One evening in early December of last year, four policemen knocked on the door of the tiny house I share with my husband in Beijing. When we answered, they told us that the entire row of homes in our hutong—one of the city’s traditional alleyways—would be demolished in four days, and everyone needed to move out before then. The purported reason was a “fire safety” campaign, but no officials made even a cursory show of checking for fire extinguishers or compliance with code. There had been no advance warning, and there was no offer of compensation. There was only a command, inscrutable as a brick wall.
We managed to find another apartment, but many of our neighbors—taxi drivers and restaurant owners who had lived in Beijing for years—said they would be leaving the city entirely, going to live with relatives in the countryside or in smaller cities. Tens of thousands of migrant workers were also forced out of the capital last year, and hundreds of restaurants and shops were closed. Hutong neighborhoods have become eerily dark and quiet—except for the boot steps of the newly deployed security guards who now walk the streets, making the force of the state everywhere visible.
Five years into the leadership of Chinese president Xi Jinping, the mass expulsion of migrants from first-tier cities and the destruction of hutongs are only two symptoms of what some political commentators are declaring the country’s “new era”—the “third revolution,” as the title of a recent book by Council on Foreign Relations scholar Elizabeth Economy puts it. The man whom Chinese media sometimes call Xi Dada is widely described as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
Just as the organic nature of hutong life is being destroyed in favor of uniformity and “order,” Xi has overseen increased clampdowns on media and the internet, as well as enhanced repression of ethnic minorities in western China. So-called Xi Jinping Thought is set to be enshrined in the constitution. In March, Chinese Communist Party leadership voted to abolish presidential term limits; that means Xi is now able to rule the country—with its population of 1.4 billion—indefinitely. (“He’s president for life … I think it’s great,” said President Trump upon hearing the news. “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”)
The most ubiquitous visual cue of the new era is a preponderance of images of Xi himself. He appears on propaganda billboards, solemnly waving alongside new patriotic slogans like, “Many people, united by one heart. Forge ahead. Push socialism with Chinese characteristics forward.” He appears on the front pages of Communist Party newspapers far more frequently than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, did: According to an analysis by the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, Xi was mentioned more times in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, during the first half of 2017 than Hu was mentioned during his entire last year in office. Newsstands display fresh stacks of Xi’s new book, The Governance of China, a collection of his speeches and directives, with a cover featuring his face. And Xi appears in countless framed portraits hung in schools, government offices, and train stations.
Mao’s image is still one of the background elements of daily life in modern China: his portrait can be found on printed currency, hung above the gate to Tiananmen Square, and on knickknacks dangling from the rearview mirrors of taxis. The founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao was the country’s last leader to serve without term limits, remaining in power for nearly three turbulent decades—from the proclamation of the nation in 1949 to his death in 1976. Until Xi, no recent China leader had been granted similar iconic status. But now Beijing shops sell commemorative mugs and plates featuring Xi and Mao side by-side.
Xi is widely described as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, and the most ubiquitous visual cue is a preponderance of images of Xi himself.
The most common, state-approved likeness of Xi is a stylized and highly photoshopped image, in which Xi looks to be no age in particular; he lacks both the ruddy cheeks of youth and the furrowed brow of a 64-year-old man. It’s customary for Chinese politicians to dye their hair jet-black, and in this portrait, Xi’s face is also perfectly unlined. He wears a Western suit jacket and a blue tie, and looks straight ahead, with a Mona Lisa half smile. He doesn’t look angry, inspired, energetic, sad, or contemplative. He doesn’t look like a revolutionary hero or an elder statesman. He isn’t gesturing in any direction or at anyone in particular—unlike Mao, who was often shown with his arm raised, pointing onward. There is nothing captivating or powerful about the likeness of Xi Jinping, but there is also nothing obviously wrong with it—which was probably on the mind of whoever designed it.
It’s impossible to say whether the civilians who display these banal portraits of Xi feel genuine affection for him, or simply fear of the party. Unlike Mao, who was nicknamed the Great Helmsman, Xi has shown no relish for leadership as live performance. There are no mass rallies, impassioned youths shaking Little Red Books, or bits of soaring patriotic oratory. Xi did not come to power by inspiring and leading an army but rather by managing relations within an established political elite; this is a quieter skill set, one mostly hidden from the public. Instead of being called to attend demonstrations and parades, Chinese citizens find themselves inundated by pictures. Xi’s power is closer to absolute than any leader since Mao. But when he appears in public, he prefers to be seen rather than heard.
There is nothing captivating or powerful about the likeness of Xi, but there is also nothing obviously wrong with it—which was probably on the mind of whoever designed it.