By Xin Lin, RFA
Chinese President Xi Jinping has awarded himself a new military title this week—commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Joint Battle Command—sparking concerns that he is well on the way to a strongman style of leadership unseen in China since the death of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.
Chinese state media showed photos and footage of Xi, clad from head to foot in battle-khaki and inspecting the newly inaugurated command center’s troops on Wednesday.
Xi told the PLA that the Joint Battle Command should be “absolutely loyal, resourceful in fighting, efficient in commanding, and courageous and capable of winning wars,” according to state broadcast China Central Television (CCTV).
Xi is already head of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, President of the People’s Republic of China and chairman of the Central Military Commission, a party body that controls the PLA.
The new role is much closer to the PLA’s operations than the CMC leadership, however, and shows that Xi is backing a fully modernized PLA, according to state media.
However, the media coverage also shows the president burnishing his image as the charismatic “savior” of the Chinese people, Shaanxi-based media commentator Ma Xiaoming told RFA.
“This move by Xi Jinping is characteristic of the imperialist thinking that portrays him as the savior of the nation,” Ma said. “[That thinking] is also one of the biggest reasons for his rise to power.”
Xi’s impeccable revolutionary credentials, as son of the late Communist Party general Xi Zhongxun, have sparked something of a personality cult around the president within the ranks of the party.
“A lot of organizations within the party have been writing songs in praise of Xi, as well as taking care of the grave of Xi Zhongxun,” Ma said. “Publishing houses are printing his writings, while all the places where Xi once lived, worked or studied are starting to turn into places where one pays one’s respects.”
“Some people are treating the place where Xi’s mother Qi Xin once worked as holy ground,” he said.
Political commentator Wei Pu said Xi’s apparent move towards a more hands-on military role has more to do with consolidating his power within party ranks since taking over from predecessor Hu Jintao in 2012.
“Xi Jinping has managed to set up his own dictatorship by increasing his own personal authority and consolidating power in his own hands,” Wei wrote in a commentary on RFA’s Cantonese Service.
“Xi holds the highest power in the land, alone, and he rules personally,” Wei said. “Under Hu … we saw one party rule, in accordance with the collective leadership that was Deng Xiaoping’s idea.”
“Thus, we have a system in which a single person wields power that isn’t subject to the limits of law or any checks and balances.”
A current affairs commentator who gave only his surname Wu said the setting up of the PLA Battle Command could also be seen as a conciliatory gesture to the military, which has been hard-hit by the president’s anti-corruption campaign in recent years.
“Corruption is very serious in the military … and the anti-corruption campaigns are very popular with the general public,” Wu said.
He said it is still unclear how far Xi is willing to go in tackling graft in the ranks of the PLA, in spite of having criticized the military for engaging in widespread and hugely lucrative business ventures.
“We will have to wait for the 19th Party Congress before we find out exactly what his ideological line is going to be [on the military],”
One thing is sure, according to Wei Pu. Xi Jinping tolerates no challenge to his personal power or attacks on his public image.
“Any individuals who try and challenge him are wiped out or suppressed by the huge power of the state machinery, whether they are in China or overseas,” Wei wrote.
Recent articles comparing “Daddy Xi” with late supreme leaders like Deng or Mao Zedong in the Western media have been quickly deleted and the offending websites firmly blocked in China, he said.