Xi Jinping looks more powerful than any Chinese leader in recent decades as his government prepares to deliver its first-year report card on Wednesday, but a deadly weekend knife attack by alleged separatists was a reminder of the serious challenges facing his administration.
In recent weeks, China’s President has put himself in charge of three policy-setting panels: a new top-level party committee focused on steering state security, a panel on driving sweeping economic reforms, and another on cybersecurity. At the same time he has burnished his populist image with unannounced public strolls to mix with ordinary folks and provide photos ops.
The moves come as Mr Xi tries to better position the Communist Party to respond to grave challenges that test his leadership.
Only a year in office, Mr Xi is already seen as having consolidated more power than his predecessors. His leadership roles in the three policy-setting panels give him influence over police, intelligence and military operations, the reform effort and internet controls.
He’s also waged an expansive anti-corruption campaign that has felled high-level officials around the country, winning him kudos from the public.
“Xi Jinping is a man in a bit of a hurry who really wants to do something,” said Steve Tsang, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham. “The general secretary of the party is using the party to take control and deliver.”
Mr Xi’s moves make him a more aggressive leader than his predecessor Hu Jintao, regarded as bland and increasingly weak toward the end of his decade in power while stymied by factional infighting.
As head of the state security committee, Mr Xi will be better placed to command law enforcement agencies in responding to emergencies such as those involving a simmering anti-Chinese rebellion among the Turkic-speaking Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang. Tensions spread to Kunming, a city 900 miles away to the south, on Saturday when assailants went on a knife-attack rampage at a train station, killing 29 people.
Few details about the committee have been released other than that it is headed by Mr Xi, with China’s number two and number three leaders as his deputies, making it a law enforcement coordination super-agency with unprecedented powers.
Even as he amasses power, Mr Xi has also been tirelessly fashioning himself as a man of the people – a challenge for someone who as the offspring of the party’s revolutionary elite enjoys “princeling” status.
He visited a subway control room in Beijing last week and called on factory workers. He strolled along traditional alleyways and chatted with residents in their living rooms, asking them afterward if they wanted “a group photo”.
“I grew up near here, so today I’m here to see the old neighbourhood,” Mr Xi said.
Last month, he braved freezing temperatures and snow to shake hands with army troops patrolling China’s border with Mongolia.
Experts say that Xi’s confidence is unlikely to change the way China is ruled – by a collective leadership.
Their consensus-based decision-making at the highest levels has been seen as the best way to prevent a party chief from becoming a dictator. But “he has the guts to do some things that some other leaders, collective leaders, would not do”, said Cheng Li, at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.