BEIJING – He rolls up his pants in a downpour, holds his own umbrella and reminisces with villagers about the good old days. In nearly 10 months as China's leader, Xi Jinping has projected himself as a man of the people in a Mao Zedong-inspired propaganda push to connect with an alienated public.
Xi's populist approach, calling for party cadres to renew their ties with ordinary people, is part of his strategy to cement control of the Communist Party, protect its image and head off any challenges to the notion of one-party rule.
The strategy also features a corruption crackdown, aimed at opponents within the party who threaten cohesion, and increasingly hard-line moves to silence influential critics on the Internet and elsewhere.
Whether those efforts are working, or are simply working against each other, might become clearer as senior party leaders prepare for a November meeting where they are expected to produce a new economic blueprint. Xi's administration says the country needs economic reforms, but those changes will likely chafe against vested interests within the party that are tied to China's powerful state-owned companies.
A key feature of Xi's approach is the "mass line," a Mao Zedong-era ideological campaign to get the party's rank and file to reflect on their own and others' misdeeds and bind themselves to the people they say they serve. The revival of the mass line underscores the new leadership's fears that widespread corruption in its ranks has eroded its image.
"He's really sort of like the pope in a way, standing for some kind of ideological purity," said Kerry Brown, a China expert at the University of Sydney. "And like the pope, he has to issue these papal edicts every now and again which set out the core beliefs."
Brown said, "I would see it as symptomatic of a crisis in that they are trying to demonstrate relevance and credibility where in fact that's long gone and this is a bit of an empty kind of gesture."
Xi risks undermining his own exhortations to party officials to listen to the common people with his aggressive efforts to control discourse and suppress calls for political reform.
Early in the year, reports began emerging of a secret document circulated among propaganda officials identifying threats to clamp down on such as constitutionalism, universal values, civil society and the Western concept of freedom of the press. Authorities have shut down critical blogs and last month started arresting influential bloggers. Civil-rights advocates also have been rounded up.
Meanwhile, Xi's administration has signaled its intention to exert control over the country's mammoth state-owned companies. An anti-graft campaign has netted a number of high-level officials in the oil sector in recent weeks.
"His objectives so far are quite clear, which are to clean up the top levels of the bureaucracy and, at the same time, to control the most critical elements of society," said Ding Xueliang, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "That means to crack down on the two extremes: the most extreme corruption cases and the most extreme critical voices."
Playing to the party base, Xi, the son of a revolutionary veteran, has paid his respects at Mao's old residences, where he proclaimed that "the color of our red country will never change." It's seen as a bid to bolster the party's legitimacy — and thus his own — by emphasizing continuity and tapping into the revolutionary legacy of its founder.
Xi's evocation of Mao and the ideological assault on democratic values has disappointed liberal intellectuals in China who had seen his rise as a chance to curb the party's authoritarian rule with a fairer, independent judiciary and constitutionalism.
But Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, said many Chinese leaders have to defend Mao's legacy to reinforce party unity, and added that it's still unclear how politically conservative Xi really is.
"It's a little bit too early to jump to the conclusion that definitely Xi Jinping will embrace the Maoist approach. I think he may surprise us with more positive developments in the months to come," he said.
In a flurry of visits in July, Xi sought to portray himself as a no-fuss leader, rolling up his pants to talk to dock workers in the rain in the central city of Wuhan. In Zhengding county of Hebei, where he served as party chief three decades ago, he struck a nostalgic note to remind cadres how they should be spending their days.
"This reminds me of that time when I was with comrades every day, chatting, thinking and working together," Xi said. "I directly understood and felt the villagers' joys and sorrows."
Across the nation, party cadres have made a show of responding to Xi's call, holding meetings and visiting orphanages, hospices, schools and offices where residents submit complaints.
But a Maoist strategy may not prove effective on what has become a critically minded Chinese society. The hundreds of millions of users of China's popular microblogs have largely ignored the mass line campaign.
Commentators have noted with cynicism that officials should have been doing the work Xi advocates in the first place. Others have invoked the campaign to bolster causes the party opposes, such as subjecting the party to the rule of law.
But some are hopeful that in the absence of political reform, Xi's campaign could bring some benefits.
"To an extent, we're still hopeful that under Mr. Xi, the mass line will be used to protect the interests of the masses," said Huang Qi, a veteran activist who campaigns for victims of illegal land seizures and other abuses. Huang said some people he has helped have recently reported seeing progress in their complaints.
"Under the current system of one-party rule, even though we have been deceived countless times, we still have to have some hope," Huang said.
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