Since Mao's public leadership and Deng Xiaoping's more behind-the-scenes control, no individual Chinese leader — president or not — has had the same level of personal cachet. However, Xi's rise to power as Party secretary and president is beginning to erode decades of relatively faceless Chinese presidents known more for their role in consensus leadership than for their personalities or passions.
Following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and Mao's death, the so-called Gang of Four, which included Mao's widow Jiang, attempted to consolidate the power they had built up in the preceding years. The Gang of Four had been prominent within the conservative factions of the Cultural Revolution — it was also blamed for many of its excesses — and fought against the resurgence of what was seen as a more liberal wing of the Party, characterized by the twice-purged Deng Xiaoping. There was little denying the influence and power that Jiang and her allies wielded, and after Mao's death there was a rapid move to arrest her, purge her faction and hand the guidance of the future of China over to Deng. Jiang's power had parallels in Chinese history, where powerful and ruthless women such as the Empress Dowager Cixi ruled from behind the scenes and at times outside the constraints of the system.
One of the major reforms Deng brought to Chinese politics was a system of consensus rule, whereby the Party general secretary and president would not be the powerful central guiding force but rather the manager of a collection of individuals, putting him slightly above a group of equals on the Politburo Standing Committee. The group leadership was intended to avoid the excesses of highly charismatic individual leaders and the wild swings in policies and social stability like those wrought by Mao through his the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Simultaneously, the presidency, which was not a strong position to begin with, would be held by the Party general secretary, bringing the Party and government into a clear cohesive unit. But the person filling the role would be chosen based on their conventionality. In short, the leader of China was not supposed to be an individual in his own right — merely a representative of the Party. While a leader could contribute his own catchphrase to the tome of Mao's and Deng's guiding words, the leader was not to have too much emphasis placed on his or her individuality.
This consensus system served China well during the economic growth of the 1990s as Deng handed over power to newer leaders. The system also helped preserve the role of the Party at the center of Chinese politics even as economic and social models evolved. But amid the rapid growth of the early 21st century, the pace of economic and social change outstripped political evolutions. The consensus-based system, which was designed around the idea of moving slowly, seemed outdated amid the new challenges China faced. This became particularly poignant at the outset of the global economic slowdown in 2008, when China found that it could no longer ignore its need to shift from an export-based economic model to one driven more by internal consumption.
The delays in changing China's economic model were not caused by a lack of recognition but by the natural disruptions they would create. The underlying model of one of the three largest economies in the world cannot be changed without repercussions. Even if the long-term benefits were clear, the short-term disruptions were troubling. Furthermore, the political and elite networks in China were so intertwined with the underlying economic system that changes would necessarily begin to affect patronage networks and regional self-interests as they conflicted with the broader desire for macroeconomic change. The economic model created a large group of vested interests that benefit from the state's patronage; if these interests are disrupted, there is a fear that powerful groups could shift their support from the state and join forces with the masses, weakening the center's grip on power. Fixing the economy requires adjusting the politics, but there is strong resistance to that, and it is further hampered by the consensus-based model that engendered political stability but stifled creativity and decisiveness.
Xi's Attempts at Change
Xi, at least on the surface, appears to be trying to alter this situation. Rather than allowing himself to be seen as another faceless bureaucrat, he is cultivating a national awareness and appreciation of his personality among rural and urban working classes. (He has been seen literally rolling up his pant legs, holding his own umbrella and starring in animated videos online about the Chinese political system.) His well-known wife, Peng, is a former singer in the People's Liberation Army and a much more public figure than previous Chinese first ladies. Xi has shrunk the size of the Politburo Standing Committee; continued with a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign that targets some of the so-called Tigers within the high ranks of the Communist Party, government and industry; and created several advisory and working groups that oversee aspects of economic reform and military developments.
There is some sense that Xi is trying to remake the role of the president in China into something a bit more analogous in public perception to the U.S. president. This requires focus on the individual, something incongruous with the consensus model. But it corresponds to China's attempts to portray itself as a real global player with a role equal to (albeit different from) the United States — something that appeals to the nationalist sentiment in China, softening any divisions between Party members and the "regular" Chinese under an all-embracing national banner, and thus rallies the population even as it faces economic and social disruptions due to changing policies. It also concentrates more power in Xi, potentially easing the way for more rapid and potentially controversial policies. It is not the level of concentrated power of Mao or Deng, and it is not a path without internal resistance, but Xi's actions seem to show the process continuing apace.
And this brings us back to the U.S. first lady's visit to China. It is highly unusual for a Chinese first lady to invite a U.S. first lady for a visit. They may meet on the sidelines of a summit, or at some U.N. function (and even those have largely been forgettable occasions over the past few decades), but the Chinese first lady does not take such public diplomatic actions. Yet if Xi wants to portray himself as equal in role and power to a U.S. president, to consolidate decision-making to a much smaller group around himself and to rally popular Chinese support to mitigate the hardships that economic reform is likely to entail, he must build up at least a moderate cult of personality around himself to shield himself from the Party mechanics. His wife's role certainly helps in this matter.