by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Kremlin

IT HAS BEEN an strange fact that, with the removal of term limits that a Chinese president can serve, the elevation of Chinese president Xi Jinping has been rapid enough that Xi has already been claimed to have reached level of deification. This occurs despite the fact that, while the removal of term limits is widely seen as paving the path for lifetime rule by Xi, Xi has not formally announced lifetime rule.

Namely, it is still possible that Xi will, in the end, decide not to pursue lifetime rule. It is also quite possibly that Xi would not immediately make moves towards lifetime rule, instead claiming that he will stay on for further terms because of need to see through some “crisis” that China is facing. Then at the tail end of this, Xi would find another “crisis” to justify a further extension.

It is a common tactic of dictators to justify indefinite rule by indefinitely prolonging the time period before they claim they will step down, rather than to announce indefinite rule outright, in order to minimize blowback that might still may occur. In some cases, dictators will also change their official position while maintaining power because on some level, the formal appearance of term changes is still beneficial to their rule. This may occur with Xi.

Probably the earliest signs that Xi would seek indefinite rule came from the fact that Xi did not seek to groom any successors, as Chinese presidents should at least aim to do halfway through their terms, as well as how wide-ranging Xi’s “anti-corruption” campaign aimed at eliminating political rivals was. The wide-ranging scale of this campaign made it highly likely that Xi would never be able to step down, for fear that political rivals would take retribution against him, along the lines of how Xi himself moved to limit the movements of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. This would be another classical dilemma facing dictators or otherwise strongmen authoritarian leaders.

Nevertheless, another odd phenomenon has occurred in the week or so since moves by Xi to abolish term limits for Chinese president. Namely, the party secretary of Qinghai Province, Wang Guosheng would claim that Xi was viewed as a living bodhisattva Tibetans. Similarly, party officials claim that villagers in Yugan county in Jiangxi Prefecture “willingly” removed posters with Christian imagery to replace them with posters of Xi. Jiangxi Prefecture was previously an area in which Christian crosses from churches were forcibly removed by the CCP as part of efforts to crack down on Christianity. Yugan County party official Qi Yan claims that this is a indicative of that “should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help.”

It was an unusual characteristic of the personality cult surrounding Mao and Deng that Mao and Deng were literally worshipped as gods by some in China. Although this was not always the product of explicitly encouraging religious worship of Mao and Deng, this was something that naturally happened as a result of syncretic religious practices in China, and either way, the party did generally encourage the religious to abandon their religions to put their faith in the party. The party sometimes saw organized religion as a possible threat, hence attempts to crack down on religion, an attitude which persists today. Yet the party sometimes would also discourage folk worship of Mao or Deng as irrational elements of backwards traditions. 

With possible moves by Xi to put himself on the level of Mao and Deng as a lifetime ruler of China, it is not impossible that Xi will try to institute such a cult. Yet it is far, far more likely that such a cult would naturally emerge. Again, it should also be kept in mind that Xi himself had actually previously taken steps to curb elements of his personality cult when it became too effusive.

Along such lines, it generally seems that local-level government officials have decided to try and deify Xi of their own accord, perhaps hoping to impress their superiors through the achievement of pacifying restive religious minorities by turning them to Xi worship. This, too, would be an example in action of how personality cults are not always, in fact, imposed from above by the state, but sometimes can be a product of lower-level officials seeking to impress. And seeing as this has taken place with regards to minority religious groups such as Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese Christians, as a result of the lower-level officials in charge of handling them, this perhaps points to the direction of future treatment of religious minorities in China under Xi. The Xi regime may prove a informative case study of personality cults in formation, then, on a scale with few if any global equivalents.

But grim times seem to be ahead for China. The irony of centralization of power under Xi is that dangerous, unpredictable actions by China seem more than ever; the centralization of power under one man’s rule will remove the restraint that comes with having to deal with institutional checks. And so, although Xi has proven a highly rational political actor to date, irrational moves by China in the near future are not impossible. Namely, Xi is now able to defy institutional checks on his power, leading to the possibility of irrational behavior political behavior that would have otherwise been checked or at least dampened by the “wisdom of the crowd” of the Chinese party-state.

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