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Branding Xi

Branding Xi

How the CCP creates a professional PR leadership package for the modern era

By Jessica Batke* and Mareike Ohlberg 
August 2016

This web special shows how Xi Jinping’s image as a charismatic leader has been purposefully created by the CCP’s propaganda apparatus. Even though observers frequently interpret Xi Jinping’s media representation as evidence of a uniquely charismatic leader or even a personality cult, Xi’s image is actually the result of the CCP’s new media strategy devised to respond to an ideological vacuum, to show the CCP as close to the people, and to burnish Xi’s international image as a statesman. 

By analyzing press conferences, People’s Daily covers, official websites, and new media content, we demonstrate why Xi Jinping comes across as more charismatic than his predecessors despite the fact that his representation and appearances are highly scripted. In fact, the increased, flashier coverage of Xi Jinping gives us very little insight into either his personality or his personal power.

Click here, to download the Web Special "Branding Xi" as PDF.

Almost four years after Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the CCP, it has become clear that he is receiving notably different media coverage than his predecessor Hu Jintao. Data shows that mentions of Xi in the People’s Daily in the first 18 months of his term outstrip mentions of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao during equivalent time periods. He appears in selfies, as a cartoon figure hopping up the career ladder or fighting corrupt “tigers” and as a benevolent father figure called “Xi Dada.” 

Many in the media and academia have interpreted these changes as signs that Xi Jinping is concentrating all power to himself and that he is building a personality cult. “Emperor Xi,” as some headlines now call him, is supposedly sidelining most of his colleagues in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and is becoming increasingly like Mao (see Figure 1).

While coverage of Xi Jinping is clearly different from that of previous leaders, we argue that it should not first and foremost be viewed as evidence for a personality cult or power accumulation. A personality cult in the Mao style would entail the socially or politically mandated display of leadership portraits, a near-religious worship of objects associated with a leader, or the use of images of that leader as an informal currency. This is clearly not happening. The question of Xi Jinping’s personal power is trickier, but we will show that looking at media coverage is not a good way to assess his power. 

Figure 1: Xi’s “power” and “personality cult” dominate the headlines

Instead, we will show that Xi’s media representation should primarily be seen as a product of the new media platforms available to the propaganda apparatus, a deep-seated Party desire to modernize and modify its leadership coverage, and a clean slate of leaders to be portrayed. Our findings are based on the comparison of the media coverage of three leadership generations, starting with Jiang Zemin and Li Peng in 1993. The sources include People’s Daily covers, the coverage of events in print media, official websites, new media, and videos of press conferences.

Xi, the face of a CCP rebranding effort

Figure 2: The collective power walk. Left, in 1996 under Jiang Zemin, right, the last use of this sort of image at the “Two Meetings” of China’s highest (at least in theory) legislative and consultative bodies in 2010 under Hu Jintao.

We assess that the CCP has made the strategic choice to put Xi forward as the “face of the Party.” The previous media coverage trend, emphasizing a line of indistinguishable leaders, did not adequately meet the Party’s branding needs in the social media age. Indeed, it appears that the propaganda apparatus had recognized this problem towards the end of the Hu administration, when photos of the entire Politburo Standing Committee walking together at key government meetings—the canonical image of the “collective” Hu/Wen leadership—stopped appearing in the ritualized coverage of the People’s Daily (Figure 2). 

A faceless, collective leadership may be good to avoid creating the impression of a personality cult around a single leader, but it also makes it difficult to produce recognizable politicians to act as the face of the government at home and abroad. As an article published on the website of the Cyberspace Administration emphasizes, having a human being that people can associate with is seen as vital to make people accept and identify with the CCP’s policies. In fact, the CCP had already experimented with presenting former Premier Wen Jiabao as a “man of the people” during the last administration.

Improved packaging does not equal a charismatic leader

Careful, deliberate packaging of the Chinese leadership has long been a central component of the Chinese propaganda apparatus. This basic tenet has not changed under Xi, despite the package’s glossier exterior. Xi seems to have very few “unscripted moments” that would give insight into what he is really like as a person. Whether this is the result of his personal preference or the needs of the propaganda system is unclear.

Hu Jintao similarly had very few unscripted moments after ascending to the highest levels of central government, though there is anecdotal evidence that unlike Xi he was very scripted in private meetings as well. Incidentally, this old gala footage suggests Hu was not always as wooden a public speaker as he later came to be known. Like Hu, Xi relies heavily on written notes in public events, and does not convey anything like the charismatic style that some Chinese and Western media coverage attribute to him. Most of the time, he seems either sullen or indifferent. 

This contrasts markedly with Premier Li Keqiang. Li frequently makes apparent off-the-cuff remarks at public events and engages actively with his interlocutors and the audience, making his public persona more akin to that of Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji. In either case, such footage is an important reminder that Chinese media coverage of the top leaders tells us very little about who these leaders are as individuals. 

See for yourself on the right for a compilation of press conference footage of Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Xi Jinping, and Li Keqiang.  An extended version is also available here.  

New media: the medium sells the message

The biggest change in media coverage—what makes observers feel so different about leadership coverage—is taking place on new media platforms. Xi’s representation in new media is slick, using a “new style” of language. New formats such as cartoons, infographics, video clips, and selfies represent a significant departure from previous leadership coverage, which was restricted to the familiar, narrow range of “old” media formats. 

