He is not yet one of the “saints” of the Chinese Communist Party along with Mao and Deng. But already, after less than two years in office, Xi Jinping is, to borrow a phrase from the Catholic Church, being “beatified” – given pre-sainthood status.
On successive days last week, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post published full-page features drawing attention to Xi’s exalted power and status, in effect condemning his two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, to insignificance.
The SCMP is edited by a mainland Chinese long assumed to be a party member expected to promote party views while trying to present the SCMP, Hong Kong’s leading English-language paper, as a forum for diverse news and views.
In its Aug. 22 issue, the SCMP used the 110th anniversary of Deng’s birth not just to recall Deng’s contributions to China’s development and the return of Hong Kong, but went out of its way to link Xi to Deng. The overlines to the main article read: “President Xi Jinping’s efforts to exert China’s influence on the world stage mirror those of the former paramount leader who would be 110 today.”
It went on to compare Deng with Xi’s “flexing the country’s military muscle and asserting China’s involvement in regional affairs.” While acknowledging that Deng’s policy had actually been one of lying low internationally while building the economy and modernizing society, it implied that China is now in a position to make demands and get at least some of what it wants internationally. Nor did it stop to consider the impact of Xi’s adventurism on China’s standing among its neighbors, particularly the supposedly weak but populous – and increasingly unnerved — countries of Southeast Asia.
The underlying theme was that Xi deserves comparison with Deng because he is making waves around the world while Deng’s role was to make the waves which transformed the domestic economy.
As if this was not praise enough for the time being at least, the following day the SCMP published another full-page article about Xi himself entitled: “Up there with Mao and Deng.” It featured an illustration showing Xi’s portrait appearing on a wall with a China’s red flag background alongside those of the two earlier “saints”.
The article was rather less effusive than the headline, acknowledging that it “would be premature to call him China’s new strongman.” However, Xi was said to have amassed more power in 20 months than his two predecessors had during their terms in office. And for sure, Xi has been making more waves, particularly with his cutting down of Bo Xilai and associates and more recently with the high profile anti-corruption campaign and jingoist stirring of the Chinese soul against Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. His economic agenda also suggests further reforms to create more competition, improve the management of state enterprises and modernize the financial system.
However the efforts to improve the status of the party and efforts to disadvantage foreign companies relative to domestic ones scarcely suggest that economic reform will be paramount among his goals. Indeed the SCMP’s writers appear to have conveniently forgotten that the boldest economic reform measures were those carried out when Zhu Rongji was premier under Jiang Zemin.
Zhu as central bank governor had earlier rescued China from an inflationary spiral. Zhu’s reforms involved wholesale closures of inefficient state-owned factories, especially in the northeastern “rust belt”, and layoffs of millions of workers hitherto protected by jobs for life and enterprise-provided welfare. Given that party officials are now deeply embedded in the ownership and well as operation of state enterprises, reform on the Zhu scale looks impossible.
For sure, Xi has been building a personality cult, with his many public appearances with his glamorous wife, and by downplaying the role of premier Li Keqiang. But in that he appears closer to Mao or Bo Xilai than to Deng, who kept his own personality in the background, winning his position among the “saints” from his singular achievement in rescuing the party and the country from Maoism.
Nor does the building of a personality cult fit well with the aim of improving the legitimacy of the party as an institution not the party as agent of an individual as under Mao. For now, however, judging from the likes of Xi’s treatment by the SCMP, the party apparatus is happy enough to promote the future “canonization” of the president.