As Xi's star rises, experts ask if the centre can hold

BEIJING - Chinese Communist chief Xi Jinping's ascension to the highest title in the party hierarchy formalises his position as its pre-eminent figure, analysts said, making him the country's most powerful leader in a generation and inviting comparisons with Mao Zedong.

The ruling party's declaration that Xi is the "core" of its leadership saw some observers argue it heralded the beginnings of a personality cult, smacking of the adulation that once surrounded Communist China's founding father, who ruled for three decades.

Others saw it as a crucial step to enforce genuine reform in the world's most populous country and second-largest economy, including liberalising markets and strengthening the legal system.

Xi's anointment, by the ruling party's top echelons after a key meeting in Beijing known as the Sixth Plenum, was met with fanfare by state media.

A picture of the leader in a sombre Western suit dominated the front pages of the country's major papers Friday, and China's national broadcaster showed footage of Xi's lectures during the meeting on a near-continuous loop.

A gushing editorial in the Communist Party's mouthpiece, the People's Daily, called the leader's elevation the "common will" of the nation, language echoed by commentaries in many major news outlets.

The official Xinhua news service said the decision was a formal recognition of the critical role Xi has played since taking power in 2012, when he launched a massive anti-corruption drive that has shaken the party to its roots.

While the campaign has led to the punishment of over a million officials, it, too, has raised questions about whether Xi is a reformer or is carrying out a ruthless political purge.

The document that declared Xi's primacy also emphasised the importance of collective leadership and warned against the deification of the party's chiefs.

"Propaganda about leaders should be factual and avoid flattery," it emphasised.

The message appeared to have bypassed the denizens of China's social media, many of whom are thought to be by paid by authorities to lavish praise on the government.

"Resolutely embrace Xi Dada!" said one commenter, using a popular nickname for the leader that some say evokes an air of paternalistic authoritarianism.

"With Xi Jinping as the core... we will definitely realise our Chinese dream," it continued, echoing the leader's nationalistic call for the "Great Rejuvenation" of the Chinese nation.

The concept of a "core" leader was first put forward by China's former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1989, shortly after nationwide democracy protests turned into the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The situation was "unstable" at the time, said Xi Xianglin, a professor of political science at Beijing University, and Deng conferred the title on the country's new leader Jiang Zemin as a way to rally support.

The term, he said, describes "a virtuous person who comes to resolve differences of opinion within the party".

Many loyalists see Xi as a transformative figure, and Hu Xingdou, an expert on China's governance at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said his new status could see him become "China's (George) Washington" and lead the country "out of the shadow of chaos".

The government had failed to deliver on its previous commitments in such areas as improving rule of law and opening markets, he said.

"Conversely, they have been violated, and we have seen major setbacks." Without a strong leader, he said, "no one can make final decisions. Nothing can be accomplished".

Regional cadres began using the term "core" for Xi last December, but it then disappeared, suggesting that the Chinese president had encountered resistance to his efforts to further consolidate his power.

The move comes ahead of a party congress next year when Xi will have an opportunity to put his own allies into the top Politburo Standing Committee.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University said that calls for unity before and at the plenum showed that the party was "far from being monolithic and that Xi is facing difficulties and even headwinds as far as his policy agenda is concerned".

"The battle for the next party congress has started but it is far from being over," he said.

Not all are convinced Xi will use his new-found authority for good.

He is a "power hungry politician", said Willy Lam, professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"It's what the psychologists call megalomania: the more powerful you are, the more power hungry you remain." Lam believes that Xi will try to remain in power beyond the two five year terms allowed to the national president by law. There is no formal rule on tenure for the general secretary of the ruling party, the post from which he derives his power.

"The core can ask for 20 years," he said. "This is a very blatant building of the personality cult... a big step back for institutional reform." Lam is not alone. For many, Xi's new title brings to mind an age-old tradition.

One commenter on China's Weibo microblog service posted: "One country, one emperor. It's the way it's been for thousands of years."