In this, the second of a yin-yang pair of articles that might be entitled
Uncle Xi and the Ten Kings of the Underworld,
I find myself seeking to qualify the current coverage in the foreign media. The casual reader might be forgiven for supposing Chinese people to be languishing under a bombardment of Uncle Xi propaganda, just as we are abroad at the hands of China-watchers—in very different ways.
I don’t doubt that in some spheres this latest catechism is indeed intrusive. But the impression I get is that Chinese (peasants, workers, artists, students, academics…) have far more important things to do than study Xi Jinping Thought. I found public images of him rare—and if some households do display his poster, then there’s a sound pragmatic reason.
Shanghai, 2018: images that I barely saw in nearly a month in Shanxi and Beijing. Photo: ABC.
Invisible propaganda: business as usual
Of course no-one ever mentions him. On the few occasions that I broach the subject, it goes down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party. Following Nigel Barley (“like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club”), I ask Li Manshan innocently, “Have you been studying Xi Jinping Thought?!” Without exactly rolling his eyes (unlike this reporter), he looks at me like I’m crazy—not for the first or last time.
In the poor rural county through which I’ve just been travelling, posters  were distributed to every household—with the offer (akin to a bribe) of sacks of flour, meat, and so on. In one village I know, around 80% have taken the bait. Poor-peasant families will likely play ball (like a rural Protestant woman we met, and a “left-over” family in a dying village).
A household Daoist, and a shawm player—both struggling to make ends meet—have also put their poster up. Another Daoist, my age, put his up gladly, but he’s not that well-off—and anyway he still reveres Chairman Mao, which his colleagues agree is weird. As we chat between ritual visits to the soul hall, I can’t even be bothered to ask him, “If Chairman Mao was so great, how come he let 45 million starve to death? How come you couldn’t even get a proper meal until the 1980s? How come he wouldn’t let you guys do rituals?”
But most of my village friends don’t need the supplement, so have refrained from putting up their posters. Thus I saw very few of them, either in the countryside or in the capital.  (Having just received a rather indecent gas bill, I wonder if I can ask for a poster from the county Propaganda Department to hang up in my house in Chiswick—if they can put bonus points on my Nectar card…)
Only now does it occur to me that there should be a strong correlation between households displaying the posters and those too poor to invite the whole ritual band to perform a complete sequence of funerary rituals, who instead request a solo Daoist merely to “smash the bowl” for them.
So my feeling is that for villagers, this is just yet the latest in a long line of gods who may or may not address their practical problems. Campaigns are water off a duck’s back for them:
The mountains are high, the emperor is distant
Shan gao, huangdi yuan 山高皇帝远
There may be various reasons for choosing whether or not to hang a poster up. Villagers might feel that their room needs a splash of colour; or else it might not go with their colour scheme. No, aesthetic considerations are unlikely: some households may be genuinely enthusiastic, while most will swallow their scruples in order to get a supplement. At least, we can’t assess popular support for Uncle Xi merely by counting the number of posters displayed.
Nor did I see any painted wall slogans  to him as we walked and drove through the villages, or as we drove through townships and the county-town. Does the local government know something we don’t? Do I need a repeat visit to the optician?
Come to think of it, is it some extraordinary quirk of my routes through Beijing, or is there a remarkable absence of his images in public places there too? Has anyone covered this?
A common sign. Strangely missing is the request: “With the exception of patriotism, if anyone spots an outbreak of any of the above diseases, please report them to us and we will take appropriate action.” My photo.
So—unless one were so desperate as to switch on the CCTV news—my whole trip was notable for his absence. Far Be It From Me to claim that he’s not an evil autocrat bent on crushing all dissent and Destroying Civilization As We Know It, but the tone of these online scare stories reminds me of the Daily Mail. It seems I have to come to China to escape from him (or should I say Him).
* * *
Sure, we’re all “blind people groping at the elephant”. We have to study everyone, including elites, and some scholars and journos have to focus on one man at the top of the structure. Not only do decisions made from on high affect the lives of ordinary people, but there are very compelling reasons why we should pay attention to the insidious encroachment of autocracy and the escalating erosion of rights. Everywhere.
Still, my single biggest culture-shock at returning home to the foreign media was to be suddenly reminded of their obsession with Uncle Xi. Those who follow such authoritative China-watchers might easily deduce that his worship is an all-consuming duty—but such a conclusion bears little relationship to the daily lives of Chinese people.
So foreign coverage may be diametrically at odds with Chinese propaganda, but they’re both barking up the same tree. Meanwhile the Labouring Masses either take action or Keep Calm and Carry On, ignoring all the flapdoodle; and other scholars, Chinese and foreign, get on with writing about the lives of real people, exposing grass-roots problems.
*** Update: brilliant headline from Girish Sihane:
Xi sells seashells by the seashore as Modi’s foreign policy lies in tatters
 I inadvertently find myself referring to them as shenxiang 神像, god images—which always gets a giggle.
 By contrast, see e.g. here: “the only image I saw more frequently—in elementary-school classrooms, in airports and shopping malls, on billboards on highways and in rice paddies—was the face of President Xi Jinping. Each image was identical: the country’s supreme leader, with raven-black hair and a face fastidiously airbrushed to erase any hint of human blemish, smiling calmly against a sky-blue background: an unimpeachable deity in an officially atheist state.” See also this photo essay.
 For worthier feminist slogans, see here, and here.