In recent days, the image above has been shared across social media in China, and it has caused considerable speculation and confusion. Is the man standing in the image President Xi Jinping?

The answer, in fact, is NO. The image is not that of Xi Jinping, though it most definitely resembles China’s current leader.

The image is one among 256 works appearing in Spring Tide on the Pearl River: A National Exhibition of Fine Arts Works to Commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Reform and Opening (大潮起珠江——庆祝改革开放40周年全国美术作品展), which is now on display at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC). And the man in the image is Xi Zhongxun (习仲勋), Xi Jinping’s father.

As for the rest of the characters, the three men on the left are (moving left to right): Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), Ye Jianying (叶剑英) and Deng Xiaoping (邓小平). The two men on the right are (moving from left to right): Yang Shangkun (杨尚昆) and Gu Mu (谷牧).

According to recent news reports, the painting is an oil called “Early Spring” (早春) which depicts the very beginnings of Reform and Opening, with Xi Zhongxun and other central Party leaders together making plans for the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.

Hua Guofeng, an important reform figure not depicted at all in the recent oil painting “Early Spring.”

Now for the historical facts. It was in April 1979 that the Chinese Communist Party held a Central Work Conference at which Xi Zhongxun, then First Secretary of the Guangdong Party Committee, formally requested that a special economic zone be built. Presiding over that meeting was the Party’s chairman and Premier, Hua Guofeng (华国锋) — a figure who does not appear in the painting.

If we return to the figures depicted, we can say that at the time Hu Yaobang was general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (中共中央秘书长); Gu Mu was vice-premier; Yang Shangkun was the second secretary of Guangdong province. On the right-hand side, both Ye Jianying and Deng Xiaoping were vice-chairmen of the Party.

In fact, neither Deng nor Ye were present at the meeting. The idea of the economic zone would have been reported to them by Xi Zhongxun.

Some scholars have grumbled against the painting on the grounds of opposing “historical nihilism,” saying it entirely expunges Chairman Hua Guofeng. Even more people have observed, however, that in the painting it doesn’t seem as though Xi Zhongxun is giving a report, or huibao (汇报), on the special economic zone, but rather is lecturing Deng Xiaoping. This reading, of course, goes very much against the grain of the typical Chinese Communist Party narrative about the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, which is that this idea was first raised by Deng Xiaoping.

The lyrics of Spring Story (春天的故事), a song that praises Deng Xiaoping, go like this: “The year was 1979, and that was in the spring / when an old man in our motherland, near the South China Sea marked out a ring.” But in this particular painting, the ring is being drawn by Xi Zhongxun — and all around him, other senior leaders gather like stars.

Since Xi Jinping came to power, we have seen a notable increase in attention paid to Xi Zhongxun in the official People’s Daily. We can make a comparison, for example, between Xi Zhongxun and Hu Yaobang, both of whom were important figures in promoting China’s economic reform process. Xi Zhongxun was selected as a member of the Secretariat of the Central Committee in June 1981, and the next year entered the Politburo. During this time, Hu Yaobang took over from Hua Guofeng to serve in the Party’s highest post. Hu’s status was without a doubt higher than Xi Zhongxun’s.

In 1987, Hu was forced out of office by conservatives within the Party. It was his death in 1989 that initiated student protests in Beijing and across the country. In the wake of June 4, 1989, Hu’s name became unspeakable. It was not until the Hu Jintao era that Hu Yaobang’s name was finally unloaded of its political sensitivity, or tuomin (脱敏).

In the five years from 2007 to 2012, “Hu Yaobang” appeared 64 times in the People’s Daily. By contrast, “Xi Zhongxun” appeared 24 times in the paper. So Hu Yaobang, you could say, had 2.7 times the exposure in the Party’s flagship newspaper in the five years prior to Xi Jinping’s rise to power.

The situation has reversed in the Xi Jinping era. In the five years from 2013 to 2017, “Xi Zhongxun” has appeared 98 times in the People’s Daily, 2.3 times more than the 42 appearances for “Hu Yaobang.” We should also note that in the past year — the last half of 2017 and the first half of 2018 — “Hu Yaobang” has not appeared at all, even as the 40th anniversary of Reform and Opening is upon us.

Here is a quick visualization of these two key reform figures in the People’s Daily since Xi Jinping came to power:

The gap opened starting in early 2016, and it was gaping by the end of that year, as Xi Jinping was anointed as the “core leader.” We see the gap depicted very clearly in “Early Spring,” the oil painting on display at the National Art Museum, and its reinvention of history tells us a great deal about the current environment surrounding the commemoration of 40 years of reform. The “Early Spring” belongs to the New Era of Xi Jinping.

This article was researched and written by Zhi Yin under the direction of CMP Co-Director Qian Gang.