President Xi Jinping is China’s most powerful leader in decades. Not since the days of Mao Zedong has one figure so dominated Chinese life. Mr. Xi, who welcomed President Trump to China on Wednesday, cannot yet match Mao’s grandeur. But he has inspired a devout following that some critics describe as the early stages of a personality cult.
Here’s how Mr. Xi has used the tried-and-true strategies of autocrats to present himself as a transformative figure.
Putting Himself on a Pedestal
Perhaps the most telling sign of Mr. Xi’s dominance came last month, when he was awarded a second five-year term as China’s leader.
The layouts of Communist Party newspapers are carefully designed to signal the relative power of top officials after leadership reshuffles every five years. For decades, the front page of People’s Daily embodied a “collective leadership” model as the party sought to spread power more evenly after Mao's death in 1976.
But Mr. Xi was awarded a different layout. His beaming face evoked the days of one-man rule and unmistakably placed him on a pedestal with Mao.
During his decades in power, Mao exerted virtually unchecked authority over the government. Even as Mao’s decisions led to violence across China during the Cultural Revolution, splitting families and engulfing the country in chaos, the media depicted him as a generous leader motivated only by his love of country.
Mr. Xi is far from cultivating Mao’s sort of following. And historians said creating and maintaining the image of a cult figure is trickier than it was in the days of Mao, when the novelty of loudspeakers and television were able to reach a more receptive and captive audience.
“Nowadays, there’s a certain cynicism,” said Daniel Leese, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Freiburg. “At the time, it was brand new.”
But Mr. Xi has consolidated power at a remarkable pace for a man who was virtually unknown outside China when he rose to power in 2012.
By elevating himself to the status of Mao, Mr. Xi is sending a message that he is not to be challenged, and that now is the time for China to unite behind a singular force to push forward an ambitious agenda. He has so far avoided designating a successor, prompting speculation that he will seek to extend his power beyond the end of his term in 2023.
The Making of an Icon
In the front-page version of Mr. Xi’s portrait, the color and saturation were adjusted, hiding gray hairs and skin imperfections and giving the photo the feel of a painting, said Hany Farid, a professor at Dartmouth College and an expert on photo forensics.
The processed image evokes the same visual style as portraits of Mao, said Jan Plamper, professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London. “It’d be like depicting Trump more like George Washington.”
At the height of the Mao era, people displayed his image in their homes and wore it as a badge on their clothing. The ubiquity of the image in the most private spaces of Chinese life helped to give him a deified status, said Pang Laikwan, a professor of cultural studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“Loving Mao was in the air and part of people’s everyday life,” Ms. Pang said. “There was no alternative.”
Mr. Xi’s slogans are splashed across front pages, and his speeches dominate the evening news. His voice booms from giant television screens in busy plazas and his image hangs inside homes, restaurants and taxi cabs – often alongside Mao’s.
Adam Dean for The New York Times
Mr. Xi, the son of revolutionaries, has tapped into Communist Party lore in a way that hearkens back to the era of Mao. By becoming a symbol of the Communist cause, Mr. Xi has sought to bring the party and its values back to the center of everyday life at a time when many Chinese are focused on material wealth.
A Warm, Paternal Figure
Mr. Xi’s predecessors were criticized as wooden and aloof. Former President Hu Jintao, for example, appeared rigid while visiting the countryside in the eastern province of Anhui in 2008.
By contrast, the current president has cultivated a warm, paternalistic image. During a 2016 visit to the southern province of Jiangxi, Mr. Xi came across as personable and down to earth.
The avuncular nickname echoes other autocratic leaders. Joseph Stalin, the “father of the peoples,” often surrounded himself with children, conveying absolute authority and benevolence. Ho Chi Minh, known as “Uncle Ho,” did the same in Vietnam.
Russian State Library (Joseph Stalin), Getty Images (Ho Chi Minh)
Mr. Xi’s fatherly persona helps maintain unity behind the Communist Party by crafting a narrative that everyone can understand. “Images have to be legible by the entire society,” said Mr. Plamper.
The state-run media has experimented with other strategies for playing up Mr. Xi’s lighter side as well, sometimes portraying him as an animated character. Here is his avatar in a People’s Daily feature promoting China’s dream of developing a leading soccer team by vanquishing corruption in the sports industry. (The ball is labeled “fake.”)
Mr. Xi has deployed his personal story to inspire zeal and adulation. While recent Chinese leaders published tired volumes of speeches, Mr. Xi has released a book about his experiences as a young man sent to the countryside under Mao. The book, based on interviews with farmers and people who served alongside Mr. Xi, recounts his days shoveling manure and sleeping in flea-infested caves.
Mr. Xi’s writings are mostly aimed at a domestic audience, helping to create a heroic aura and to place him in the same revered ranks of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. His books are often featured in lavish displays with stars and ribbons, a break with the more restrained exhibits afforded many of his predecessors.
Increasingly, party officials see Mr. Xi’s writings as a tool to introduce Mr. Xi on the global stage, and his books have been translated into dozens of languages.
As the United States enters a period of retreat, many Chinese see Mr. Xi as their best chance at getting ahead globally and weathering storms of the economy and corruption at home. And the party is making sure that everyone in China and abroad knows it.