On August 25, 2019, the official People’s Daily newspaper ran a bold headline on the front page that included a term that caused some observers to sit up and take notice. “The people’s leader loves the people,” the headline read.
The term “people’s leader” is a rare title of praise in China’s political discourse, reminiscent of the personality cult that prevailed during the Mao Zedong era, and its re-emergence was rightly read by many as a further aggrandizing of Xi Jinping. The appellation was apparently greenlighted by the Chinese Communist Party at a conclave in Beidaihe that same month.
Interest in Xi’s latest title, used again at a meeting of the elite Politburo last month, has persisted. Just this week, the Straits Times noted that use of the term “shows President Xi’s firm grip on power despite a challenging past year.”
The reference to Xi Jinping as the “people’s leader” first came about six months after Xi Jinping was designated as the “core” in October 2016. In reporting on an internal CCP study campaign on April 17, 2017, the People’s Daily said that the curriculum focused on “looking back on the resolute and core role of the people’s leader for our Party at important historical moments, leading everyone to build a solid foundation of loyalty and maintain the core.”
In October 2017, right around the 19th National Congress of the CCP, Party media began using a new phrase to describe Xi, who was formally given a second term as general secretary. He was referred to as “the core of the Party, commander of the army and people’s leader” (党的核心，军队统帅，人民领袖). In the run-up to the congress, some local leaders in China, considering and calculating their own political futures, made declarations of fealty to Xi that were fawning in a way reminiscent of the Mao era, and quite out of keeping with language in the CCP charter about avoiding cults of personality.
Rumors circulated at that time that the central authorities had issued guidelines to caution against acts of excessive praise, and on November 1, 2017, the CCP released a “Decision” outlining three phrases that were acceptable when it came to signaling Xi’s preeminence and stroking his ego. These were: “Loved by the entire Party” (全党拥护), “loved and respected by the people” (人民爱戴) and “full worthy and deserving [of core leadership status]” (当之无愧).
After a local Party newspaper in Guizhou province, Qianxinan Daily, referred to Xi Jinping as “great leader,” or weida lingxiu (伟大领袖), on its front page on November 10, 2017, the digital version of the newspaper was doctored to remove the page – a sign that the central leadership was still wary of seeming excessive or premature.
As I said before, the term “people’s leader” to refer to Xi Jinping actually emerged in April 2017, but such elevated praise was more cautious and exploratory, the 19th National Congress and its internal power-brokering almost certainly playing an important role behind the scenes. But by the end of 2017 and through to February-March 2018, Xi seemed to be in a strong position, his unwieldy banner term, “Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era” having been written into the Party charter and set to be added to the preamble of the state constitution, along with an amendment on presidential term limits. The inclusion of Xi’s name in his banner term was a clear political victory not achieved by any leader since Mao and Deng.
In January 2018, the term “peoples leader,” or renmin lingxiu, re-emerged, as though Xi and his allies apparently saw an opening. The Global Times reported that month that this was “the first time for People’s Daily to refer to Xi as lingxiu,” an act it referred to as “swearing allegiance” to Xi. This was not entirely accurate, as we have seen, but perhaps there was a feeling that the term had come out of hibernation.
As the March National People’s Congress drew nearer, many headlines appeared in newspapers across the country referring to Xi as the “people’s leader.” These often occurred within the phrase “the people’s leader is loved by the people” (人民领袖人民爱).
But the climate was about to shift. By late March 2018, warm relations between the US and China, trailing in the wake of President Trump’s November 2017 state visit to China, were rapidly chilling. On March 22, President Trump signed a memorandum directing a series of tariffs and restrictions against China. The ensuing trade war was a shock to China’s political system, and internal fault lines could be glimpsed as propaganda officials made some attempts to calm a rising national exuberance, much of it focused on the personality of Xi, that risked becoming insensate arrogance.
By the second half of 2018, the brakes were clearly being applied. We find a unmistakable drop in use of phrases like “core of the Party, commander of the army, people’s leader.” Looking at the People’s Daily alone, we can note that 47 articles in 2018 made use of “people’s leader,” most of these clustered in the first quarter, ahead of the NPC. In 2019, use of the term was halved to 23 articles. But if we look more broadly at use of the term in newspapers across the country, based on the QianFang database, the fall is much more obvious, 2018 forming an abrupt peak, following by a precipitous decline.
Why then did the use of “people’s leader” in the People’s Daily cause such a wave of interest and speculation on August 25 last year? The reason is that the term appeared in a prominent headline on the front page of the newspaper, right under the masthead. This was in fact the first time it had appeared in a headline, and it seemed a visual declaration of intent, a sign that Xi and those close to him were once again ready to test the waters.
Last month, the Politburo held a special conference on “democratic life” that gave us a further glimpse of recent shifts in the discourse of praise. How the conference promoted democracy is unclear, but the following passage from an article appearing in the People’s Daily on December 28, 2019, elucidates the true purpose of the meeting:
The conference emphasized that protecting General Secretary Xi Jinping’s status as the core of the central Party, and the core of the whole Party, and protecting the Party’s centralized authority and unified leadership, is the fundamental political guarantee of the steady and forward development of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era.
The article spoke of the need to address “major tasks,” about facing a “great struggle of historical character,” and so on. But perhaps most importantly, it said that “General Secretary Xi Jinping is looking ahead,” while “evincing the firm idealism and faith of a Party member, and the deep feelings for the people of a people’s leader.”
Is this the start of a new round of worshipful praise for China’s top leader? Yes, possibly. But we must continue to observe the development of this term “people’s leader.” It is quite possible that in 2020 it will experience a notable rise, which of course would be reflective of Xi’s further consolidation of power and strengthening of his position.