Chinese leader Xi Jinping seeks support of young people amid lockdown restrictions

Xi is hoping to boost his own personality cult ahead of a key party congress later in the year, analysts say.
By Hsia Hsiao-hwa, Yitong Wu, Chingman and Fong Tak Ho
2022.04.30
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Chinese leader Xi Jinping seeks support of young people amid lockdown restrictions A man reads a book in front of a board with an image of China's President Xi Jinping at a book store during World Book Day in Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning province, April 23, 2020.
AFP

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has called on China's young people to get behind the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a recent visit to a university reminiscent of the Mao era, as "little red books" of his personal brand of ideology made an appearance in Guangxi.

In an April 25 speech to staff and students, Xi said young people should: "Unswervingly obey the party, follow its direction, and strive to grow into heirs of the era worthy of the important task of national rejuvenation."

The visit came ahead of the anniversary of a century-old student-led May Fourth Movement (1919) previously lauded by Xi for its "patriotic spirit."

The 100-year-old student-led movement was sparked by popular anger at the Treaty of Versailles and the concession of a huge tract of Chinese territory to Japan.

Describing the country's youth as the "oar," and Xi's Chinese Dream slogan as the "sail," Xi appeared to encourage young people to travel the country, as they did during the decade of political turmoil instigated by Mao and now known as the Cultural Revolution.

"Measure the motherland with your footsteps, discover the spirit of China with your eyes, listen to the voice of the people with your ears, and sense the pulse of the times with your hearts," Xi told them, calling for "creative transformation and innovative development" stemming from traditional Chinese culture.

Yet, as he spoke, tens of millions of people remained under a grueling COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai and other Chinese cities, while Xi addressed students without wearing a mask.

The visit came after authorities in the southwestern region of Guangxi announced the publication of a Mao Zedong-style "little red book" of Xi's political ideology, an indication of the growing personality cult Xi is seeking to build around himself, analysts said.

Chen Lee-fu, vice president of the Taiwan Professors Association, leaders of dictatorial regimes, including North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian president Vladimir Putin, rarely wear masks, believing that it is detrimental to their strongman image, and makes them look like a patient.

Decorative plates and cups featuring images of Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen in front of a plate featuring late communist leader Mao Zedong (top L) at a souvenir store next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Feb. 27, 2018. Credit: AFP
Decorative plates and cups featuring images of Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen in front of a plate featuring late communist leader Mao Zedong (top L) at a souvenir store next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Feb. 27, 2018. Credit: AFP
'Red gene'

However, all of Xi's entourage were masked, Chen said, sending the message that the country's leader would be protected from COVID-19, which is currently ripping across the country.

State news agency Xinhua said the visit was significant because Renmin University, also known as the People's University, was the first to be founded by the CCP.

Xi's visit on the eve of May 4th was to emphasize that the university must inherit the "red gene," and cultivate the next generation of socialists, the agency said.

Taiwan-based dissident Gong Yujian said the CCP, for all its idealization of the May Fourth Movement, wouldn't tolerate any kind of actual protest by young people in real life.

"The CCP won power through rebellion, so no it fears a popular rebellion more than anything," Gong said. "There are people in Shanghai openly calling for the overthrow of the CCP and of Xi Jinping, but the real threat is the secondary disaster and casualties caused by the inhumane lockdowns, in which people have lost their lives."

"Only rioting will make Xi Jinping feel any real fear," he said, speaking as teams of workers continued to put up steel fences blocking major thoroughfares in Shanghai, and walling people into their buildings.

Chen said Xi is currently seeking to build a groundswell of public support ahead of the CCP's 20th Party Congress later this year, at which he will seek an unprecedented third term in office.

But he said there are key differences between Xi and his late predecessor, Mao Zedong.

"Back then, Mao Zedong called for the elimination of traditional Chinese bureaucracy and elite politics," Chen said. "He gave young people a plan: to overthrow everything, and start over from scratch."

"The big dream of young people in the Mao era was to surpass Britain and catch up to the United States."

China's President Xi Jinping with a face mask is displayed as people visit an exhibition about China’s fight against the COVID-19 coronavirus, Jan. 15, 2021. Credit: AFP
China's President Xi Jinping with a face mask is displayed as people visit an exhibition about China’s fight against the COVID-19 coronavirus, Jan. 15, 2021. Credit: AFP
Xi's Red Guards

Chen said the plan was unlikely to work for Xi, despite his recent calls for Chinese economic output to surpass that of the United States this year.

"They have lived through the good years before Trump and Xi Jinping, before the conflict between the US and China," Chen said. "This is the generation of Alibaba, of free trade and studying overseas."

"Now studying overseas isn't an option, Belt and Road projects are failing, the whole country is under pandemic lockdown, and even expressing an opinion online can get you deleted or harassed," he said. "All of this has happened in the last two or three years."

"The students know very well that Xi Jinping's growing power has entailed reductions to their power and freedoms, so there is no way they will truly support him," Chen said. "How can China imagine it will displace the United States when all the cities are locked down and there's no food to eat ... foreign capital is leaving, and there are no jobs."

He added: "Chinese universities are no longer places to nurture intellectuals and independent thought. They are the cradle of the CCP ... places for Xi Jinping to cultivate his own army of Red Guards."

Sweden-based Zhang Yu, secretary-general of the Independent Chinese PEN Association, said the reappearance of the little red books in Guangxi are evidence of a nationwide propaganda campaign encouraging the cult of personality around Xi ahead of the 20th Party Congress.

"With this mass propaganda movement in Guangxi, they are stepping up the praise of Xi and his so-called ideology in China ahead of the 20th Party Congress," Zhang told RFA. "They absolutely want to try to recreate the collective hysteria of the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976]."

"The nightmare, it seems, has begun."

Zhang said the move comes despite a ban on personality cults in the CCP charter, inserted after the fall of the Gang of Four and the death of Mao in 1976.

Books by Chinese President Xi Jinping are set out on display at a booth at the annual Hong Kong Book Fair in Hong Kong , July 17, 2021. Credit: AFP
Books by Chinese President Xi Jinping are set out on display at a booth at the annual Hong Kong Book Fair in Hong Kong , July 17, 2021. Credit: AFP
Little red book

Fellow independent PEN member Zhao Dongji said in an open letter of protest to the the CCP's disciplinary arm that Guangxi party secretary Liu Ning had breached the party charter, calling for an investigation.

Repeated attempts to call Liu, Guangxi officials and Zhao were unsuccessful at the time of writing.

The propaganda department of the Nanning municipal party committee in Guangxi did not respond to a request for comment.

New York-based activist Hu Ping said Guangxi was likely only a dry run for the little red book, which he said he expects to see rolled out nationwide in the coming months.

"Guangxi must be loyal to the leader, further enhance the cult of personality around Xi Jinping and create immortals, as well as plagiarizing Mao's little red book," Hu told RFA.

"By the 20th Party Congress, other regions will launch similar movements to further deify Xi Jinping ... a lot of these practices are very similar to those of Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution," he said.

But he said it's now hard to find true believers in Xi, his brand of political ideology, or in communism generally, among the crowds gathering to idolize him in public, unlike the Cultural Revolution.

"What pithy quotes has Xi ever said that everyone remembers?" Hu said. "At least there was some degree of sincerity in the Mao era and in the personality cult around Mao."

"Xi Jinping's personality cult relies on direct suppression [of dissent], and he is constantly putting out fires," he said. "It's ridiculous."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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