A sales person walks past commemorative plates featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping and former supreme leader Mao Zedong. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

For decades, China has shunned the cult of personality, a result of the tumultuous years when Mao Zedong elevated his personal brand to mythic proportions.

But state worship of leaders appears to be making a comeback, according to a new study by University of Hong Kong media researchers. They say China’s state-controlled media have been promoting the image of President Xi Jinping with a frequency and intensity unseen since the Mao era.

The study comes as China experts and outside observers debate whether Xi is positioning himself to be a Mao-like strongman with a firmer grip than his predecessors on all levers of power. Or whether he is simply channeling the Communist Party’s desire for stronger action and control.

In the study, which was published this month, Qian Gang — a former journalist who is director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong — and student researchers examined the People’s Daily, the party’s flagship paper.

They compared its coverage of eight top party leaders: Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. They focused on the first 18 months after each leader had taken power, counting the number of articles, front-page appearances and articles mentioning them in the paper’s first eight pages.

Among past leaders, Mao and Hua were mentioned most frequently, unsurprising given the fervent state-leader worship during their time. The cult of Mao, for example, reached its peak in the late 1960s, during which he was called China’s bright red sun and the great savior of the country’s people. During the Cultural Revolution, he was branded “the great leader, the great supreme commander, the great teacher and the great helmsman.” His words were deemed infallible. Badges, busts and posters bearing his image were ubiquitous. Almost everyone carried a little red book that contained his famous quotes.

But when the chaos of the Cultural Revolution abated and Deng rose to power as the next leader, he criticized the cult of personality and said it was not only unhealthy, but also dangerous to build a country’s fate on the reputation of one man. In 1980, the party’s Central Committee issued directives for “less propaganda on individuals.” Party leaders have since continued to feature in propaganda and party-controlled newspapers but with less frequency and intensity.

According to Qian’s study, however, that trend against leader worship has eroded gradually over the years, with the change accelerating especially rapidly since Xi’s elevation in 2012. Xi’s name, for example, has been mentioned almost twice as frequently in party news articles as his two immediate predecessors and is catching up with Mao’s. In his first 18 months in power, Xi has been mentioned in 4,186 articles in the first eight pages of the People’s Daily, while Jiang and Hu appeared in fewer than 2,000 reports.

The study also looked at the frequency of mentions of Xi’s contemporaries, the six other Politburo Standing Committee members now ruling China alongside the president. In headlines of the People’s Daily front page, Xi was mentioned 745 times, almost twice as many as Premier Li Keqiang and many more than the others.

Qian said the numbers suggest an intensification in propaganda exalting China’s top leadership position, but he cautioned in a phone interview that he is not trying to make any argument or interpretation about China’s prevailing political situation. He said his goal is merely to provide quantitative data for others to use in their studies of China’s opaque political system.

Since Xi took control of the party in 2012, he has concentrated his power over almost every aspect of state affairs. In January, he became head of the newly formed national security commission. He leads six other Central Committee groups, personally overseeing overall government reform, cybersecurity, finance and military overhaul.

Xi has also launched the most severe anti-corruption campaign in decades. It has brought down high-ranking and low-level officials alike, including senior military officers and ministerial-level leaders.

Besides cementing his power within the party, there are signs that he is also tightening his control over civil society, especially on the ideological front. Human rights activists, lawyers and even moderate intellectuals have been harassed, detained and jailed. A slew of campaigns have tightened already strict Internet controls in China — in the name of combating pornography and rumors. Many Chinese, however, say these curbs are a way to silence more liberal voices online.

Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.