The new helmsman: Xi Jinping’s re-election brings comparison with Mao

Presidents reappointment for unlimited terms in office sends the state propaganda machine into overdrive

China’s propaganda drive has kicked into overdrive following Xi Jinping’s unanimous reappointment as president at the weekend.

Xi’s face dominated the front pages of major Sunday newspapers, many carrying the same editorial from the ruling Communist party’s official People’s Daily about Xi’s reappointment as president on Saturday.

It used language once more associated with Mao Zedong, who was known as the Great Helmsman, saying he was a “leader loved and respected by the people” and “helmsman of the country”.

“The voyage of a great country cannot do without a helmsman,” the paper wrote.

There was never any doubt that the largely rubber-stamp parliament would not have re-elected Xi as president on Saturday, especially following a constitutional amendment a week earlier which lifts presidential term limits, meaning Xi can stay on indefinitely.

Delegates applaud as a screen showing 2,970 votes for the reelection of Xi Jinping during a plenary session of the people’s congress in Beijing on Saturday. Photograph: Andy Wong/AP

While the amendment was passed with just six dissenters – two no votes, three abstentions and one invalidated ballot – none of the roughly 3,000 legislators voted against Xi, a point made repeatedly in state media coverage.

State television showed images from the floor in the Great Hall of the People of some legislators in tears after Xi swore an oath to the constitution following his re-election, a vote it described as a “solemn and sacred historic moment”.

In a moment of high political theatre, a copy of the constitution was carried onto the main stage by three members of the armed forces.

Other pictures on state media showed ordinary people standing in applause in front of television screens around the country at Xi’s re-appointment.

Soldiers carry a copy of the constitution into the people’s congress meeting in Beijing on Saturday as Xi and his leadership team look on. Photograph: Andy Wong/AP

The government has presented this month’s parliament session and its controversial removal of presidential term limits as widely welcomed despite criticism that has evaded the censors and seeped onto Chinese social media at times.

Late on Saturday, the People’s Daily WeChat account went live with a game where players have 20 seconds to press the screen as many times as they can to register a “like” for all the government’s achievements of the past five years, Xi’s first term in office.

The top-rated comment on Sunday morning was one user proudly saying he had pressed “like” 181 times.

“Press like for Uncle Xi!” wrote another user, using a popular term of endearment for Xi.

Wang Qishan, left, shakes hands with Xi Jinping after being elected vice president. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Also on Saturday, the man who, led Xi’s crackdown on corruption, Wang Qishan, was elected vice president. Only one person voted against Wang out of the 2,970 votes cast.

Wang’s election was seen by some observers as another sign of the diminished influence of the premier, Li Keqiang. He won a second five-year term on Sunday but has increasingly less say on policy as Xi surrounds himself with allies such as Wang.

“The most influential figures around Xi are allies that he has manoeuvered into central positions,” said Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China policy institute at Nottingham University.

“That does not leave a lot of room for Li Keqiang to exert much influence, to the extent that his progressive marginalisation would not be a big surprise.”

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