BEIJING – China's President Xi Jinping has collected titles ranging from National Security Council chief to good old "Uncle Xi." Along the way, he's used state media to make his views known on such seemingly apolitical topics as avant garde architecture and celebrity culture.
That's not unusual for a national leader, but in China such labels and such opinions are taken extremely seriously — and the latter, in Xi's case, are sometimes translated directly into government policy in China's top-down, autocratic one-party system. They underscore the tremendous clout Xi has accumulated over his three years as president, which now seems set to rise still further.
As China's ceremonial legislature prepares to meet for its annual session, there are growing signs that Xi will be elevated to the position of "core" of the current generation of leaders, an accolade bestowed on past leaders, but which his immediate predecessor never attained.
While mainly symbolic, the move points not only to Xi's overwhelming grasp on power within the ruling Communist Party, but also his need to continue accumulating accolades to ward off potential challengers and deflect worries over a slowing economy.
"Xi certainly wants to be the predominant leader, rather than first among equals," said Joseph Cheng, a retired political scientist formerly at the City University of Hong Kong. "But he's going against the natural trend because it's very hard to concentrate power in one person in a modernizing society."
Being named the leadership "core" would bring Xi level with former President Jiang Zemin, who continues to wield influence despite leaving office in 2003, and more importantly, famed reformist Deng Xiaoping, the leader Xi is most often compared to in terms of personal authority.
That follows Xi's success in unraveling a network of potential rivals surrounding a former member of the ruling party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. He's also sidelined members of predecessor Hu Jintao's China Youth League faction, most notably Premier Li Keqiang, from whom Xi has largely appropriated authority over the economy.
Virtual endorsements of elevating Xi to the "core" have flooded in from regional leaders.
"Resolutely safeguard, support and be loyal to the core of Secretary General Xi Jinping," Tibet's regional Communist Party secretary, Chen Quanguo, was quoted as saying at a Feb. 3 meeting, using Xi's official title as head of the party. "Resolutely safeguard the core of Secretary General Xi Jinping," came the virtually identical pronouncements from the party secretaries of Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Hainan and Jiangxi provinces.
The next step would be for such wording to show up in official pronouncements, state media reports or even on banners within the vast chamber of Beijing's Great Hall of the People, where the National People's Congress opens on Saturday.
Xi's pet political doctrines also are expected to be elevated, particularly his "Four Comprehensives" blueprint for China's future based on a moderately prosperous society, reform, rule of law and strict party discipline.
All of that adds to the blossoming cult of personality surrounding Xi, the likes of which haven't been seen since Deng's heyday in the 1980s. Already, Xi's face adorns commemorative plates and tourist trinkets sold at Beijing's iconic Tiananmen Square. No less than five volumes of his speeches and writings have been published since he took office, two of them concerning military affairs.
Xi likewise dominates important national events and the entirely state-controlled media, which has taken to referring him in casual settings as "Xidada," or Uncle Xi, in an apparent bid to burnish his avuncular, everyman appeal. His televised image loomed Big Brother-like over September's extraordinary military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. As he stood on the famed Tiananmen rostrum, a massive outdoor TV screen projected his image on the opposite side of the parade.
It's not unusual for reports on his inspection visits to occupy the first 20 minutes of the half-hour evening news broadcast.
For Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, Xi's adding of "core" to his collection of titles would be "simply one more nail in the coffin of collective leadership" established after the death of dictator Mao Zedong in 1976, when Deng turned to fellow veteran cadres to guide the nation out of the xenophobic nightmare of the Cultural Revolution.
Xi's confidence in his sway over the Chinese government and public apparently has inspired him to demand that China's perennially underperforming footballers up their game, and to denounce "weird" modern buildings that have sprung up in Beijing and elsewhere.
Since then, the government's football management system underwent a top-to-bottom reform, and new guidelines are being issued to discourage "bizarre" and "odd-shaped" buildings and encourage those that are efficient, green and beautiful.
In October, Xi gave a speech warning Chinese celebrities against pursuing commercial success rather than work that is "morally inspiring ... to serve the people and socialism." Dozens of official media and entertainment organizations later signed a pledge to uphold professional ethics and support the party leadership.
Xi has leveraged his authority to take charge of the most important policy oversight committees and pursue a nationwide campaign against corrupt officials that has seen almost 1,500 named as suspects, more than 150 of them from the senior ranks. While popular among the public, the crackdown has unsettled the vast bureaucracy and is widely seen as serving a political agenda in helping to eliminate rivals.
"Will Xi end up just accumulating power for power's its own sake? Only time will tell," said Steve Tsang, senior fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, who says Xi is determined to "leave his marks" rather than just muddle through as leader like some of his predecessors.
Yet, Xi's push for ever greater status may be driven equally by a desire to limit his exposure to criticism.
Under Xi, growth in the world's second-largest economy is expected to slow to less than 7 percent this year, putting pressure on the job market at a time when 7.65 million college students are preparing to graduate and 1.8 million workers in the coal and steel sectors are due to be laid off. That, along with falling demand for Chinese exports, is raising the possibility of domestic unrest, something the government spends billions of dollars every year to suppress.
A cratering stock market and mishandled currency depreciation have also severely dinged China's reputation for economic management, while heavy repression of lawyers, women's rights activists and other civil society groups speaks to a deep insecurity within the party's security apparatus.
Meanwhile, Xi's aggressive campaign to assert China's territorial claims in the South China Sea is damaging relationships it has been striving to cultivate with the U.S. and Southeast Asian nations. In that sphere, Xi is seen as especially beholden to the military, whose cooperation he needs in trimming 300,000 active service members, limiting his room for diplomatic maneuver.
Xi's personnel choices also speak to his insecurities. Rather than the technocrats many had been expecting, he's fallen back on tried-and-tested party cadres, while surrounding himself with a small coterie of advisers who maintain a tight hold on information.
Adding the title of "core" is therefore both a sign of strength and weakness, said Economy, who predicts a potential backlash unless Xi can make progress on key economic and social issues.
"It is strength because he has managed, whether though admiration or fear, to gain enough support to allow him to assume a true first-among-equals status," she said. "It is weakness because he feels the need to keep demanding additional trappings of power and adopting increasingly politically repressive measures, which a genuinely confident and legitimate leader would not need to do."