and the strong leadership of its self-proclaimed most modern multimedia leader.
Rather than constructing the sort of ‘cult of personality’ which characterised Mao’s rule, Xi represents the culmination of over two decades of Chinese leadership who have adopted the sophisticated spin tactics endemic both to US presidential politics and the relentless PR machinery which characterised the Tony Blair years. As Ann-Marie Brady comments in ‘Marketing Dictatorship‘ these developments can be viewed “as an indication of [the Party’s] determination to survive and its ability to absorb new methods and technologies to enable it to do so.”
Brady points to a 2013 speech in which China’s president spoke of the need to attract digital natives to the Communist cause. In the speech Xi announced: “China has close to 600 million internet users, including 460 million who access the internet with their phones.” He continued: “many people, especially young people, basically do not look at mainstream media, most get their news from the internet. We must face this fact, put in more effort to take the initiative of this opinion battlefield and not get marginalised.”
If “The Chinese Dream” represents Xi’s pitch for a rejuvenated, powerful nation, then the visual media explored in this post illustrate that Xi’s government is employing an increasingly sophisticated array of digital technologies to paint Xi as both faithful to his Communist roots, and at the same time sufficiently savvy to realise the necessity of engaging with contemporary social media. Using both old and new tools, Xi has enlarged his image by taking the mobile phones out of the museum display cabinets and placing them squarely in the hands of users.