COMMUNIST leaders relish weird and wonderful titles. Kim Jong Il, the late father of North Korea’s current “Great Leader”, was, on special occasions, “Dear Leader who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have” (it doesn’t sound much better in Korean). China’s rulers like a more prosaic, mysterious epithet: hexin, meaning “the core”.
Xi Jinping—China’s president, commander-in-chief, Communist Party boss and so forth—is now also officially “the core”, having been called that in a report issued by the party’s Central Committee after a recent annual meeting.
The term was made up in 1989 by Deng Xiaoping, apparently to give his anointed successor, Jiang Zemin, greater credibility after the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests. Just as Mao had been the core of the first generation of party leaders and Deng himself of the second, so Mr Jiang was of the third. (Hu Jintao, Mr Xi’s predecessor, was supposedly offered the title of fourth-generation core but modestly turned it down.)
Being core confers no extra powers. Mr Xi has little need of those; he is chairman of everything anyway. Status, though, is what really matters in China (Deng ruled the country for a while with no other title than honorary chairman of the China Bridge Association). And Mr Xi seems to be finding that all his formal power does not convey enough. Early this year, in what looked like a testing of the waters, a succession of provincial party leaders kowtowed verbally to Xi-the-core. But the term soon disappeared from public discourse. Its revival makes it look as if Mr Xi has won a struggle to claim it.
That may augur well for him in his forthcoming battles over the appointment of a new generation of lesser officials (the peel?) at a party congress next year. Mr Xi wants to replace some of the 350-odd members of the central committee with his own people, while keeping as many of his allies as he can. In a sign that he might be able to do that, officials have started dismissing as “folklore” an unwritten rule that members of the Politburo have to retire at 68. The rule is commonly known as “seven up, eight down” (qi shang, ba xia), meaning 67 is fine, 68 is over the hill. Getting rid of it would seem to open the way to the non-retirement of several of Mr Xi’s close allies, notably 68-year-old Wang Qishan, who is in charge of fighting graft. It might even pave the way for Mr Xi’s own refusal to collect his pension when his second (and supposedly final) term as party chief is up in 2022, and he will be 69.
There is another parallel between political language now and in 1989. The recent meeting eschewed the party’s usual practice of tying current events to the triumphs of earlier Communist history and instead set the scene by referring mostly to the congress in 2012, when Mr Xi became leader. Another time when the party ignored history in this way was after the Tiananmen killings, when it wanted to draw a veil over what had just occurred and signal a fresh, dictatorial start. Mr Xi seems to be saying, implicitly, that a new era has begun with him, core among equals.