The recent Xi Jinping in a taxi story has captivated and puzzled people in China and abroad. Absurd as the incident is, it is worth paying close attention to – as it may be a sign that Xi has hit the limits of self-promotion for a Chinese president.
At first, the story appeared to be a cheesy PR stunt – Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, reported that Xi had taken a taxi ride in early March, getting into a conversation with one of Beijing’s famously opinionated cabbies. It immediately became the top story on Chinese social media and much of its official media, with many drawing comparisons to the Qing Emperor Qianlong, who famously walked Beijing’s streets incognito. It may have been inspired by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke’s unintentional PR victory during his arrival in Beijing, when he declined an official limousine.
But by the end of the day the story had gone full circle, from sanctioned to suppressed. Xinhua issued a firm denial, while Ta Kung Pao apologized for the story, writing that “Such a major case of false news should absolutely never have happened.”
No one writing in public has the real story of what happened, at least so far – but it is worth tracking this story in the context of China’s fraught relationship with personal self-promotion. Xi’s campaign to establish himself as a popular leader has already pushed the boundaries of post-Deng Xiaoping collective leadership, and we should not be surprised if he has encountered serious resistance from within the Party.
Since the Deng era, the one overarching rule of China’s politics has been power-sharing – scarred by the Cultural Revolution and determined to prevent the rise of another Mao, the Party developed a system of checks and balances within one-party rule. This involved both sharing substantial responsibilities, with areas of policy divvied up among the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, and sharing credit, with policies and decisions announced as the collective will of the committee.
In dealing with his peers, Hu Jintao’s blandness and love of impenetrable party jargon were political assets – nobody fears that you’re going build a cult of personality if you don’t have a personality. I’ve also written about the strength of this rule in the context of Bo Xilai’s rise and fall. I strongly believed that Bo’s real crime was branding – conspicuously promoting his own image outside the confines of the party.
But as soon as Xi took power, the rules of the game appeared to change: within a month of his succession, the new president was out in public pushing his own image as an inspiring reformer. Since then, he has broken precedent after precedent – experimenting with social media, introducing his wife as a glamorous first lady, and stamping his own brand on a high-profile drive to end official extravagance. It’s a remarkable change in tone from the Hu era, and it’s remarkable that Xi’s colleagues have accepted it – although Xi has a strong case that his reformist image bolsters the Party’s sagging legitimacy with the Chinese public.
If the taxi story is part of this campaign of self-promotion, its sudden withdrawal suggests that Xi has found its limit – that he has reached the point at which his colleagues are more nervous about his personal popularity than they are glad of the public approval it seems to have earned.
Xi’s bid for publicity preeminence, even when comical, is an effort with deadly serious dimensions. It’s something that might have to succeed in order for major reforms to take place: the Hu era seems to demonstrate that collective leadership is not up to the task of taking on China’s largest entrenched interests. So the success of a strategy like Xi’s might be the only way to push big changes through.