Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping reviews the troops. Photo AFP / Vyacheslav Oseledko

Buried amid the festive decorations and the Christmas wrapping paper was a present from China’s powerful Politburo to the General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party.

Conjuring images of the past, the 25-member Political Bureau of the CPC bestowed the title of renmin lingxiu, or “People’s Leader,” on Xi Jinping at the two-day talkfest in Beijing, which started on December 25.

The accolade, according to media reports, rekindled memories of the cult of personality enshrined in Mao Zedong’s reign. It also cemented Xi’s claim as the “Chairman of Everything,” coined by the Australian Center on China in the World, a research institute.

With more than a dozen titles, the ones that matter include General Secretary of the Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the country’s de-facto warlord, and President of the People’s Republic of China.

For now, the 66-year-old is the master of all he surveys. As Xinhua, the official news agency of the Chinese government, gushed:

“At the meeting, members of the Political Bureau were asked to conduct criticism and self-criticism in light of work experience and how they have taken the lead to implement Xi’s instructions and key Party regulations and policies, including the eight-point decision on improving Party and government conduct.

“The Political Bureau members emphasized in their speeches that they would take the lead in studying and implementing the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. They were also urged to study the latest speeches given by Xi in a timely manner.”

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To put this into context, it is important to remember that despite problems in Hong Kong, the Taiwan question and the changing dynamics in Beijing’s relationship with Washington, Xi is in complete control.

Elizabeth Economy, of the Council on Foreign Relations, captured the mood perfectly in her latest book, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State (Oxford University Press).

She explained at length, his “Chinese Dream” and the vision for “the rejuvenation of the great nation.”

“One of the great paradoxes of China today is Xi’s effort to position himself as a champion of globalization, while at the same time restricting the free flow of capital, information, and goods between China and the rest of the world,” Economy said on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.

“What makes Xi’s revolution distinctive is the strategy he has pursued: the dramatic centralization of authority under his personal leadership; the intensified penetration of society by the state; the creation of a virtual wall of regulations and restrictions that more tightly controls the flow of ideas, culture, and capital into and out of the country; and the significant projection of Chinese power,” she added.

“An illiberal state seeking leadership in a liberal world order.”

Many would find it difficult to question that last statement as Xi has tightened his grip on the CCP and extended the Great Firewall by strangling online debate while preaching, at times, an old brand of nationalism with Chinese characteristics.

Increased military spending has also transformed the balance of power in the East and South China Seas as Beijing’s new naval carrier groups flex their muscles under an umbrella of stealth fighters.

All this has become possible through the country’s unprecedented rise as an economic Goliath.

“After Xi announced the ‘China Dream of Great National Rejuvenation,’ the Communist Party of China identified three important stages of development under three different leaderships: the Chinese people ‘stood up’ under Mao Zedong; ‘became rich’ under Deng Xiaoping, and are ‘becoming powerful’ under Xi. Since Mao’s and Deng’s eras are long gone, naturally, Xi is the focus of this propaganda,” Palden Sonam, of the China Research Programme, wrote in a commentary for the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, an Indian think tank.

“With his rise as the CCP’s core leader, Xi has embraced an authoritarian form of nationalism based on his strongman leadership in the quest to transform China into a ‘Great Power,’ and has positioned nationalism as a route to realizing the ‘China Dream’,” he added.

How that scenario plays out is open to debate. But Beijing’s standing in the West, particularly in the United States, has changed significantly in the past two years along with its ties with near neighbors.

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The 18-month long trade war, the network of internment camps across Xinjiang holding more than one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have eroded confidence in Xi’s administration. Then, there is the controversial Belt and Road Initiative, which is epic in scope and narrow in transparency.

“In early October 2018, US Vice-President Mike Pence delivered a searing speech at a Washington think tank, enumerating a long list of reproaches against China,” Yan Xuetong, the dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University, said in his seminal paper, The Age of Uneasy Peace.

“The tone was unusually blunt – blunt enough for some to interpret it as a harbinger of a new Cold War between China and the United States. Such historical analogies are as popular as they are misleading, but the comparison contains a kernel of truth. The transition will be a tumultuous, perhaps even [a] violent affair, as China’s rise sets the country on a collision course with the United States over a number of clashing interests,” he added.

In response, China scholar Economy has come up with a different take on the challenges ahead.

She has advocated that the US and its allies should support through “both word and deed,” fundamental values, including “democracy and respect for human rights, a market economy and free trade.”

“China cannot be a leader in a globalized world while at the same time closing its borders to ideas, capital, and influences from the outside world,” Economy concluded.

In the meantime, Xi has cemented his “strongman” image as the new “People’s Leader” even though he has never been elected by the people at the ballot box.

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