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Understanding Xi’s China

The dangers of the “cult of personality”


Members of a Chinese military honor guard play basketball last month near a poster of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and slogans calling for loyalty and duty. Associated Press/Photo by Ng Han Guan

Understanding Xi’s China
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With Beijing’s aggressiveness on the rise, what are we now to make of Chinese leader Xi Jinping? Sadly, like other dangerous despots in Pyongyang and Moscow, Xi has carefully nurtured a “cult of personality” and throttled competing voices. This is a danger to the West because it is a sharp departure from the consensual governing style chosen by Chinese Communist Party elites from 1990 to 2010.

Karl Marx rejected the hero worship of his followers, stating his “antipathy to any cult of the individual … superstitious worship of authority.”

In 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev used Marx’s “antipathy” to demolish his predecessor Josef Stalin’s destructive cult of personality. The lessons drawn from Khrushchev’s secret four-hour speech titled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” apply to demagogues from Hitler to Castro to Xi.

First, Stalin weakened consensual leadership and healthy debate, ignoring “the norms of party life” and violating “the Leninist principle of collective party leadership.” Second, Stalin created massive fear and repression, sending individuals, families, and entire groups to the gulags.

Stalin centered all media on himself, claiming to be “the new genius” and “hero” of the Communist Party. This extended to Stalin’s role in World War II. Khrushchev reported that through “novels, films, and historical scientific studies, the role of Stalin in the patriotic war seems to be entirely improbable.” Ubiquitous billboards and posters showcased the four great minds of communism—a sort of Soviet-style Mount Rushmore with Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin alongside Stalin.

In his Short Biography, Stalin “self-glorified” himself as “the greatest leader, sublime strategist of all times and nations.” Khrushchev concluded, “Finally no other words could be found with which to lift Stalin up to the heavens.” Earlier in his speech, he noted, “You see to what Stalin’s mania for greatness led. He had completely lost consciousness of reality; he demonstrated his suspicion and haughtiness not only in relation to individuals in the USSR, but in relation to whole parties and nations.”

In Stalin’s mania and increasing paranoia, he bullied not just his enemies but also his friends and allies. With this in mind, can we imagine just how dangerous it would be if Xi were to lose consciousness of reality? Sadly, he may already be well down this path.

First, Xi has wholly undermined the collective and consensual approach of the senior Communist Party leadership, abolishing the party’s system of presidential term limits and essentially declaring himself leader for life in 2018. At present, Xi guides all aspects of the direction of the Chinese Communist Party and the country.

China’s “Great Internet Wall” of censorship makes Xi largely immune from criticism.

Xi is ruthless in employing fear and repression. Poorly performing bureaucrats or potential rivals are often quietly dismissed or thrown in prison. Domestic repression of minority groups, whether intensified attacks on Christians, the concentration camps for Muslim Uyghurs, or the brutal crackdowns on Hong Kong—all testify to Xi’s increasingly authoritarian actions.

Perhaps most importantly, Xi has fostered a domestic cult of personality promoting his persona in every aspect of Chinese society. Just as Stalin’s face and statues were seen everywhere in the Soviet Union, today in China, Xi’s larger-than-life headshot and quotations can be seen everywhere. The people perform songs about him, news videos and headline stories feature his every move, and school children learn the wise sayings of Father Xi.

There is even a President Xi trivia game show on Chinese television. Participants are asked obscure questions about everything from Xi growing up in a cave to his priorities as a provincial administrator.

Xi’s publications have become part of the official canon alongside the writings of former Chinese communist strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. This is precisely what Stalin did with his biography alongside the writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

In Beijing’s bullying tactics in the South China Sea, this deliberate ruthlessness is increasingly directed abroad, toward the Philippines and other governments, and particularly toward Taiwan.

Naive Westerners think that the social media era makes such careful image control impossible: Surely the truth will come out on the internet? That is just not the case. China’s “Great Internet Wall” of censorship makes Xi largely immune from criticism.

It is deeply concerning to see Xi is on the same path as Stalin. Chinese patriots should make every effort to counteract the increasingly unfettered cult of the strongman. Megalomaniac leaders like Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot who rewrite history by putting themselves at the center of every story, come to believe the narratives they create. Then they look for imagined enemies all around them, creating havoc and suffering. Xi’s media sycophants rewrite history every day.

It’s time that nations in the West realize the rising threat of China and understand that the problem starts at the top.


Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.


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