In details carried in the Chinese language report by Xinhua News Agency, but not in the English article, the Politburo summarized the current times as a “once in a hundred years” period of great change. To face the complex risks at home and abroad, the report said Chinese President and Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is “standing on a high place looking out, taking in the overall situation, has made a series of important scientific judgments and put forward a series of major strategies,” and has shown a “superb skill in the art of political leadership.”
Tucked in the flattering compliments, reminiscent of North Korean television broadcasts singing praise of top leader Kim Jong Un, was the title of “people’s leader” to describe Xi.
The underlying logic is that to cope with a once-in-a-century crisis, an outstanding leader who appears only once a century is needed.
People outside the party tend to think that after withstanding a dismal year in 2019, Xi’s status must be wavering. That is likely not the case.
Ironically, the unprecedented crisis has translated into a source of Xi’s power. The logic leads to an understanding that Xi can close in on the authority of Mao Zedong, who was deified as the revolutionary hero and founding father of a “new China.” Xi looks to be on his way to becoming’s the People’s Republic of China’s second “once-in-a-century leader.”
The year-end Politburo meetings were dubbed part of a series of “democratic life meetings” of criticism and self-criticism.
Mao too had deep ties with democratic life meetings.
His Great Leap Forward campaign, from 1958 to 1961, pursued impossibly big increases in China’s agricultural and industrial production, failed miserably and resulted in tens of millions of people starving to death, according to estimates. It was at the democratic life meetings held after the Great Leap Forward that officials performed self-criticism in the name of “intraparty democracy.”
In reality, democratic life meetings were a stage for bitter power struggles. In 1987, Hu Yaobang, the reformist general secretary who was popular with the public, was ousted from power after being held accountable at a democratic life meeting for being too soft in his handling of nationwide student protests calling for democratization.
Today, democratic life meetings have become venues to enhance Xi’s authority, deviating from their original purpose of encouraging free and lively discussions within the party. This trend gradually grew clear after Xi became China’s top leader.
Xi used a bruising anti-corruption campaign to consolidate his power, and democratic life meetings played a role in promoting the crackdown. Two years ago, under Xi’s guidance, detailed implementation rules for democratic life meetings were set.
The highlight of the year-end democratic life meeting was the use of the ultimate title, “the people’s leader.” It marked the first step toward deifying Xi. Throughout party history, only Mao had been referred to as “the people’s leader.”
The designation was used in the headline of an article published last summer on the front page of the People’s Daily, a party mouthpiece, but had gone unmentioned for a while. Now it has returned to the forefront, in an official statement issued at an important meeting of the Politburo.