Three weeks in, the new administration of Xi Jinping has already begun work on a major project that represents a sharp break from the Hu administration: spin.
Xi's speeches and appearances of the past month have drawn a sharp contrast with his predecessor’s studied lack of personality. His public speeches as leader of the Party have been brief and given in plain Chinese – a sharp contrast to Hu Jintao, who often seemed to have no existence outside state ceremonies and to speak no language other than the Party's socialist theory jargon.
This was dramatically illustrated last Tuesday as Xi spoke to the press after touring the National Museum's “Road to Revival” exhibit – speaking in a casual setting, surrounded by his Standing Committee colleagues in windbreakers.
This new tone is not a matter of personal style – the entire Party is being strongly encouraged to follow suit in “waging war against formalism and bureaucracy,” as an editorial from the official Xinhua news agency noted The People's Daily likewise devoted days of coverage to an alleged outpouring of popular enthusiasm for a phrase from Xi's gallery speech, “the Chinese dream.”
According to these stories, the idea of the Chinese dream has taken ahold of Weibo users, inspiring them to share their dreams of a resurgent and powerful nation – in this telling, it is a collectivist counterpoint to the American dream. The most dramatic of the People's Daily stories’ claims has Xi's words inspiring overseas Chinese, emigrant families, and, oddly, exchange students to reclaim their national pride and dream of a strong China. There seems to be little truth to these stories, but that's not the point – the People's Daily is much less a propaganda mouthpiece than it is the in-house journal of the Party, a sort of forum for sharing best practices for administering an authoritarian state. It is, to be sure, not a gospel source for politically correct ideas.
But in this case they seem to have interpreted Xi's goals correctly: to construct a more open and charismatic Communism that makes people excited to be Chinese. Lest officials miss the point, the Politburo followed its gallery outing with a set of guidelines for being a modest bureaucrat – passing, on Tuesday, rules against officials covering themselves in the trappings of high office: when officials go traveling, they are to have “no welcome banner, no red carpet, no floral arrangement or grand receptions.”
How much of a departure is this from recent history? In personal style, the gap is pretty big. But there is nothing especially new about the fear that the arrogance of petty officials may undermine the legitimacy of the party.
The remarkable thing here is that Xi seems to be trying to sell himself, and encouraging lower-level officials to pursue personal popularity just a few months after the purge of Bo Xilai, a charismatic politician whose chief sins were flagrant self-promotion and individualism. His downfall seemed like a resounding victory for Hu Jintao's style of dodging attention and issuing all decisions from consensus. This style was one of Hu's strongest selling points to the leaders who chose him — a guarantee against a return to the strongman politics of the Mao era.
But it seems that Xi may have been studying Bo even as he condemned him. If Xi continues to develop his own brand, it suggests that he has made a real change of focus, from Hu's efforts to repair the party's legitimacy by internal reform to direct appeals to the people. It might also mean — and this would also be a major contrast to Hu — that he has enough support from the Standing Committee to act in a way that could strengthen him at their expense.