Putinism with Chinese characteristics: the foreign origins of Xi Jinping’s cult of personality

Since 2012, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping has consolidated more power than any Chinese leader since at least Deng Xiaoping. This consolidation of power has coincided with a growing cult of personality, which portrays Xi as “the right leader at the right time” for China.

Analyses of this cult often make comparisons to that of Mao Zedong, modern China’s founding figure, which dominated political culture in China until the late 1970s (China Brief, March 6, 2015). A reexamination of the evolution of the cult of personality around Xi, however, suggests that a far more appropriate point of comparison is with a more recent figure: Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Tellingly, during a meeting between the two leaders in 2013, Xi commented to Putin that “I feel that our personalities are very similar” (Sohu News, March 25, 2013). Not only are their personalities similar, but Xi Jinping’s cult of personality and the propaganda around him is in fact largely modeled on Putin, with little original content of its own. These observations, furthermore, have implications for understanding state and popular nationalism in China today, as well as thinking through the world’s response to China’s rise: the combination of Putin-style bravado with the Chinese surveillance state and military is a potent and potentially dangerous combination.

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