President Xi Jinping is China’s most powerful leader in decades. Not since the days of Mao Zedong has one figure so dominated Chinese life. Mr. Xi, who welcomed President Trump to China on Wednesday, cannot yet match Mao’s grandeur. But he has inspired a devout following that some critics describe as the early stages of a personality cult.
Here’s how Mr. Xi has used the tried-and-true strategies of autocrats to present himself as a transformative figure.
Putting Himself on a Pedestal
Perhaps the most telling sign of Mr. Xi’s dominance came last month, when he was awarded a second five-year term as China’s leader.
The layouts of Communist Party newspapers are carefully designed to signal the relative power of top officials after leadership reshuffles every five years. For decades, the front page of People’s Daily embodied a “collective leadership” model as the party sought to spread power more evenly after Mao’s death in 1976.
But Mr. Xi was awarded a different layout. His beaming face evoked the days of one-man rule and unmistakably placed him on a pedestal with Mao.
The faces of the other six members of China’s most powerful body are barely visible.
During his decades in power, Mao exerted virtually unchecked authority over the government. Even as Mao’s decisions led to violence across China during the Cultural Revolution, splitting families and engulfing the country in chaos, the media depicted him as a generous leader motivated only by his love of country.
Mr. Xi is far from cultivating Mao’s sort of following. And historians said creating and maintaining the image of a cult figure is trickier than it was in the days of Mao, when the novelty of loudspeakers and television were able to reach a more receptive and captive audience.
“Nowadays, there’s a certain cynicism,” said Daniel Leese, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Freiburg. “At the time, it was brand new.”
But Mr. Xi has consolidated power at a remarkable pace for a man who was virtually unknown outside China when he rose to power in 2012.
By elevating himself to the status of Mao, Mr. Xi is sending a message that he is not to be challenged, and that now is the time for China to unite behind a singular force to push forward an ambitious agenda. He has so far avoided designating a successor, prompting speculation that he will seek to extend his power beyond the end of his term in 2023.