China's President May be Heading For 'Strongman' Style of Leadership: Analysts

Xi Jinping recently placed a rising political star under investigation for graft, while analysts say there are signs of a nascent personality cult around the country's president.

Chinese leaders' faces -- Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao -- are printed on a badge sold as a souvenir at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Aug. 1, 2017.

Chinese President Xi Jinping may be gearing up to abolish a system of collective leadership and return to the strongman politics of the past at a major political congress later this year, analysts said on Monday.

Last month, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's anti-graft arm announced that rising political star Sun Zhengcai, a man once tipped to be Xi's successor, is under investigation for "serious disciplinary offenses," in a move which analysts said is an indicator that Xi wants more power concentrated in his own hands.

Sun's political downfall comes ahead of the 19th Party Congress, at which Xi is expected to further consolidate his personal power, possibly at the expense of the more collective form of leadership wielded by the seven-man Politburo standing committee in recent years.

Political commentators say the selective nature of the anti-corruption campaign waged by Xi since he took power in November 2012 indicates that the president's political rivals are most likely to be targeted, however.

Chinese constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan said there is no turning back for Xi, who has already succeeded in making himself a "core" party leader in a bid for the sort of supreme power wielded by late supreme leaders Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong.

"When the Mao era ended, there was no obvious strongman to emerge, so Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun ruled together," Zhang said. "Now, Xi looks likely to shrug off any form of collective leadership altogether, or the influence of party elders, and run the whole show himself."

"From his point of view, I don't think there's any going back now; he will have to go for all-out dictatorship now for the rest of his life. He won't be able to retire," he said. "All of the power and all of the political risk will be concentrated in his hands."

'Xi Jinping Thought'

Hong Kong political commentator Liu Ruishao said the declining health of former president Jiang Zemin had led to a power vacuum that Xi is keen to fill.

"Xi Jinping has been continually bolstering his status as core leader, and we are even starting to see [references to] Xi Jinping Thought lately," Liu said. "He has made amendments to laws and to the party constitution to shore up his personal position."

"No other person or political force has emerged that can moderate Xi's influence, or balance his power," he said.

Liu said reports are emerging from China's secretive political establishment that Xi is getting ready to expand the membership of the existing Politburo from 25 to 35, and abolish the Politburo standing committee, which has wielded a form of collective leadership since Deng's era of economic reforms during the 1980s.

"In that scenario, you would have a president wielding enormous power," Liu said. "But many other possibilities exist too."

Political commentator Wei Pu said Xi appears to be encouraging a cult of personality in the style of Mao Zedong.

"Why would Xi Jinping accept, support or encourage a cult of personality, when he himself and his own parents have suffered so much because of the cult of personality under Mao Zedong?" Wei wrote in a recent commentary for RFA's Cantonese Service.

"It is clear that Xi Jinping needs this sort of adulation, to ensure loyalty among the party and the military," he wrote. "He also needs the loyalty of intellectuals and the whole of society."

"But the real question here is why? Perhaps he is using it to further consolidate his personal position and power, and to become a leader in the style of Mao Zedong, where everyone has to sing along, and any opponents die."

New internet rules for cadres

Commentator Liang Jingping, also writing for the Cantonese Service, said the rise of Xi's strongman image and his sloganeering about the "Chinese dream" may have been influenced by the leadership style of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

"This means that those in power use the power of the state to frighten and bamboozle people, so they no longer know which way is up, and what is true and what is false," Liang wrote. "Under the Chinese Dream, no speech or truth-telling can be permitted that challenges the rhetoric of the dream."

"And we are beginning to see that modern information technology doesn't necessarily enable people to challenge their leaders."

As the Communist Party gears up for the all-important 19th Party Congress, expected in November, the administration of President Xi Jinping has issued new rules aimed at limiting what party members can do online.

In an "opinion" issued last week, the party's powerful Central Propaganda Department warned its more than 60 million rank-and-file members not to engage in any "illegal" online behavior.

In a hint that the president is concerned about dissent within party ranks, forbidden online actions include not organizing or participating in any form of political opposition, including via forums, social media, or live chat.

Party members are also to stay away from any form of online religious or "cult" activities, as well as refrain from "conniving" with religious extremists, separatists, and terrorists, it said.

Government censors have recently moved to crack down on any form of online satire targeting the president, including any social media tweets containing a reference to Winnie the Pooh, after a satirical image drawing parallels between the cuddly bear and Xi circulated online.

The image showed the Disney version of Pooh and Tigger alongside a photograph of Xi and former U.S. President Barack Obama during their "shirtsleeves summit" in June 2013.

Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.