BEIJING — The People’s Daily is the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, its front pages offering as clear a window as we can get into the message the party leadership want to transmit to its members.
On Wednesday, China’s President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping unveiled the other six members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's supreme leadership council, after the conclusion of the 19th Party Congress.
But the front page of the People’s Daily (above) made it very clear who is the boss. The other six standing committee members only appear in a small group photo below.
Contrast that to the front page five years before, when Xi Jinping took power. Here, he appears twice, once shaking hands with outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao and once in his official portrait. But the six other members of the Standing Committee are also shown, their portraits almost as large as Xi's.
Following normal practice, Hu did not formally relinquish the presidency until the following March, but Xi already appears to be the new man in charge.
Go back another five years to the 17th Party Congress in 2007 (below). Hu appears twice. This time there are eight members of the Standing Committee, their portraits a little smaller than Hu’s but each is still individually shown and identified. This was a period of collective leadership, when Hu was seen as “first among equals” at the top of the Communist Party tree.
Xi’s dominance of the People's Daily didn’t only play out on the front page. An analysis by Qian Gang of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University shows Xi’s name appears more often in the paper than any previous leader.
Indeed, as Bloomberg reported, the People’s Daily mentioned Xi in 2,902 articles in the first half of this year, a total exceeding Hu’s in the whole of his final year in office. Premier Li Keqiang — second in the party hierarchy — was cited in just 436 articles during the same period, vividly showing how Xi has outshone his number two in official propaganda.
Going back to November 2002, and the end of the 16th Party Congress, the front page of the People’s Daily shows Hu with outgoing General Secretary Jiang Zemin. This time, both men appear twice, underlining the slightly messier power handover at that time.
Jiang relinquished the presidency to Hu the following March, but remained for a further two years as head of the armed forces, until March 2005. His image is shown on the left of the top row portraits, implying he still outranks Hu at that moment in time.
The front page after the 14th Party Congress in October 1992 shows Deng Xiaoping in pole position, waving at the top and again in the middle of the page meeting with delegates. Deng held no formal political role at the time, but still dominated Chinese politics.
But flashback even further, to the front page of the People's Daily at the end of the Ninth Party Congress in April 1969, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. This time, the image of Mao Zedong dominates the entire page.
Although Xi Jinping had his name written into the Communist Party constitution this week, joining Mao and Deng, he has a way to go before he claims anything like the absolute power that Mao once wielded.
Mao, of course, cultivated an enormous personality cult, unleashed the madness of the Cultural Revolution and also inflicted a massive famine on China during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62.
That experience led directly to Deng establishing a system of collective leadership.
This week’s Party Congress, and the People’s Daily front page, shows how Xi has eroded that system, and reestablished something much closer to one-man rule. Xi is a very different man from Mao, stressing control and discipline rather than chaos and constant revolution. But he also cannot claim the same degree of absolute power — at least not yet.