Labor Day, May 1, 2022: Shenzhen official media celebrated Xi Jinping thought, while many on social media circulated stories of Deng Xiaoping visiting the city in 1984 and 1992. This interests me because it highlights increasing dissatisfaction with the New Era as a return to the problems that caused and exacerbated by the Cultural Revolution. This logical connection has three elements: First, old Shenzheners associate the laissez-faire governance (reform) and porous borders (opening up) with the city’s ‘true’ identity, implicitly emphasizing the city’s role in repairing the damages of the Cultural Revolution. Second, there have been ongoing efforts to make Shenzhen a symbol of Xi Jinping’s new era, and indeed, the city has become a symbol of zero-Covid success during the ongoing campaign to achieve zero-Covid. Third, to the ears of many who were born before 1970, the New Era emphasis on Xi Jinping as the core of the party and the great leader of the nation echoes the rhetoric of the CR, even as zero-Covid mobilization is increasingly likened to the CR.
So there’s this uncanny resonance between Red Guards and Big Whites that hovers at the edges of social media posts, and sometimes becomes explicit when friends chat over drinks. But, Red Guards were populist, organized on-the-ground in response to specific situations. In contrast, Big Whites are bureaucratic, organized through governmental systems that reach from Beijing into homes via subdistrict police stations, public health stations, and community offices.
Thought du jour: ten years ago, during the Bo Xilai–Xi Jinping struggle to secure the position of general party secretary, the country’s leaders choose between two variants of CR–populist and hereditary. The idea was even though Xi Jinping was clearly a product of the CR, nevertheless, he was seen as a ‘party man,’ so to speak, whose platform was to maintain stability while and by rooting out corruption. (Yes, this is the same kind of choice-no choice just that has characterized recent US American elections.) Today, I’m wondering what if? What if China had gone with a populist CR leader, rather than a leader who seems to have incorporated CR methods into everyday politics?
Right after Xi won the struggle with Bo, there had been an effort online to make this rigid ideologist politician a populist one: netizens invented the nickname Xi Dada and compared Xi with the beloved Winnie the Pooh; pop music especially raps that sing praises of Xi went viral. I think, for a while, even the censors and Zhongnanhai wasn’t sure if they should take advantage of this populism or to stifle it. Eventually they chose the latter and decided to boost Xi’s popularity on their own terms, hence the Xi Thoughts, the paramount leader status on par with Mao, the Xi App, the 5 stars reviews of Xi’s book on Amazon…
I was teaching at the time, and the end of Winnie the Pooh sucked for story time. I mean, the sensitivity around the issue was frustrating because like so many policies, the actual law and its interpretation on the ground were so different. Sigh.