BEIJING -- The blossoming personality cult around Chinese President Xi Jinping is casting a shadow over the country's social and economic activities, invoking memories of the decade-long chaos under Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution that began 50 years ago.
Officials in Chongqing are working hard to increase freight rail shipments passing through the inland Chinese city. The goal is to establish one daily round trip from the city directly to Europe.
"Actual demand for shipments is plunging due to the economic slowdown in Europe," an industry source said. Yet the seemingly unprofitable project forges on, thanks to Xi.
Xi visited Germany's Duisburg port, the end point of a cargo rail link from Chongqing, in March 2014, where he said that China and Germany must join hands in creating an economic belt. His visit demonstrated the importance of railroads to his "One Belt, One Road" initiative, designed to create a massive economic zone along historic Silk Road routes.
Beijing appears preoccupied with advancing Xi's pet projects, with no leeway for considering cutbacks. Some government officials voice concerns about the country's finances, since almost any project linked to the One Belt, One Road initiative is given funding.
A state-run company confiscated its executives' passports last year in order to cut down on business trips abroad, taking heed of Xi's calls for spending cuts and tighter controls on information.
"Nobody wants to go overseas because they don't want to attract attention," a company executive said. "It's impacting our work."
Mao Zedong solidified his grip on power during the Cultural Revolution by establishing a personality cult with the help of student Red Guards and the general public. Under Mao's rule, Xi was forced at the age of 15 to move from Beijing to a farming village in Shaanxi Province. The seven years he spent there were marked with hardships, but also made him understand the importance of power.
"Today's society feels eerily similar to that during the Cultural Revolution," an expert in Beijing said.
Xi launched an anti-corruption campaign, sending many of his political rivals to the curb on the pretext of stamping out crooked officials. Beijing elites meanwhile have begun referring to him as the "core" of the Communist Party. The internet is filled with songs praising Xi. One music video based on his trip to a farming town in Hunan Province features a close-up of Xi speaking with the locals.
He has surrounded himself with close aides, such as Liu He, who heads the government's financial and economic planning committee, and has broke from the convention of entrusting economic policies to the premier. His team spouts populist promises like reducing poverty and doubling income. But a strong government does not guarantee social or economic stability.
"The biggest risk of having one person make all the decisions is that he cannot take responsibility for his mistakes," a researcher at a government-affiliated think tank said. An authoritarian ruler may only be told of positive developments. China's nominal gross domestic product grew nearly by a factor of 400 in the last half century. The entire globe would suffer if the leader of the world's second-largest economy goes down the wrong path.
Xi is also tightening his reins on freedom of speech. The Communist Party on May 2 placed influential businessman Ren Zhiqiang on probation for a year for criticizing Xi online. Ren's blog, which had 37 million followers, has been shut down. His father is a long-time party official, but Xi is making clear that no one will be given special treatment.
Xi had said in January that "there are careerists and conspirators existing in our Party and undermining the Party's governance," party mouthpiece People's Daily reported on May 3. "We should not bury our heads in the sand and spare these members," he added. He also demanded loyalty from the media during his February tour of a state-run TV station.
"Xi's true colors lie in strict government controls," a liberal intellectual said in hushed tones. The president has said that he welcomes constructive criticisms from experts and online, but few take such remarks at face value. Mao had once invited criticism under the Hundred Flowers Campaign, but he quickly changed his mind and began suppressing all expressions of dissent.