In Hans Christian Andersen’s parable of power, pride and slavish self-deception, The Emperor’s New Clothes, the emperor is himself among the suckers duped into believing the “uncommonly fine” fabric made for him by two swindlers is the real stuff. As everyone doubtless knows, the tale ends with the emperor making a grand procession before the townsfolk without a thread to conceal his nakedness. The act of deception — “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection?” — might have worked had a child not cried out the innocent truth: “But he hasn’t got anything on!”
In China, Andersen’s story (long familiar to Chinese) is now being re-enacted inside out. The emperors, the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, are party to the swindle. And the audacious act of deception is to convince the townsfolk that despite all outward appearances, Party leaders are not mantled with wealth and privilege — they are, in fact, naked.
Since he became General Secretary in November, Xi Jinping has made an extreme public relations makeover the centerpiece of his game plan. He wants to convince Chinese that the CCP’s fifth generation of leaders is down-to-earth, spurns ostentation, that it is engaged with the pocketbook concerns of the general population — but most of all that it is clean.
Corruption is a major, life-and-death issue for China’s ruling Party, and this is not the time for the Party be seen, like the emperor in Anderson’s story, wearing “the finest silk and the purest gold thread.”
In recent weeks, China’s state media have been full of accounts of modesty and austerity on the part of top leaders. Working meetings that cut down on speechmaking and posturing and actually get down to business (though there are few down-to-earth reports of what business they got down to). Talk of how Xi shook hands and mingled with the public on his trip to Shenzhen. And on December 31, a Xinhua piece plastered across the top of major internet portals: “Xi Jinping Visits Poor Families in Hebei: Dinner Is Just 4 Dishes and One Soup, No Alcohol.”
But this public relations campaign is about more than seeming spartanism; it is about seeming openness. Leveraging state media and the Party’s power to “channel public opinion” — the Xinhua pieces on humble Xi, remember, are promoted to the top of web portals by official order — the new generation of Party leaders is pushing the perception that they are open to public scrutiny.
This is the fable of the Party’s “nakedness.” The most powerful seven men in China are being paraded “naked” in all their finery before the townsfolk, who exclaim: “Look at how exposed our leaders are! They are ordinary men, just like us!”
The grandest procession of “nakedness” came on Christmas Day, as the official Xinhua News Agency rolled out a red-carpet tribute to the Party’s new General Secretary, Xi Jinping, and the other six members of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee. The Xinhua series, “The New High Level CCP Line Up” (中共高层新阵容), included lengthy profiles of the Party’s top seven. How did they get to be where they are today? What did they accomplish along the way? [More coverage on the series from Bloomberg and the SCMP.]
Chinese media vaunted the Xinhua series as an unprecedented show of openness. In a piece hopefully headlined, “High-Level [Leaders] Set Up Model for Political Openness and Transparency” (高层为政治公开透明树立了典范), the China Youth Daily wrote:
The series of character profiles released in recent days from Xinhua News Agency . . . has resounded both at home and overseas, online and offline. The assessment heard most commonly in the media is that this is something ‘rarely seen': photos from their lives as rarely seen, personal biographies as rarely seen, family information as rarely seen and life details as rarely seen.
The China Youth Daily story pointed out that what the public generally expects to see through news reports are “leaders in official speeches, going through diplomatic formalities or in the television lens.” But now, “thanks to this feature series,” Chinese can now see “a group of leaders with more personal charisma and more feeling who are much closer to us.”
The importance of the Xinhua series, says the paper, goes beyond the details themselves. The profiles are “profound models for the promotion of reform in a top-down fashion.”
There is little question that the Xinhua series is, in a sense, unprecedented. There is a personal edge and tone to the series quite out of line with the serious and cautious (i.e, “dull”) treatment of state leaders that has been par for the course in China for decades. According to the Party’s orthodoxy, leaders are not supposed to stand out. They are supposed to reflect the Party’s consensus-based politics. Charisma is delicate word, synonymous today with the Party’s fallen star, former Chongqing chief Bo Xilai.
But the profiles are by no means a treasure trove of information. The “political achievements,” or zhèng jì (政绩), of the Standing Committee members form the bulk of this revelation of “personal details.” In fact, there is little real information at all. One veteran Chinese journalist I spoke to called it “pathetically sparse.”
