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China dials down Xi's personality cult as criticism mounts

Posters are taken down ahead of annual meeting with elders

Posters praising Chinese President Xi Jinping had appeared around the country after the Communist Party congress last October. (Photo by Oki Nagai)

BEIJING -- Chinese authorities have started to take down posters of President Xi Jinping in certain parts of the capital, in what is seen to be an attempt to tone down the cult of personality, as party elders raise alarm over his authoritarian flair amid escalating tensions with the U.S.

The move comes ahead of the annual Beidaihe meeting held at the seaside resort town in Hebei Province, where past and present leaders of the Chinese Communist Party meet to discuss the direction of national policies. 

Former President Jiang Zemin and other party elders are rumored to have sent a lengthy letter to Xi, urging him to reconsider his diplomatic and economic policies. There is growing sentiment within the party that Xi should pay more respect to past leaders who reformed China and propelled it to the world's second-largest economy.

Signs and posters praising Xi had popped up across China following the twice-a-decade Communist Party congress last fall, which helped him consolidate power even further. But they were taken down from several bulletin boards at a Communist Party facility in Beijing in mid-July in a seeming response to criticisms against Xi.

"It was an order from the party committee in charge of the building," a source familiar with the matter said. An alleged image of the official notice was posted online. A government-affiliated think tank in Shaanxi Province also recently canceled an event to discuss Xi's political ideology.

President Xi walks along the red carpet in front of a Guard of Honour at the Presidential Palace during his visit to Dakar, Senegal on July 21.   © Reuters

The political mood in China shifted on July 4, when a young woman live-streamed herself splashing ink on a Xi poster to protest the "tyranny" and "brain control" imposed by his government. The video quickly went viral. She went missing after tweeting a photo of uniformed men outside her door, and is believed to have been detained.

The incident opened the floodgates for further condemnation of Xi. The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported on July 11 that former party chairman Hua Guofeng once apologized for encouraging a personality cult around himself. The article, which has since been deleted, is widely seen as an indirect attack on Xi's campaign for power.

The Communist Party had given Xi added clout in hopes of tackling China's slowing growth and other challenges more efficiently. But the brass remains extremely wary of giving one leader too much power, given the disastrous consequences of the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong. Concerns have only grown amid the escalating trade war with the U.S., which has undermined one of China's most important diplomatic relationships.

Still, the Xi administration appears to be on solid ground. He left for a 10-day trip to Africa on Thursday, and it is unusual for a Chinese leader to leave the country in times of instability. Some observers believe that if anything, the return to a more collective approach to leadership is only intended to spread out the blame should trade tensions with the U.S. escalate beyond control.

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