Beijing: A beaming portrait of Comrade Xi Jinping dominated The People’s Daily front page, towering over a smaller image of China’s new leadership group of seven men.
The communist party transfers power to a new Politburo Standing Committee twice a decade.
A Chinese president and party general secretary is usually installed just once every ten years.
So five years into the job, this week was the litmus test of Xi’s real power. Entering his second term, it was time to mould an inner circle unfettered by his predecessor, Hu Jintao, and party elder Jiang Zemin.
As the image on the front page of the party’s official mouthpiece faithfully reflected on Thursday, Xi emerged as the strong man.
Breaking with party tradition, he declined to appoint a potential successor to the Standing Committee. Would Xi stay forever?
A party congress of 2200 yes men had a day earlier changed China’s constitution to enshrine ‘Xi Jinping Thought: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’.
Chinese state media encouraged the view this historic development had seen Xi rise to the level of Mao Zedong in the communist pantheon.
Cadres and school children alike would read the Thought as a guide to action.
Xi mapped out this ‘new era’, a 30-year plan for China’s global rise, on its own socialist terms.
US President Donald Trump, from a White House riven by Republican insurrection, congratulated Xi on his “extraordinary elevation”, telling US media “some people might call him the king of China”.
But is China really in the grip of the “cult of Xi”?
Despite predictions that Xi would stack the standing committee with his followers, he respected the faction system.
It was designed in the wake of Mao to introduce intra-party competition in a one-party state.
Two Xi loyalists rose and he dominates, but the weakened Communist Youth League and Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai Gang each kept a seat, replacing retiring faction members with new faces.
These included an economic reformer who once dabbled in grass roots village democracy in Guangdong, Wang Yang, plus the party boss of market-friendly Shanghai, Han Zheng.
(The renewal of the 25-member Politburo, the next rung down, was a bigger sweep, with two-thirds of new faces said to be Xi men).
The appearance of theorist Wang Huning to a frontline political role may hint there is more to the unprecedented rise of Xi than simply a grab for personal power.
Before he disappeared inside the party machine in 1995, to work for three leaders as a political advisor, academic Wang was best known for his theory of “new authoritarianism”.
A strong and unified central party leadership was crucial for Chinese reform, Wang argued.
Wang is Xi’s speech writer, and will oversee propaganda in his new role on the Standing Committee.
Is Xi a brand for centralised party power, easier for a population to rally behind than a collective of seven drab men?
At face value, it is all Xi.
In five years, Xi has amassed power like no other recent Chinese president. The head of the military, party and state, he also chairs myriad “leading groups” on issues ranging from deepening reform to internet security and financial affairs. Premier Li Keqiang has been sidelined.
Last year, Xi became known as “the core” of the party.
The anti-corruption campaign Xi unleashed has chased the powerful and wealthy across the globe.
The toppling of Sun Zhengcai, party boss of Chongqing and Politburo member, by corruption investigators ahead of the 19th Congress smashed the party succession system. Sun, 54, is said to have been earmarked by Jiang as a future leader.
Sun’s expulsion from the party was announced just weeks before the Congress opened, while allegations he had plotted to bring down the party were aired as it met.
The timing is illustrative of how the anti-corruption campaign, which has undoubtedly been effective in changing China’s business and political culture, has also been wielded as a political tool.
The scale of “inspections” is vast – 1.5 million Party members, including 43 members of the Central Committee
The biggest scalps, including the former security and justice ministers, are frequently cited in state media to “scare the monkeys”.
Under Xi, the voices for liberal reform in China have been severely weakened. Hundreds of human rights lawyers were detained in 2015, new curbs placed on foreign non-government organisations in 2016, and China’s decades-long high-tech battle against freedom of speech on the internet and social media continued.
Tougher media censorship was highlighted when five major British and American media outlets were barred from entering Xi’s press conference to unveil the Standing Committee.
But China watchers who examine party journals have in recent months dispelled the idea of any personality cult of Xi.
In contrast to the party organ People’s Daily, city newspaper Beijing News ran the group leadership photo on its front page.
The truth of Chinese power, where decisions are made behind closed doors, can be hard to discern from the theatre.
At congress press conferences, vice ministers and provincial party chiefs sang Xi’s praise, outlining how they would abide by his Thought.
Xi was undoubtedly delivered a mandate on key policies, including military reform. It was explicitly written into the constitution that the Communist Party held absolute leadership over the People’s Liberation Army.
Xi’s key message in his congress speech was that China could only modernise with the communist party leading it.
Internationally, the political message was don’t expect a rising China to adopt western democratic reform.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has often called for China to commit to the “rules-based international order”, diplomatic language rolled out by US allies displeased by Chinese island building in the contested South China Sea.
Xi said China wants an increasing say on how the global governance rules are set.
Xi is the party’s front man into the future.
It has been pointed out the risk of this new style of dominant leader is that should things turned pear shaped for China, it will be Xi that takes the fall.