Compilation of press conference footage

A compilation of press conference footage of Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Xi Jinping, and Li Keqiang.  An extended version is also available here.  

Figure 3: Infographics on the "Two Meetings” (2010 and 2016).
Source: People’s Daily, Cover page, March 9, 2010 and People’s Daily online.

This aggressive move toward 21st-century-style coverage is no accident. The CCP has long realized that its old formats of leadership coverage are not appealing to the younger generation. As early as 2003, the Party Center issued a document to curb reports on leadership activities in sub-national media. In 2012, when the CCP committed to “eight provisions” (八项规定) to improve the work style of the Party and the government, “improving news reports,” aimed at reducing the number and length of reports on leaders’ activities, was one of the items on the list. Importantly, the point is not to report less on leaders, but to cut out the old-style, dull recounting of their activities.

Instead, media and politicians are asked to adopt a new style (新官話, literally: “new official-speak”), different from the empty political speech the CCP had repeatedly identified as a problem under the last administration. One distinctive feature of the “new style” of official Chinese communication is the infographic (图解), first used in the last years of the Hu-Wen administration (Figure 3). These days, anything from a Xi Jinping speech to a government work report will be presented in the form of an infographic. 

Part of the “new style” arrangement has been a willingness to experiment with new formats, some of which have been more convincing than others.

It has also meant allowing and encouraging a number of bottom-up initiatives -- including a number of grassroots (or at least non-central-government) songs and videos devoted to “Xi Dada.” Though some observers view these paeans to Xi as evidence of attempts to create a personality cult, the administration has tried to reign in some of the excesses, even if there is no absolute ban on such images. The CCP is clearly learning how to successfully interact with individually-generated content in a way that preserves its control.

Taking advantage of foreign expertise and a new slate of leaders

Figure 5: Yup. The presentation of China’s top leader has changed.

As noted above, much of what we see in new media and new formats was previously taboo. In the past, the propaganda bureaucracy only presented leaders (Chinese and foreign) in very restricted, formal formats. Nowadays, both China’s top leaders and foreign leaders can be portrayed as cartoon characters (Figure 5). In producing these cartoons, propaganda authorities are working together with the private sector, including with foreign PR companies

Figure 4: Hu Jintao giving the New Year’s address from behind a lectern in 2009

The Chinese propaganda apparatus is also looking to other governments as potential models for shaping leaders’ images.
Take, for example, the General Secretary’s annual New Year’s address, a staple of the Chinese leadership for decades. The speech was rather formal under Hu Jintao but has been retooled under Xi.

Figure 6: We can't help but notice the convergence in how politicians look when addressing the public

It now has a similar look and feel to Angela Merkel’s New Year’s address, for example, or to Barack Obama’s weekly address. 

The shift towards new types of media was, to some extent, likely an organic change. The 2012 Chinese leadership transition was the first major inflection point since the explosion of the new media tools that the leadership is now using to promote itself. When Hu took over in 2002, by contrast, no major social media platforms (such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram or their Chinese counterparts) had even been founded, let alone utilized as branding tools by national leaders.

The notion that a leadership inflection point might affect the use of new media is supported by similar occurrences elsewhere. New administrations in the US and the UK, for example, set up YouTube channels for their top-level executive institutions (the White House and 10 Downing Street, respectively). In other words, some updates to the propaganda toolkit would likely have happened with or without Xi Jinping.

Here a Xi, there a Xi, everywhere (in the People’s Daily) a Xi

Figure 7

The volume of media coverage about Xi Jinping does indeed represent a notable increase over that of his predecessor. A look at the gold standard of Party media—front page coverage in the People’s Daily—shows that mentions of Xi Jinping have been higher than similar mentions of Hu during his tenure (Figure 7).

Viewing the numbers as part a longer continuum, however, suggests that the outlier in terms of media coverage was the second Hu administration rather than the current Xi administration.  Headline mentions of the General Secretary slowly increased over Jiang Zemin’s term, and climbed even faster over the first five years of Hu’s tenure. 

Figure 8

In fact, except for the second term of the Hu-Wen administration, we see a fairly steady increase in such coverage over time (Figure 8).  Had leadership coverage trends continued over the full 10-year Hu administration, the number of Xi Jinping mentions would probably not seem so out of place. Instead, during Hu’s second term, coverage of him steadily decreased as coverage of most other PBSC members increased. This is likely one major reason why media coverage of Xi Jinping feels so different than that of Hu Jintao: the gap between Hu coverage during his second term and that of Xi’s first term is quite wide. 

Volume of coverage does not equal power

Figure 9

There are several problems with interpreting these charts to mean that Xi Jinping is more powerful than his predecessors or that he is trying to build a “personality cult.” First, it would suggest that Hu Jintao was more powerful than Jiang Zemin (Figure 8). Secondly, it would mean that Wang Qishan, the PBSC member overseeing the anti-corruption campaign, is less powerful than all other PBSC members, seeing that he only gets about half of the front page coverage of Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan and others (Figure 9). Most observers would agree that neither of these are the case. Simply put, interpreting the volume of media coverage as directly correlating to a leader’s power clearly does not work. 

The Authors

*This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Government or the Department of State.

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