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Will 'core' Communist Xi Jinping become another cult personality?

In a meeting with senior officials this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping was called the 'core' of the Communist Party, a title only given to three previous leaders.

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Paramilitary policemen and pedestrians are reflected on the shop window of a shop selling souvenirs bearing the pictures of China's President Xi Jinping (l.) and former leaders near the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 23, 2014.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

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Chinese President Xi Jinping was granted the title "core" of the communist party on Thursday, placing him in the company of previous prominent leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Chairman Mao Zedong.

It's not an honor automatically conferred. President Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, who some see as weak and indecisive, was not given the same treatment. Xi, on the other hand, has been praised for cracking down on rampant corruption among officials, winning the "heart of the party and people" and "rejuvenating the party," as an official document describes.

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"Party members should closely unite around the Central Committee with comrade Xi Jinping as the core," it said.

The growing praise and honors are prompting experts to wonder whether Xi will attract a cult-like following. Xi has rapidly consolidated power under himself and his supporters since taking office in 2012, with some comparing his efforts to the dictatorial strategies of Chairman Mao, whose statues and words were embraced so fervently that he was seen almost as a deity.

Chinese social media was already awash with approval on Thursday, as Reuters reports, with users hailing him as "mighty Uncle Xi," and saying that with Xi as the core, "our Chinese dream will definitely be realized." Many cited his record at tackling corruption, which increased his popularity.

"It was beyond anybody's belief that corruption could be tamed and officialdom would progress toward less corruption a few years ago. But it is happening in China," according to the editorial in state-run newspaper Global Times. 

Deng Xiaoping first coined the term "core" in 1989, days after the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square, as Quartz’s Zheping Huang reported. Deng's goal was to consolidate the power under himself and his successor amid the chaos.

"Any leadership must have a core," Deng said. "A leadership without a core is not reliable.” He dubbed Mao the core of the first generation of leaders, himself as the second, and Jiang Zemin, who "everyone agrees to [nominate]," as the third.

But it seems like this time, the party is aware of the risks of leaders with cult followings. The documents made explicit warnings that it will not allow unchecked power or leave any special member unsupervised, as Wong Xiangwei wrote in the South China Morning Post.

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"Moreover, it said that publicity regarding leaders should be based purely on facts and that fulsome praise should be banned," Mr. Wong wrote. "It urged ordinary party members to exercise their rights to supervise the conduct of senior officials."

While many experts say that the title will seal Xi’s dominance in the political and economic fields, they also say that he has challenges ahead, especially with next year's reshuffling of the top political committee in the country. Some speculate that the timing of this announcement might be to solidify his power so as to be able to place his allies in powerful positions.

"He has not established himself as a strongman, at least not yet," Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham, told The Wall Street Journal. "Xi is in a good position … but he is not in a position to dictate the direction" of next year's party congress, where he must compete with rivals to place allies in top posts.