An Oval Office-Style Address Delivered by a Communist Leader

Xi Jinping of China gave an unusual televised New Year’s address to the country
January 2, 2014 4:59 am Last Updated: January 2, 2014 1:06 pm

Leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have given public addresses to their subjects before, but typically not from a set that an American president could have used.

Xi Jinping, the head of the Communist Party, gave a new year’s greeting to the Chinese public that was broadcast throughout the regime’s mouthpiece media organs on Dec. 31, 2013. It appeared aimed at enhancing Xi’s image as a sincere leader that can be trusted, even as he continues to mercilessly repress journalists who report on unwelcome stories, and activists who speak out against the regime.

Photographs of Xi’s family were placed prominently on the mahogany shelves behind him—just like it’s done in the United States. Two red telephones and a white one sat at the front of the large desk.

The year 2013 was an “unusual” one for China, Xi said, where the Chinese people “together conquered all kinds of difficulties and challenges.”

He continued that the new leadership, which he has quickly and thoroughly sought to centralize under his personal command, will seek to “make the nation more prosperous” in 2014 through a raft of reforms.

Changes would be enacted to make Chinese society “more just and fair,” and “to let people live better lives,” he said. Such promises are likely a response to the widespread discontent in China at official corruption, the gap between the wealthy and the poor, and the abuse of power by those with connections to the Communist Party.

Dong Fang, a reporter with Voice of America in China, quipped that Xi seemed to be promising “minsheng, not minzhu,” or, basic livelihood for the people but not democracy.

Different from the New Year’s messages by former communist leaders, Xi’s remarks did not traipse through the list of Chinese communist theoretical developments of past decades like “socialism with Chinese Characteristics” or Mao Zedong Thought.

“This is a very particular point about this speech,” said Shi Cangshan, an independent analyst of Party affairs based in Washington, D.C. “Usually they would heavily emphasize communist ideology, Mao, and so on. It wasn’t there at all here.”

Shi added, “This is a speech for the public, so he may want to soften the ideology. But internally he is strengthening control, strengthening Party discipline, and demanding obedience from the cadres.”

Following the article, part of the online commentariat was impressed with what they thought was Xi’s “sincere” tone, partly because of the absence of sloganeering.

The four family photographs on the bookshelf may have helped reinforce that messaging. They pictured Xi with his wife; pushing his father, the revolutionary Party leader Xi Zhongxun, in a wheelchair; walking and holding hands with his mother; and guiding his daughter as she rode a bicycle.

If the image of a Man of the People is part of Xi’s current propaganda messaging, it was also reflected in a meal that he enjoyed in a steamed bun restaurant in Beijing recently. Xi was photographed waiting in line to pay for his “baozi,” or steamed buns, and the pictures soon went viral. He spent 21 yuan, or less than $4, on the meal, according to state mouthpiece Xinhua.

Alongside these gestures of openness to the public, Xi Jinping has also continued saying that Chinese society must continue to stay under the control of his Party. On the same date as the friendly video presentation, for example, Xinhua published a 5,000-word speech by Xi titled “Earnestly Unify Thought Under the 18th Party Congress’s Third Plenum.” The third plenum was an important political meeting held several months ago, which laid down Xi’s new plans for economic reform.