Not long ago, it seemed that Zhou Xiaoping was something like The Chosen One for a new brand of Maoist-inflected nationalism, nurtured by Party leader Xi Jinping himself.
Xi had praised Zhou and another young blogger for producing writings that “carry positive energy”—official parlance for content that glorifies the Party—at an arts and literature forum in October 2014. Zhou even snapped a selfie with Xi in the background chatting with other guests, and quickly became the darling of state-run media.
But recent events show just how quickly the mighty can fall in China. Zhou took to his blog on May 28 not with more nationalist bravado, but with the plaintive complaint that Chinese video streaming websites — including Tencent, Youku, and Tudou — were rejecting his new videos, and even deleting his old content.
The pushback against Zhou seems to be the latest episode in which overly ‘red’ propaganda has suddenly encountered resistance. Observers have seen the incidents as a sign that struggle is afoot for control over propaganda and messaging in the Party, as Xi Jinping’s leadership group pushes back against attempts by underlings to undermine his position with a rabid Maoist line.
Zhou Xiaoping’s is an emblematic case. Before his meeting with Xi Jinping, he had attracted moderate attention for heaping praise on the Communist Party and spewing vitriol about the United States. In one of his most notorious pieces, “Please Do Not Fail this Era,” Zhou wrote about his “awakening” to the understanding that “no other country is more unfairly wronged” than China, and that Chinese citizens have been “misled” into believing that Party officials are “idiots.” In “Nine Knockout Blows in America’s Cold War Against China,” Zhou argued that the U.S. was engaging in an “internet Opium War” against China, and accused America of “promoting racism” like “Hitler against the Jews.”
Zhou gained over half a million fans on Sina Weibo, China’s popular microblogging service, and was for a time commended for his work. A scholar and former Chinese foreign ministry official produced a defense of “China’s Patriotic Blogger” where he backed Zhou’s point that Chinese citizens were being too critical of China, while his writings—of little intellectual value—were featured in state run ideological journals.
The recent reversal may be because the leadership thought that other elements in the Party—notably, those in propaganda under Liu Yunshan, a Politburo Standing Committee member and an ally of Xi Jinping’s top political rival, former regime leader Jiang Zemin—were taking the propaganda too far.
Xu Kexin, a former college professor and independent analyst in China, told the Chinese language edition of Voice of America that Zhou Xiaoping’s meeting with Xi Jinping, an event that greatly boosted Zhou’s profile, was the underhand arrangements of “leftists” in the Party’s upper echelons.
“Zhou Xiaoping’s excessive flattery is a type of internet ‘gaojihei,’ and the authorities won’t let this clownish, sycophantic character go to extremes,” Xu said.
As explained by Chinese political analysts, “gaojihei” refers to a type of sophisticated, Machiavellian attack, in which the conspirator goes about undermining the target through flattering them. By first using propaganda to build up the image of Xi Jinping in the style of Mao, Xi’s enemies could then accuse him of deliberately attempting to create a personality cult—a serious charge.
In May near the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, an entertainment organization linked with the propaganda department held a very “red” Cultural Revolution-themed concert at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. A young female singing troupe belted out one “red” song after another, including “On the Field of Hope,” a Party tune made popular by Peng Liyuan, Xi’s folk singer wife. Pictures of Xi meeting with farmers followed images of Mao.
But the event was later revealed to have been an attempt at attacking the Party leader. Ma Xiaoli, a princeling and former Party official, was so incensed with the “red” performance that she dashed off a strongly worded complaint letter to Li Zhanshu, the director of the Party’s General Office, and accused the “organizers” and “manipulators” for having “created this situation to slander the top leader” Xi Jinping.
Even relatively mild propaganda efforts were recast to amplify the building of a Xi personality cult. Xi Dada,” or “Papa Xi,” a moniker that appeared to depict Xi as a man of the people type, has been overhyped ad nauseum by the state media, anonymous song writers, and bloggers that it now has dictatorial connotations akin to “Chairman Mao.”
Zhou Xiaoping is fond of the “Xi Dada” moniker, and that is especially problematic when he writes to promote his “warped” worldview, according to Xu Kexin the analyst. “In Zhou Xiaoping’s eyes, the motherland is not a country, but the government, and that means Xi Jinping,” Xu said.
Xi has recently been pushing back at these efforts. In February, he toured the state media headquarters in what seemed to be an attempt to gain and demonstrate control over the Party’s media, after a disastrous New Year Gala that was off-putting for its heavy-handedness. Two months later, Xi banned the propaganda department from calling him “Xi Dada,” according to the Hong Kong daily Ming Pao.
Last month, the People’s Forum, a subsidiary of state mouthpiece People’s Daily, prominently displayed on its website a survey that explained what “gaojihei” is, and how to recognize it.
Now, Xi appears to have silenced a serial flatterer online.
Xu Kexin, speaking to VOA, said: “Zhou Xiaoping’s current predicament is due to a lack of understanding of how politics works.”