When Chinese students returned to class in September, they received a new series of manuals describing the political philosophy of Chinese President Xi Jinping – or “Grandfather Xi” -.
Each textbook on Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, as Xi’s Political Philosophy is officially called, is suitable for students in primary, secondary, and higher levels.
“Xi Jinping Thought” Enlisted in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Constitution in 2017. Although the main stated objectives are to remain committed to reform and to build a âmoderately prosperous societyâ, the realities of this political philosophy has been a tightening of party discipline and a reduction in social freedom.
While the previous textbooks focused on the CCP, the new versions focus on the Supreme Leader of China. In this way, they reflect the growing cult of Xi Jinping’s personality, eerily reminiscent of the days of China’s founding father, Mao Zedong.
The Rise of Personality Cult
According to China National Textbook Committee, the “textbooks reflect the will of the Chinese Communist Party and the nation and have a direct impact on the direction and quality of talent cultivation.”
In particular, the Committee declared:
“Primary schools should foster a love and understanding of the Party, the country and socialism among students.”
The fundamental socialist values highlighted in textbooks include prosperity, patriotism and friendship.
Aimed at children, the nickname “Grandpa Xi” is part of the ongoing strategy to create a cult of personality in China. Authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union also used the figure of the grandfather – “Grandfather Lenin” – in propaganda aimed at children. It enhanced Lenin’s vision personality cult across the Soviet nations.
Political scientist Pao-min Chang defines personality cult as:
“The artificial elevation of the status and authority of one man … by the deliberate creation, projection and propagation of a divine image.”
Like Lenin, a personality cult around Mao Zedong emerged during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Although later rulers Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic reform, and Wen Jiabao, who served as prime minister between 2003 and 2013, are commonly known as “Grandfather Deng” and “Grandfather Deng” father Wen â, they did not openly press for this image.
Xi returns to Mao in his efforts to build a personality cult around him. Since coming to power, he has cultivated the image of “a man of the people” in order to make his authoritarianism more palpable for the masses.
Little Red Children and Grandpa Xi
New elementary school textbooks emphasize Xi’s wisdom, kindness, and caring for children. The first signs of this strategy can be seen in a government propaganda video, Grandpa Xi is Our Big Friend, which circulated online in 2015.
The video was checked in at Yan’an Yucai Primary School in Shaanxi. The location is important as the school was founded by Mao Zedong in 1937.
In the video, Xi is not presented as a distant authority figure. Instead, Grandpa Xi is a caring “great friend”. The children sing that her “warm smile” is “brighter than the sun”. Images of children waving sunflowers and words describing Xi’s visit as “better than the heat of a spring day” serve to accentuate his friendly disposition.
Most importantly, the children sing about the need to âstudy diligentlyâ to âachieve the Chinese dreamâ. This dream is Xi’s vision for China to become a prosperous society.
The children wear red scarves and red stars in the video. Those symbols represent the national flag. The color red alludes to the blood of revolutionaries martyrs. They remind children of their connection to the nation and the Party.
Xi wears a red scarf in the video. In one scene, he places a red scarf over the shoulders of a child. This prop and gesture is also described in the 2021 elementary school textbooks. Placing a sling on a child means that the children take on the role of happily fulfilling Grandpa Xi’s vision.
Young CCP Pioneers
The textbook for lower elementary school students contains pictures of Xi planting trees with children and meeting them at school.
The books contain statements such as:
“Grandpa Xi Jinping is very busy with work, but no matter how busy he is, he always joins our business and cares about our growth.”
Xi shares his emotional memories when he joined the Young Pioneers of China – the youth organization of the CCP – in 1960. He then invites readers to describe their own feelings about being a part of the Young Pioneers, thus encouraging young people to join.
Textbooks use illustrations with speech bubbles to make the ideological content more interesting. Some illustrations show students sitting around a table teaching each other about Grandfather Xi’s expectations of becoming a person of “good character” and who is “diligent and thrifty.”
The books also focus on acquiring knowledge about âscience and technologyâ, as well as being âcreative and innovativeâ.
Children must cultivate these markers of good citizenship to become what the books call âskilled builders and successors of socialismâ. This rhetoric of children like nation’s hope has been in use since the end of the 19th century.
The emphasis on being “qualified” suggests that children must live up to the expectations set by Xi. The textbooks suggest that this is only possible through Grandpa Xi’s continued care for them.
This image of Grandpa Xi as a “great friend” is a milder form of propaganda than that seen during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Propaganda aimed at children during the Cultural Revolution positioned the Party as a surrogate parent. He also highlighted the violence of children as they fought for the socialist cause. The young Red Guards sang patriotic songs and read the little red book. These rituals promoted the cult of Mao’s personality.
It remains to be seen whether the new school curriculum is a harbinger of a future deification of Xi.
Shih-Wen Sue Chen is a Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University. Sin Wen Lau is a lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Otago. This piece first appeared on The conversation.