Creating the Cult of Xi Jinping: The China Dream as a Leader Symbol

Reviewed by Melanie Shi

“Creating the Cult of Xi Jinping: The China Dream as a Leader Symbol” explores the role that China Dream propaganda art has played in refashioning the relations that Chinese political subjects have to their president. Author Brian Hart claims that China Dream art, which advertises a dream of Chinese economic and political rejuvenation, has contributed to the cult of personality around current leader Xi Jinping, which is in turn transforming China into a leader state in which the relationship between Xi and the people is a relationship between ruler and ruled.

The author begins by providing evidence—ranging from party officials’ practices of self-confession to media mentions of the president—of Xi Jinping’s cult of personality. From this point on, however, he delineates the purpose of his research as that of illuminating the particularly central role of China Dream propaganda art in consolidating Xi’s personality cult; this demonstrates the contribution that his findings add to the discussion of Chinese politics.

As proof of the art’s political centrality, Hart interprets the art’s proliferation in a historical context, comparing the cults of personality around Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. Creatively, he performs this comparison around the 6 parameters of Jae-Cheon Lim’s theory of leader symbols (communication, relationship objectification, meaning condensation, integration, legitimacy promotion, and mass mobilization), a structuring that provides a rich framework for his analysis.

The author’s invocation of North Korean power consolidation as another area for comparison seems sometimes to diverge from the contained comparison of Mao and Xi. However, under the parameter of relationship objectification, he observes keenly that the China Dream’s pictorial and textual invocation of Confucian values, particularly filial piety, has enabled it to generate a cult of personality around the leader. Indeed, the author finds that the use of Confucianism is “more powerful than any other potential source of ideological legitimacy.”

Importantly, it is also the China Dream campaign’s utilization of Confucianism that explains why it is indirectly leading to a range of restructuring effects. In a discussion of implications, Hart asserts that China Dream propaganda art’s particular emphasis on Confucian filial piety reflects the political regime’s desire to not merely maintain power but fundamentally reshape the nature of Chinese citizenship into a leader state. The propaganda art is steeped in an ideology of an “inherently hierarchical” nature—in the realm of politics, then, it conveniently establishes “a more stable order with Xi and the party at the top.”

While the link between China Dream propaganda art and the development of leader state citizenship might at face value seem far-fetched, Hart makes a convincing case for the relation between the two by stressing the art’s unique invocation of Confucian values. He ends on the hope that Xi will use his personality cult at home and abroad to pursue peace and prosperity, but his incisive analysis of the Dream campaign, which “in some cases even exceed[s] the effectiveness of those [campaigns] of the Mao Cult,” warns ominously of the potential for altered but augmented authoritarianism.

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