China's Universities, Officials Rush to Join Personality Cult Around President

Some 20 institutions of higher education have set up research centers to study "Xi Jinping Thought," as public portraits of China's latest "core leader" are put on display across the country.

Memorial plates depicting revolutionary leader Mao Zedong (L) next to newly elevated Xi Jinping, suggesting China is trying to foster a cult of personality around Xi, on sale on a Beijing street, Oct. 27, 2017.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is setting to work to bring the president's newly minted "Xi Jinping Thought" into every aspect of public life, including as a research topic in universities, as large portraits of the "core leader" begin to be displayed prominently in public spaces.

The move comes after "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" was enshrined in the party constitution at the 19th party congress earlier this month.

The congress passed a resolution saying that the president's thought had "systematically addressed the major question of our times — what kind of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era requires us to uphold and develop and how we should uphold and develop it."

Xi's ideas will now be taught, researched and promoted in universities across the country.

According to state media, at least 20 universities have set up research institutes for the study of Xi's ideology, which Xi is also hoping will serve as a model to other countries.

"The path, theory, system and culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics have kept developing, blazing a trail for other developing countries," the president told the congress on Oct. 18.

"It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence; and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind," he said.

An official who answered the phone at the Tianjin University of Finance and Economics' propaganda department said their new research center for Xi Jinping Thought may not have been the first in the country, but was among the first batch.

"Quite a lot of universities set them up on the same day," the official said. "Everyone is vying with each other. We made the first batch."

Elsewhere, Hunan Normal University has set up a Xi Thought research center, founding head Jiang Hongxin told party mouthpiece the People's Daily, while Renmin University professor Chen Xianda said his research center had a "unique duty" to promote the president's ideology.

'Brains and hearts'

And Wuhan Donghu University party secretary Zhou Qihong praised Xi's "generosity," pledging that his lessons would "enter brains and hearts."

The education ministry on Monday also set out guidelines for mandatory elementary and high school extracurricular programs that include activities to "foster emotional attachment to the Chinese Communist Party," Agence France-Presse reported.

Former top party aide Bao Tong dismissed talk of a "new era," however, saying institutions are merely responding to Xi's "core leadership" status in the party, a status only accorded to late supreme leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping before him.

"Everyone is scrambling to align themselves with the core," Bao said. "When Xi Jinping met with reporters, he told them they can tell the truth, that we don't need to hear flattering praises."

"Well the truth about the new era is that Stalin announced a new era ... and 100 years later everyone realized that there was no such thing," he said. "The new era doesn't exist."

Beijing-based constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan said the universities are racing to join a growing personality cult around Xi.

"They want to get them when they're children, get them at university, so as to strengthen this cult of personality," Zhang said. "The Communist Party is very good at this sort of thing; they have a history of doing it, and they also have the wherewithal to do it now."

"During the era when Mao was deified, people really believed that stuff," Zhang said. "But today, it's more like a dissociated personality: I don't think these people lack normal powers of judgement; what we're seeing now is the hedging of bets and jumping on the bandwagon."

Qinghua University professor Li Dun said the insertion of ideological "study" into academic institutions is also evidence of an ever-widening power grab by Xi and his administration.

"This is a systemic change, in which the universities just become an arm of the government," Li said. "It is getting worse and worse."

"It's pretty regressive for these people to be embracing the cult of personality like that; are some taking it upon themselves, or are they being told to do it from the top down?"

Largely content-free

Hu Ping, the New York-based editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring, said Xi's thought is largely content-free, however.

"Xi Jinping's so-called ideology for nation-building has been much-lauded, but really it's mostly hot air," Hu told RFA. "But now, it bears the branding of absolute power."

"This is typical of Communist Party dictators; they build themselves up using ideology."

Xia Ming, a political science professor at the The City University of New York, agreed.

"At least Deng Xiaoping Theory was an ideology of opening up, and seeking truth from facts," Xia said, in a reference to the 30 years of economic reforms begun by Deng in 1979.

"The claim that Xi Jinping Thought will bring about a more democratic and prosperous society for China is highly dubious, and hasn't been tested by history."

"Like Mao Zedong Thought, Xi Jinping Thought rests only on its own premises, and when such ideas have prevailed in the party in the past, it has brought about disastrous consequences for China," he said.

A Chinese historian who declined to be identified said large portraits of Xi have begun popping up alongside Mao portraits around China, as well as being prominently displayed on the front pages of state media.

"Since the 19th party congress ended and the Politburo passed its resolution, because they enshrined it in a document, this has had a ripple effect around the country," the scholar said.

"Including the sudden appearance [on Monday] of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping portraits side by side on a street in Shanghai at the gates of a government department," he said.

He said local officials will likely continue to find public ways to demonstrate their loyalty to Xi in the wake of the 19th party congress.

Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng and Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.