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‘To the Masses’: Decoding Xi Jinping’s Lunar New Year Visits

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‘To the Masses’: Decoding Xi Jinping’s Lunar New Year Visits

Understanding Xi’s take on a longstanding CCP tradition: visiting ordinary citizens ahead of the holiday season.

‘To the Masses’: Decoding Xi Jinping’s Lunar New Year Visits

In this Sept. 28, 2017, file photo, a visitor walks past an illuminated photo showing Chinese President Xi Jinping surrounded by children at an exhibition highlighting five years of progress under Xi’s leadership in Beijing.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Chinese state media Xinhua reported that President Xi Jinping visited the northern city of Tianjin on February 1 and 2, ahead of the traditional Lunar New Year. The visit continued a regular practice by Chinese leaders of engaging with grassroots communities as one year concludes and people from all walks of life slow down for the most important holiday break in China, commonly referred to as the Spring Festival. 

Ever since Deng Xiaoping toured Hangzhou during Lunar New Year in 1983, Communist Party leaders, including several general secretaries and other high-ranking officials, have always kept the habit of visiting ordinary citizens, military personnel, and various social groups during holiday season across the country. The tradition has deep roots in Chinese culture and politics, and it reflects the party’s efforts to connect with the masses, understand their living conditions, and strengthen its legitimacy among the people. 

A Party Tradition

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always promoted its connection to the masses since its founding. The party’s “mass line” was summarized as “from the masses, to the masses” by Mao Zedong in 1943. The mass line emphasizes the importance of maintaining a close connection between party members and ordinary masses, who are considered by the CCP as their most reliable supporters. The basic idea is to ensure that the political entity understands the needs, aspirations, and concerns of the broader population, particularly the working class and rural residents. Historically this connection is seen as crucial for the party to effectively represent the interests of the people and lead the revolutionary struggle.

In the early years of the CCP’s existence, especially during the revolutionary struggles against the Japanese invaders and the Kuomintang army, senior party leaders often participated in festival celebrations including opera performances and line dancing with local residents to rally support and reinforce the image of the Communist Party as a people-oriented organization. Such actions also showcased politicians’ commitment to serving the interests of local communities and cultivated their personal charisma. 

One of the goals for these festival interactions, which have survived to modern times, is the symbolic gesture of care. By visiting people during the most important time of the year, political leaders demonstrate their concern for the well-being of the population. This gesture aims to convey that elite party leaders are closely connected to the lives of ordinary citizens and cares about their happiness and prosperity. 

Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor as both Chinese president and general secretary of the party, and his premier Wen Jiabao, are known for their  Lunar New Year grassroots visits. During his tenure as the party’s top leader, Hu spent every Lunar New Year Day with local communities, often in the country’s backwoods such as the barren northwestern countryside of Gansu or the traditional revolutionary base of Jinggangshan. Wen took a similar approach, celebrating the Spring Festival with everyone from AIDS patients to coal miners. 

The visits have provided rare opportunities for Chinese leaders to interact directly with people and listen to common concerns. Top decision makers are thus able to gather firsthand information on social issues and public sentiment, which can be extremely difficult in authoritarian societies.

Xi’s Decade

Since taking power in 2012, Xi has transformed China with a sweeping vision for “great rejuvenation.” The CCP has tightened control on civil society, expanded economic statecraft, and consolidated the country’s status on the world stage. However, one constant thing among these changes is the top leader’s Lunar New Year visits. To this day, these visits remain irreplaceable opportunities for Xi to interact directly with the mass, strengthen local governance, and reinforce party initiatives. 

Made with Flourish

The table above summarizes all Spring Festival visits by Xi Jinping from 2013 to 2024. During these visits, the CCP leader has often promoted the party’s policies and initiatives, such as poverty alleviation efforts, economic development plans, and social welfare programs. 

Xi has made poverty alleviation a central focus of his leadership, pegged to his declaration that China had eradicated extreme poverty by 2020. One of the themes that clearly stands out through his decade of Lunar New Year visits is the so-called “war on poverty.” Especially on visits to rural areas and less developed regions, Xi has emphasized the importance of targeted poverty alleviation, inspected progress on poverty reduction projects, and encouraged local officials and residents to continue their efforts in “an effective transition from consolidating poverty alleviation achievements to promoting rural vitalization.”

