Brand Xi

A month later, China's new leader courts a new image while avoiding political change

Those unfamiliar with how one-party regimes work may be forgiven for thinking that self-appointed leaders can do away with the need to market themselves to the public, an exercise otherwise known as branding. The reality, of course, is different. Top leaders in such regimes may not be elected by popular vote, but they are, nevertheless, compelled to gain a modicum of public support in order to govern. In democracies, leaders gain public support before they get elected; in autocracies, rulers try to do so after they are appointed. Xi Jinping, the newly installed general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), apparently knows this well. Based on his performance in the month since his inauguration, most China watchers would concede that his initial branding exercise appears to have been a success.

Obviously, Xi has a low bar to cross since his predecessors are now uniformly viewed in China as having squandered a decade of opportunities for reform and left behind a legacy of high inequality, uncontrolled corruption, deteriorating economic dynamism, and rising social tensions. Frankly, expectations were not high on the eve of Xi's formal inauguration. Perhaps sensing such political malaise, Xi may have decided that projecting a new image to differentiate himself from his predecessors right after his rise to the top will be a smart political strategy.

But first he had to take care of the necessary business of consolidating power. It is worth noting that the first substantive political event Xi attended was an expanded meeting of the Central Military Commission, which commands the People's Liberation Army. As the only CPC leader who gained the two most important positions — of party chief and commander-in-chief — simultaneously (neither Mao Zedong nor Deng Xiaoping managed this feat), Xi quickly established his authority by appointing five new generals, including the commander of China's nuclear forces.

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