Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.
TOKYO -- Tiananmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, is a towering gate at the entrance to Beijing's Forbidden City, the former imperial palace where successive Chinese emperors lived.
For the 70,000 people gathered in Tiananmen Square on July 1 to celebrate the Chinese Communist Party's 100th anniversary, a highly symbolic scene took place in front of their eyes.
There on the gate was Xi Jinping, Chinese president and party general secretary, in a gray Mao suit. Just below his feet was the portrait of Mao Zedong, also dressed in a gray Mao suit.
When Xi raised his right hand at the end of the ceremony, the gesture was an exact replica of Mao statues standing across the country.
The visual effects projected an allusion in the eyes of the people there: that sometime in the future Xi was going to rise to a status on par with Mao, the founding father of the People's Republic of China.
Interestingly, while the crowd witnessed the Xi-Mao juxtaposition, folks at home watching TV did not. Cleverly, state-run China Central Television used the sea of small five-star red flags waved by the cheering crowd to cover Mao's portrait beneath Xi.
The Xi-Mao overlap was likely a trial balloon floated in front of a limited audience to gauge public opinion. The question at hand is simple: Is the country ready for a more powerful Xi?
It is unusual for Xi to choose a gray Mao suit. At military parades at home and banquets overseas, Xi has always worn a blackish Mao suit.
This time, the fade to gray made Xi clearly stand out. Premier Li Keqiang and former President Hu Jintao, who stood on either side of Xi, wore ordinary dark suits and red ties during the ceremony. It looked like a highly choreographed one-man show.
On a side note, the Mao suit has its roots in a Japanese school uniform. The suit Xi wore is a modified version of the Zhongshan suit, the formal attire of Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Chinese revolution.
Sun stayed many years in Japan, setting his sights on a revolution in China. He is said to have incorporated the Japanese school uniform, which he had become so accustomed to, into his formal dress code later on.
Sun, also known as Sun Zhongshan, later became the leader of the 1911 Hsin-hai Revolution that toppled the Qing dynasty, China's last imperial dynasty.
Xi has already pushed through a revision to the national constitution and scrapped the limit of two five-year terms for a Chinese president. But he has covered only half the distance to his goal of becoming a great leader on par with Mao.
The party is to hold its next national congress in the autumn of 2022, which will be a crucial moment for Xi.
Much is still up in the air, including whether Xi will prioritize securing a third five-year term as party general secretary or go for the bigger prize of reviving the title of party chairman, once used by Mao as leader for life.
With the party's next national congress still one year and several months away, it was enough for now to try out a sample survey of 70,000 people.
In China, there is no official opinion poll to measure Xi's approval rating. But his popularity has grown among ordinary people. Initially, much of this was due to his anti-corruption battle.
Nine years into office, the "tough on corruption" narrative has inevitably lost its freshness. Yet Xi's support rate is believed to have risen again in recent months as China has successfully contained the novel coronavirus.
It is particularly significant that a massive rally was held at Tiananmen Square with most people not wearing face masks.
One notable aspect of the Tiananmen speech was that Xi did not bother to reflect on the history of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was a political campaign launched by Mao to regain lost ground in a power struggle. It claimed numerous victims. That omission has raised concern within and outside the party.
Those aged 50 or older, who experienced the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy student protesters, also remain particularly allergic to the crackdown on free speech and the trend toward Xi's personality cult, a departure from the traditional collective leadership system.
Possibly with such concerns in mind, the 65-minute speech was fairly vanilla. Xi focused on touting the great achievements made by the CCP and did not break ground on any new policy.
One of the few passages that did raise eyebrows was about Taiwan.
"Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China's complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China," he said. "It is also a shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation."
To the 70,000 people in Tiananmen Square watching the Xi-Mao juxtaposition, Xi was sending a message: I am the only person who can accomplish this historic mission and thereby go down in history. For that reason, I will aim for Mao's status.
Xi's speech drew global attention. What message, then, was he sending to the rest of the world?
"We are also eager to learn what lessons we can from the achievements of other cultures, and welcome helpful suggestions and constructive criticism," he said in an unusual display of humility.
But that notable line was immediately followed by a sharp reminder: "We will not, however, accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us."
Xi then went on about his determination for China to have a world-class military, one that matches the U.S. armed forces.
In language reminiscent of Mao, who famously said that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," Xi said that the party must command the gun (the military) and realize a strong country and strong military.
"We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us," Xi said. "Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people."
At a meeting of senior party officials on May 31, Xi issued an order to aim for a "lovable" China. But his speech last week gave the world the impression that China is playing hardball and sticking to its "wolf warrior" diplomacy.
If party higher-ups were to monitor internet chatter regarding Xi's gray Mao suit, they would be greeted by almost complete silence. At the moment, Chinese netizens seem to be in no mood to directly discuss the suit on social media.
It is unclear whether Chinese are exercising self-restraint regarding the politically sensitive issue or if their opinions posted online are being deleted by authorities.
Clues to whether Xi can march directly toward Mao status, or if he will have to lay the groundwork and take a circuitous route, will start emerging around the sixth plenary session of the party's 19th Central Committee this autumn.
It was at a plenary session in the autumn of 2016 that Xi began being referred to as the "core" of the party.
The following year at a party national congress, "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" was enshrined in the party's constitution.
The sixth plenary session, therefore, will be a key prelude to the party's 2022 national congress.
This summer, ahead of the plenary session, the "Beidaihe meeting" of China's current leaders and retired party elders will be held in the seaside resort of Beidaihe, Hebei Province, where informal discussions on important issues are held every year behind closed doors.
Jiang Zemin, the aging former Chinese president, was absent from the ceremony marking the centenary of the party's establishment. Under the circumstances, former President Hu, who was seen next to Xi during the ceremony, will play a crucial role.