Alongside poverty alleviation, Xi Jinping has championed the revitalization of rural areas and the agricultural sector. During his visits, he has stressed the significance of “rural vitalization,” demanding officials to work harder on agricultural modernization, rural infrastructure development, and improving living standards for farmers. Xi’s visits often include inspections of agricultural facilities, discussions with farmers, and the promotion of agricultural technologies and techniques. 

Environmental protection and ecological conservation have also become key priorities under Xi’s leadership. He has constantly highlighted the importance of ecological restoration, pollution control, and sustainable development on his Spring Festival tours. He has inspected environmental projects, encouraged the adoption of green technologies, and emphasized the need for ecological conservation efforts to safeguard China’s natural resources for future generations, echoing his famous slogan, “Mountains and rivers green are mountains of silver and gold.” 

Another common theme of Xi’s Lunar New Year visits is ethnic solidarity, often accompanied by his grand poverty alleviation scheme. Xi has stressed the importance of “speed[ing] up the development of ethnic minorities and areas with large ethnic minority populations” as vital steps in China’s overall development course. He has traveled to ethnically diverse regions of Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, and Yunnan, and participated in traditional celebrations by local ethnic groups. These activities conveniently coincide with Xi’s recent calls to “forge a strong sense of community and inter-ethnic unity among the Chinese population.” 

Occasionally, there have been timely components in Xi’s Spring Festival activities as well. Xi’s inspection of the nation’s winter sports center in 2019 was evidently focused on the imminent Beijing Winter Olympics scheduled for 2022. 

And in 2023, amidst a surge in COVID-19 cases following China’s abrupt reopening after three years of stringent zero-COVID measures, Xi departed from the usual in-person visits and instead opted for a remote video call with grassroots cadres and residents spanning six provinces. The “elephant in the room” during the call was none other than COVID-19. These practices reflect the party’s adept use of traditional rituals for contemporary political purposes. 

More Than a Stunt Show

Continuing the legacy of past leaders, Xi’s Lunar New Year visits symbolize the party’s long-claimed commitment to connecting with the masses and understanding their needs. Drawing from Mao Zedong’s philosophy of the mass line, these visits serve as a platform for Xi to engage with ordinary residents, plan socioeconomic agenda, and promote his personal image as the “people’s leader.” By walking the streets, visiting homes, and conversing with locals, Xi aims to revitalize the party’s grassroots ethos, emphasizing solidarity with the masses and promoting the spirit of collective struggle. These visits not only reaffirm the Communist Party’s revolutionary heritage but also underscore its ongoing mission to achieve “national rejuvenation.” 

While steeped in historical tradition, the party leader’s Lunar New Year pilgrimages have also drawn criticism for advancing ideological agendas and consolidating power to the top leader. These visits, carefully orchestrated by party officials, serve as a tool for bolstering Xi’s personal charisma and reinforcing the party’s grip on society. The staged nature of these visits raises questions about their authenticity and the genuineness of the interactions. 

Similar to his predecessor Hu Jintao, Xi has also visited traditional revolutionary bases of the Communist Party in Jiangxi and Shaanxi. These excursions feature heavy propaganda on party ideology and traditional revolutionary spirits. Some contend that the emphasis on political messaging during these visits diverts attention from addressing more pressing socioeconomic difficulties facing ordinary citizens, such as the prevalent issue of youth unemployment

Another interesting observation of Xi’s Spring Festival visits is that Xi has planned all his holiday visits about one week prior to the Lunar New Year Day. By comparison, his predecessors generally spent the eve of the festival and the New Year Day in common people’s homes, celebrating the coming new year with their hosts. There is no definitive evidence to explain the reasons behind such a shift. Nevertheless, it is probable that Xi’s personal preference played some part.  

Despite these controversies, Xi Jinping’s Lunar New Year visits continue to symbolize the intertwining of the Communist Party’s grassroots legacy and its evolving strategies for ideological propaganda and modern governance. Understanding the nuances of these visits is essential for grasping the dynamics of power, ideology, and public perception within the context of China’s evolving political landscape.