TOKYO -- At the end of last year, the Chinese Communist Party held an important two-day meeting of the powerful 25-member Politburo.
In details carried in the Chinese language report by Xinhua News Agency, but not in the English article, the Politburo summarized the current times as a "once in a hundred years" period of great change. To face the complex risks at home and abroad, the report said Chinese President and Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is "standing on a high place looking out, taking in the overall situation, has made a series of important scientific judgments and put forward a series of major strategies," and has shown a "superb skill in the art of political leadership."
Tucked in the flattering compliments, reminiscent of North Korean television broadcasts singing praise of top leader Kim Jong Un, was the title of "people's leader" to describe Xi.
The underlying logic is that to cope with a once-in-a-century crisis, an outstanding leader who appears only once a century is needed.
People outside the party tend to think that after withstanding a dismal year in 2019, Xi's status must be wavering. That is likely not the case.
Ironically, the unprecedented crisis has translated into a source of Xi's power. The logic leads to an understanding that Xi can close in on the authority of Mao Zedong, who was deified as the revolutionary hero and founding father of a "new China." Xi looks to be on his way to becoming's the People's Republic of China's second "once-in-a-century leader."
The year-end Politburo meetings were dubbed part of a series of "democratic life meetings" of criticism and self-criticism.
Mao too had deep ties with democratic life meetings.
His Great Leap Forward campaign, from 1958 to 1961, pursued impossibly big increases in China's agricultural and industrial production, failed miserably and resulted in tens of millions of people starving to death, according to estimates. It was at the democratic life meetings held after the Great Leap Forward that officials performed self-criticism in the name of "intraparty democracy."
In reality, democratic life meetings were a stage for bitter power struggles. In 1987, Hu Yaobang, the reformist general secretary who was popular with the public, was ousted from power after being held accountable at a democratic life meeting for being too soft in his handling of nationwide student protests calling for democratization.
Today, democratic life meetings have become venues to enhance Xi's authority, deviating from their original purpose of encouraging free and lively discussions within the party. This trend gradually grew clear after Xi became China's top leader.
Xi used a bruising anti-corruption campaign to consolidate his power, and democratic life meetings played a role in promoting the crackdown. Two years ago, under Xi's guidance, detailed implementation rules for democratic life meetings were set.
The highlight of the year-end democratic life meeting was the use of the ultimate title, "the people's leader." It marked the first step toward deifying Xi. Throughout party history, only Mao had been referred to as "the people's leader."
The designation was used in the headline of an article published last summer on the front page of the People's Daily, a party mouthpiece, but had gone unmentioned for a while. Now it has returned to the forefront, in an official statement issued at an important meeting of the Politburo.
The question here is the title's consistency with the party's constitution, which clearly bans any form of personality cult. To circumvents the ban, the Politburo avoided directly worshiping Xi too much.
But a series of campaigns has called for "absolute loyalty and obedience" to Xi, one middle-ranking party member who has lived overseas said. "No questions are allowed. It is, in effect, a personality cult," the member explained.
Another noteworthy aspect of the Politburo's logic is that it suggests responsibility for the unprecedented crisis lies with the U.S. and other outsiders, not with China's leadership.
Unjust and undue pressure was put on China, but China itself has made no policy mistake, the logic goes.
The anti-government protests in Hong Kong, for instance, are the result of a U.S.-led conspiracy; an attempt to stage a "color revolution" in China is the result of a group of Western democracies pulling the strings behind the scenes.
As for the slowest pace of Chinese economic growth in 27 years, that was Trump's doing as well.
Blaming a once-in-a-century crisis, Beijing shelved its own failed economic policy, one that favors state-owned companies and dampens the vigor of private companies.
As for Hong Kong, despite the stretching of logic, the Communist leadership has in effect admitted a policy failure. Early in the new year, Beijing announced the abrupt dismissal of Wang Zhimin, the 62-year-old head of Beijing's liaison office for the territory, after only a little more than two years in office. It was the first major Hong Kong-related personnel change since massive demonstrations erupted there last summer.
The head of the liaison office for Hong Kong serves as an important conduit between Beijing and Hong Kong's political and business circles. Wang was sacked despite being rumored to be close to Xi.
A Chinese researcher on Beijing's policy toward Hong Kong pointed out that it is unusual for Beijing to pass the buck to the liaison office. Wang was "forced to take responsibility for continuing to send wrong views on the Hong Kong situation to Beijing and allowing feudal forces (pro-China forces) to suffer a resounding defeat in the recent Hong Kong district council elections. It's an unprecedented quick personnel change," the researcher said.
Wang was replaced by 65-year-old Luo Huining, who previously served as party secretary for the provinces of Qinghai and Shanxi. In China, 65 is retirement age for ministerial-level officials. The hasty move to tap a big figure who has no previous Hong Kong-related job experience and is at retirement age also reflects Beijing's desire to give an impression that the liaison office is now different.
After pushing through constitutional revisions to scrap presidential term limits and consolidating power over the past several years, Xi faces an extremely important year in 2020, as he seeks to be China's top leader for life. Next year marks the milestone 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party's establishment. It along with 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People's Republic of China's foundation, are being called the "two centenaries."
The party's moves to deify Xi go beyond national borders.
On overseas business trips, Chinese central and local government bureaucrats earnestly trumpet Xi's achievements to foreigners. They speak with one voice without exception. Some of their standard lines are: "The Chinese people are now really happy as they have become affluent." And, "We are grateful to President Xi Jinping from the bottom of our hearts."
Chinese officials always meet with foreign nationals in groups of two or more. The aim is to check and report to their bosses how seriously their counterparts sell Xi's achievements. They have no choice but to be desperate. Foreign nationals are often baffled at hearing Chinese officials banging on and cannot help but feel uncomfortable.
Trump has announced that the U.S. and China will sign their "phase one" trade deal on Jan. 15. The partial agreement can also be interpreted as part of Xi's efforts to lock in achievements. The reality is that Xi has made significant concessions despite his earlier brave calls at home for zi li geng sheng, self-reliance.
Given a sharp slowdown in China's economy, Xi could not afford to see trade negotiations drag on.
Xi is now contemplating what might happen in 2022, knowing that his future status will ultimately be decided that year at the party's national congress. The reshuffling of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's seven-member top decision-making body, that will take place then will have significant global implications. Xi's political battle leading up to the critical meeting is already underway.
Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has 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.