The World

Uncle Xi’s Astonishing Power Grab

Chinese President Xi Jinping stands by national flags at the Schloss Bellevue presidential residency in Berlin on March 28, 2014. 

Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a second annual televised New Year’s Eve address two days ago, establishing what seems to be a new tradition. The content of the speeches—this year, Xi told viewers that over the past 12 months, China had “pressed ahead with reform, cracked many hard nuts and introduced important reforms close to the interests of our citizens”—may be less interesting than the location: Xi’s office.

The public doesn’t usually get to peek inside the president’s workspace. It’s so unusual that, as Shanghaiist reports, Chinese media outlets and Internet users have been analyzing the décor of the tidy, computerless office, paying particularly close attention to the photos of family members and of his meetings with ordinary citizens placed behind him, some of which have changed since last year.

None of this seems particularly illuminating—stunningly, for a politician, Xi wants you to know he loves his family and cares about people like you—but these touches of humanity are notable in a Chinese politician. Since the personality cult excesses of the Mao era, the Chinese government has tended to emphasize the collective leadership of the party rather than individual leaders. A 1980 directive from the party’s central committee explicitly called for “less propaganda on individuals.” The emphasis on uniformity is such that former Premier Zhu Rongji was praised for his bravery last year when he appeared at a party congress with gray hair. Most of his compatriots dye theirs jet-black. For up-and-coming Chinese leaders, having a word like flamboyant attached to your name has tended to be a liability.   

In contrast to his predecessors—the famously inexpressive Hu Jintao’s fondness for table tennis and ballroom dancing was erased from his official biography after he took over as party chief—Xi seems intent on demonstrating that he’s a real person with something of a personality. He likes to joke around with reporters and even engages in some (mild) self-deprecation. Last year he caused something of a sensation by visiting a Beijing lunch counter, waiting online, and paying for his humble lunch of pork dumplings himself. He’s been depicted in an unexpectedly playful cartoon. He’s often referred to on China’s tightly controlled Internet as “Uncle Xi” or “Xi Dada.” He’s comparatively relaxed in speeches, and his aspirational catchphrase, the “Chinese dream,” is a departure from Hu’s inscrutable public pronouncements.

Xi’s wife, folk singer Peng Liyuan, was already a celebrity before she became first lady and has become something of a fashion icon. Their marriage inspired a viral tribute song, titled, “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama.”

This is still pretty mild stuff compared with some other-world leaders. Don’t expect Xi to starting playing miraculous golf games like Kim Jong-il or posing shirtless like Vladimir Putin. (For one thing, the censors seem a bit sensitive when it comes to his weight.) The Xi appeal is also a long way from Mao badges and little red books. But a study published over the summer by researchers at the University of Hong Kong found that China’s state media has mentioned Xi’s name more than twice as frequently as his predecessors during the first 18 months of their respective presidencies. According to the study, Xi has been the subject of more personalized attention than any leader since Mao and his immediate successor Hua Guofeng.

The emphasis on Xi as an individual is also noteworthy at a time when he is consolidating power on an unprecedented scale. As of October, nearly 75,000 Communist Party members had been investigated as part of Xi’s ongoing anti-corruption probe, according to the People’s Daily, with 27 percent of them receiving punishment. The worst punishment the party’s anti-corruption commission can mete out is expulsion, but if, as often happens, cases are transferred to the judicial branch, officials can receive a range of sentences  including the death penalty.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has targeted both “flies”—low-ranking local and provincial officials who allegedly took bribes—and high-ranking “tigers.” The biggest tiger so far has been Zhou Yongkang, a former domestic security chief thought to be untouchable until he was placed under investigation last summer. Today, Zhang Kunsheng, an assistant foreign minister, became the latest “tiger” brought down by the probe when he was removed from his position on suspicion of having “violated discipline,” a euphemism for corruption. Two influential generals also resigned in what analysts say is a sign of Xi’s increasing control over the military.

Opinion among China watchers is divided as to whether the campaign is motivated by a genuine concern about corruption and its impact on China’s economic growth or is cover for an old-fashioned party purge meant to consolidate power for Xi and his small inner circle.

It could very well be both. Amid the probe, Xi has also taken steps to increase his control over China’s vast foreign-policy and domestic security bureaucracies. State control over the Internet has been tightened, including most recently, the blocking of Gmail. Foreign news organizations, including Bloomberg, which ran an investigation on Xi’s personal wealth in 2012, have been punished.

Nearing the end of the second year of his presidency, it’s clear that Xi doesn’t plan on being an anonymous suit. He’s harnessed widespread public anger over corruption to consolidate control while carefully cultivating a public profile to match. Working in a system that normally prioritizes collective leadership, he seems intent on emphasizing personal influence. But with serious economic, military, and environmental challenges looming, what’s less clear is what he plans on doing with it.