The Chinese Communist Party has mounted a concerted campaign to promote President Xi Jinping as the man who lifted 60 million people out of poverty. This comes amid the building of a personality cult around Xi and the sidelining or suppressing of religion. The message is that the nation's leader, who wrote his name into the constitution and in October began serving a second five-year term, can accomplish anything. But religious iconography stands at odds with projecting Xi as being able to elevate the nation singlehanded. In Yugan—in southeast rural Jiangxi province — Party cadres visited hundreds of homes in November and replaced Christian religious iconography with posters of Xi.
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The posters are part of attempts to convince citizens that the Party is genuine in its implementation of a poverty alleviation program. However, one Yugan resident told the South China Morning Post
that residents would not receive poverty alleviation funds unless they replaced Christian images with posters of Xi. Maya Wang, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Xi came to power propagating the idea that he is a national savior. This included holding out the promise of saving the Party, which had succumbed to corruption and moral decay, in order to realize the 'China dream' for its people. Wang said that because Christianity and other religions did not ask people to place their loyalties in Xi, Party cadres considered them to be a threat. High-ranking leader Chen Xi wrote last month
that some Party members were straying because of their religious beliefs, which should never be put ahead of China's socialist cause. It is likely that a key aim of the Party's loyalty drive is to consolidate power around Xi. "They have concluded that this is the only way to ram through difficult economic and governance reforms aimed at putting economic growth on a sustainable basis and laying the foundations for long-term rule," said Timothy Heath, Senior International Defense Research Analyst at the RAND Corporation. "The Chinese leadership's obsession with security and stability reflect a very real appreciation of the dangers of the situation, although that certainly does not excuse their brutal repression." Over the past five years in particular, China has transformed from a collective leadership system to one in which Xi serves as an undisputed central core. Cadres are repeatedly instructed to obey the Party's centralized leadership. William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International, said that lower level officials had every incentive to praise Xi. "Praising Xi Jinping or putting up posters of him is an obvious visual and physical manifestation of this obedience." This approach to governance has perhaps had the greatest impact on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the country's west, where ethnic Muslim minorities are seen as a threat. In this region, the Party has established thousands of so-called re-education camps. The Chinese government seeks to impose its ideology in an area where it faces pockets of militancy and perhaps aims to erase historic ties to the Islamic world. "The leadership has made a sweeping and simplistic determination that belief in Islam is tantamount to 'extremism,' and thus they are trying to 're-educate' people to believe in Chinese laws and to live a secular life," Nee said. The Party has placed special importance on the Xinjiang region because of the Belt and Road Initiative — Xi's keynote economic policy that connects China to Europe and Africa through new trade routes. With the Xinjiang region becoming a major trade and infrastructure hub, the Party has effectively expelled ethnic minority Muslims from key decision-making positions, transforming the west into a harsh security state. But the Party's efforts to swap religion for Communist dogma in the remote west are rarely embraced. In Zhejiang province, the Party is estimated to have removed more than 1,000 crosses from churches since 2014. Those who put up resistance have been punished. Zhang Kai, a lawyer who provided legal advice to churches, was forced to confess his alleged "crimes' on television. Outspoken Pastor Gu Yuesu was detained, and then charged for a crime he likely did not commit, after he criticized the government over the removal of crosses
. Wang, from Human Rights Watch, noted that such cases often went unreported in the mainstream Chinese domestic media. She added that the threat of imprisonment meant authorities were able to suppress a great deal of dissent and create an image of social stability.