What is new is the personalization of these paltry details. The past “achievements” of Standing Committee members are presented by Xinhua as “personal political achievements” (个人政绩), or geren zhengji. And leaders are generally portrayed in more “personal” contexts. There is Xi Jinping joining in farm work on a tour in the Fujian countryside in 1988; he is smiling, a hoe slung over his shoulder. There is a youthful Xi Jinping on an “overseas tour” of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
The Xinhua profiles also talk about the families of the various leaders, a departure from usual practice. At the tail end of the Xi Jinping profile, there is mention of his marriage to singer Peng Liyuan (彭丽媛), followed by a laudatory list of her accomplishments.
Here is one of the personal moments in which we see the Party’s General Secretary in the role of husband:
In Peng Liyuan’s eyes, her husband is at once a distinguished person and an ordinary person. He enjoys eating home cooking from Shaanxi and Shandong, and when he gets together with friends he will drink and be lively with them. He likes swimming, hiking and watching basketball, soccer, boxing and other sports matches. Sometimes he’ll watch sports programming on TV late at night.
Though understandably welcome to some for their symbolism, these details are not evidence of greater openness in China’s politics. If anything, their preciousness makes the closed nature of Chinese politics even more apparent — like drops of water in the desert that only make one’s thirst that much keener.
The Xinhua series should remind us too that publishing information about state leaders remains a special right and privilege enjoyed by Party-run media. Other media, including commercial metro newspapers like Southern Metropolis Daily or The Beijing News have no right to do so, and would attempt such coverage at grave risk.
One of the most revealing facts since the series came just over a week ago is that these “details” cannot be freely discussed on Chinese social media. While posts about the series have been shared on platforms like Sina Weibo, many comments have been deleted, signaling that the leadership has little interest in inviting real scrutiny.
The bottom line, of course, is that real exposure of information about leaders can only happen in a more open society, where politics is competitive, and where truly independent monitoring by the media can happen. In politics, can there be anything revelatory about self-revelation in the absence of independent pressure? That’s doubtful. Openness has to mean that details are revealed, and that the truth is told, against the objections of political leaders.
The Xinhua series on China’s leaders reminded me of the comic story in Boccaccio’s Decameron of Capperello da Prato, the scoundrel with a lifelong tapestry of misdeeds who on his deathbed confesses trifling sins to the priest so theatrically that the Church declares him a saint. The Xinhua profiles are tell-alls that tell us nothing about the true characters or deeds of China’s most powerful men. But the fawning follow-up coverage by state media makes it look like China’s top leaders are being sainted for humbly confessing that they are in fact men, not saints at all.
In China’s present-day fable, The Emperors, No Clothes, foreign media play the role of the disbelieving child who sees through the obvious artifice. Examples of real journalism like Bloomberg’s “Revolution to Riches” series, and David Barboza’s ongoing revelations in the New York Times about China’s Party elite, tell a very different story.
The emperors are not naked. They are, as ever, enrobed and protected by a closed political system subjected only to self-scrutiny.
There is always the hope, of course — I’ve heard it insistently over the past decade I’ve spent watching signs in China’s media — that these symbolic gestures point to deeper change to come. As the official China News Service wrote in its rosy assessment of the Xinhua series:
This group of character features differs from past official text, revealing many details and filling the rest of the world with surprise. Public opinion at home and overseas has had a largely positive assessment of this. The general view is that this is the first time official media have actively ‘released material’ [about leaders]. Aside from projecting an image of leaders close to the people, this sends some signal of political reform (一些政改信号).
Perhaps China’s new top leaders are serious about political reform — the only thing that can ensure real openness and accountability, and deal effectively with corruption. Xi Jinping has showered us with apparent surprises, with changes of tone and style. And who can say with certainty that more substantial surprises aren’t in the works.
But until then, I suppose, we can only savor the paltry “details.” And enjoy the emperor’s parade.
Below is a partial translation of the Xinhua profile of General Secretary Xi Jinping:
Character Feature: “The Masses are the Source of Our Strength” (人物特稿:”人民群众是我们力量的源泉”)
—— Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China
Xinhua News Agency, Beijing, December 23 —— On December 7, 2012, Xi Jinping, who had been elected General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party just 23 days earlier, left the capital for the first time to tour other areas [of the country as General Secretary]. He went to Guangdong, the province on the leading edge of economic reform and opening, and made Shenzhen his first stop. On this trip, he traveled without pomp and connected directly with the masses, having close exchanges [with them].
