A top-level meeting of the ruling Chinese Communist Party has endorsed President Xi Jinping as a "core" leader, giving him equal billing with late supreme leaders Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong, official media reported on Thursday.
Members were urged in a communique issued at the end of a plenary session of the party's powerful Central Committee to "closely unite around the ... Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core," state news agency Xinhua reported.
It also called for stricter party discipline amid reports that one million officials have been punished for corruption since Xi came to power.
"Together we must build a clean and righteous political environment, and ensure that the party unites and leads the people to continuously open up new prospects for socialism with Chinese characteristics," the communique said.
The development is noteworthy because Xi's main political rival, former president Jiang Zemin, was also described as a "core" leader by Deng.
But the move also represents an attempt to boost Xi's flagging authority following months of factional strife, analysts said.
"This is the doing of Xi Jinping's own faction, who are actually trying to establish his authority," U.S.-based China scholar and former journal editor Li Hongkuan told RFA.
"But the more the Chinese Communist Party does things like this, the more it suggests that his authority is under threat; it's possible that some people at the level of the Politburo [standing committee] don't recognize it," he said.
"Actually I think he has already lost his authority, because people are protecting each other, and they're already lying down on the job," Li said. "He no longer has the ability to motivate people."
Does Xi measure up?
Wu Fan, editor in chief of the overseas Chinese-language magazine Chinese Affairs, said the reason Xi needs to boost his authority by referring to himself as 'core' in order to overcome strong opposition within party ranks.
"The most important goal for the ... plenary session was to make Xi Jinping a core leader, installing him as the supreme leader over all of the Politburo standing committee," Wu told RFA.
But he questioned whether the claim would stick, as Xi's record is less impressive than those of Mao or Deng.
"Mao Zedong was the ruler of all he surveyed, and he was a core leader," Wu said. "Deng Xiaoping stopped the Cultural Revolution and launched economic reforms, so he deserved core status."
"But does Xi Jinping deserve? China is much worse off now than it was four years ago."
According to Li Hongkuan, Xi's new designation suggests he may seek a third term in office when his second term ends in 2022.
"He wants to stay in office for more than 10 years," Li said. "That may not be possible, given how many problems China is facing right now."
But he said Xi could still have a fight on his hands to change rules set down in 1980 aimed at preventing personality cults around a single leader.
"Not only has he failed to solve them through hard work, but he has been messing around with the system [with the anti-graft campaigns], to the point where none of the officials around him are doing their jobs properly."
'Rectification' returns under Xi
An anonymous political source said much of the opposition comes from the fact that Xi's anti-corruption campaign is seen as highly selective.
"He seems to be bringing back into the party the idea of targeting people for rectification," the source said. "I don't expect to see much change coming out of the sixth plenum."
And Beijing-based political activist Zha Jianguo said it is still hard to predict what will happen at next year's 19th Party Congress.
"On the surface of things, what we see is a consistent policy by Xi to rein in political activity, rein in ideology, and rein in the party membership," Zha said.
Reported by Lin Ping and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.