The ruling Chinese Communist Party has seen two major political events so far this year. The first was the establishment of President Xi Jinping as "the core of the party leadership," and the second was the publication of some of Xi's speeches, originally made only to a limited audience within the party.
These two actions are interrelated, and complement each other. They lay the foundations for the direction Chinese politics will take in 2016.
A couple of years ago, foreign media reported that [former President] Jiang Zemin had tried to get himself formally recognized as the "core" of the fifth generation of party leaders, much in the same way that Deng Xiaoping had done before him.
But this never happened, partly because Jiang's supporters were being targeted by the anti-corruption campaign and were unable to protect themselves, and partly because Xi Jinping had long since ceased to pay much heed to Jiang Zemin, and no longer cared if Jiang considered himself a "core" party leader or not.
Actually, Xi has seen himself as a "core" leader ever since he took office; he just hadn't held a public "coronation." Until now, when his "core" status is now formally recognized.
Whether people like it or not, he is now the No. 1 political figure in China, and the fact that he got there after several years of hard work consolidating his power, rectifying the party, the military, the whole of society and sorting out the intellectuals is incontrovertible.
Meanwhile, great stress has been laid on the publication of a slender volume of Xi's internal speeches, titled "Excerpts of Xi Jinping's Remarks on the Strict Maintenance of Party Discipline," which came out in January.
It has clearly been launched to give momentum to the "Xi Jinping as core" movement. The pamphlet reveals several reasons why Xi became a "core" leader:
1. First, Xi defeated his opponents within the party, and these opponents are vividly described in the booklet, which quoted him as saying: "The higher the positions of power these people are in, they less seriously they take party political discipline, even to the point of recklessness and sheer audacity. Some are inflated with a political will to power, entirely in the service of personal profits or the vested interests of their clique, running their plots and dealings outside existing party organizations that damage and split the party."
This is heady, passionate stuff, redolent of Mao Zedong.
2. After his victory over his political opponents within the party, Xi Jinping grew confident, possibly even overconfident. Having got rid of the audacious plotters, and annihilating their attempted coup, he then uses this booklet to issue a strong warning to his detractors. Some local government leaders have clearly heeded that warning, as they have been falling over themselves to pledge loyalty to Xi, and to support his status as "core" leader.
3. The era has now arrived in which a supremely confident Xi calls all the shots. We should expect to see the further development in 2016 of a personality cult around Xi Jinping. In mid-January, local governments at every level held events to "resolutely protect" President Xi Jinping's core leadership status.
The Xi era begins
On Jan. 29, a meeting of the Politburo called for "greater political unity and a stronger core ideology" and declared that it was strongly aligned, ideologically, politically and operationally, with the central party leadership under President Xi Jinping.
This motion of the Politburo's makes it very clear that the whole party now takes Xi Jinping's ideology as its own; Xi's will as its own; and Xi's views as its own.
We are now at the beginning of the Xi era in Chinese politics. It is already here.
Exactly where this will take China remains to be seen. Some people say the country's fortunes now hang in the balance. Others say that Xi will start sharing power and implement political reforms.
Still others say that, far from heading for political reform, Xi is already well advanced along the road to dictatorship.
Some, including Ho Pin, editor of New York-based Chinese news magazine Mingjing News, imagine that Xi will lead China towards democratization, and allow it to fully join the international community. Ho wonders if Xi has sufficient moral courage and political acumen to pick the right side of history, and whether the Chinese people will take up their responsibilities as citizens and push Xi Jinping along the right path.
I don't say this could never happen. But judging from the direction of Xi's policies, the way he has wielded power and the methods he has used in the past three years, it seems far more likely that China is already embarked on the dangerous road to total dictatorship.
Of course, I would like Ho Pin to be right about Xi and democratization, but statistically speaking, I think there's a very low probability of that happening in the foreseeable future, because we have seen absolutely no indication that Xi is likely to make such a 180 degree turn in the next 3-5 years.
So where will Xi, as "core" leader, take China? Despite the uncertainty and anxiety that pervade the country, I think we will see an answer to that question in 2016.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.
Wei Pu is a U.S.-based economist and a regular contributor to RFA's Cantonese Service.