On December 8, he arrived at Shenzhen’s Lianhuashan Park and laid flower at the feet of the statue of Deng Xiaoping as crowds of tourists looked on. After that, Xi Jinping moved among the people, shaking hands and waving.
During his tour of Guangdong, he emphasized that the whole Party and the peoples of the whole nation must steadfastly take the strong nation road of reform and opening, giving greater priority to systematic, complete and coordinated reforms, achieving continued reform and opening.
There is profound meaning in the fact that the route taken by Xi Jinping on this trip to Guangdong is one Deng Xiaoping traveled 20 years ago in his tour of the south. [At the time] media remarked: This is a leader who brings a news leadership style, who is steadfast in carrying out economic reform and opening, and who leads the Chinese people toward achieved the Chinese dream (中国梦).
On November 15, 2012, 59 year-old Xi Jinping was elected general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the 18th National Congress of the CCP, becoming the first top CCP leader to have been born after the founding of the new China.
. . .
As China enters a decisive stage in comprehensive building of a moderately wealthy society, Xi Jinping strides to the center of China’s political stage and takes the baton of history. At the same time, as the leader of the world’s second-largest economy, he stands also at the front of the world stage.
All China, and all the world, have their eyes on Xi Jinping:
—— How will he lead the world’s largest ruling political party, with 82 million members, toward better serving the people?
—— How will he lead the 1.3 billion people of China toward winning the struggle toward the two great goals of “completely building a moderately wealthy society by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP [in 2021], and achieving a prosperous, democratic, civilized and harmonious modern socialist nation by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the republic [in 2049]”?
—— How will he lead China in contributing to world peace and development?
. . .
At midday on the final day of the 18th National Congress, as Xi Jinping met more than 500 foreign journalists, he took up his heavy burdens with candidness, summarizing the mission of central Party leaders as three responsibilities: responsibility to [China’s ethnic] groups (对民族的责任), responsibility to the people (对人民的责任) and responsibility to the Party (对党的责任).
This solemn promise shows that Xi Jinping will define a historical responsibility to the Chinese people as the guiding concept and pursuit of his personal leadership.
“The people’s yearning for a good life, that is the goal of our struggle.”
“The people’s yearning for a good life, that is the goal of our struggle.” In his first speech after being elected general secretary, Xi Jinping clearly expressed his unfailing confidence in leading the Chinese Communist Party to govern for the people.
After taking his new post, he took part in the “Road to Revival” exposition with other members of the Politburo Standing Committee and said: “Right now, everyone is talking about the Chinese dream. It’s my view that achieving the great revival of the Chinese people is the greatest dream of the Chinese people in modern times.”
All along, Xi Jinping has taken the dreams of the people and made them his dreams. 43 years ago, he joined a work brigade in Shaanxi as an educated youth, and spend seven years there. His first “official rank” was Party branch secretary of the production brigade, what was then the “cell” of the Communist Party organizational system. In 2007, after years of toughening work at the local level, Xi Jinping was elected a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, serving as a member of the Secretariat of the Central Committee and Chairman of the Central Party School. He later served as a Deputy Secretary of the People’s Republic of China and as Deputy Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Over the past five years, he has directly taken part in the study and formulation of fundamental Party and government policies, and has taken part in the organization and implementation of major decisions and deployments.
From Shaanxi to Beijing, from Hebei to Fujian, from Zhejiang to Shanghai, from poverty-stricken areas of the west to the cultural and political center of the country, from undeveloped areas of the east to developed coastal areas, Xi Jinping has experience at the village, county, city (prefecture), province (municipality) level as well as experience at top Party and military posts. . .
The Chinese Communist Party is the core leadership carrying the Chinese people toward realization of the Chinese dream. Before he became the top Party leader, Xi Jinping long served in local Party posts. Once he entered the central Party leadership he led the daily work of the Central Secretariat, in charge of Party affairs, and he knows only too well the importance of the building of the Party. He prioritizes the strengthening of regulations within the Party, and he has led the formulation of many regulatory documents within the Party.
He has continually emphasized that the Party must continue to manage the Party, that the Party must be run strictly. On November 17, he pointed out during the first collective study session of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP that, “When things rot, the worms take hold.’ The facts overwhelmingly tell us that when the problem of corruption grows more and more severe, it just ultimately mean the destruction of the Party and the nation! We must remain vigilant!”