Buried beneath a mountain of presents on Christmas Day was the ultimate gift and it landed in President Xi Jinping’s lap. On December 25, China’s equivalent of the political “wise men” gathered for an influential meeting of the Politburo Bureau Standing Committee in Beijing.

Naturally, Xi presided over the event where there were more stars on show than you would find on a Yule-time tree.

The outcome was predictable and illustrated the grip that the general-secretary of the ruling Communist Party has on every aspect of political life in the world’s second-largest economy.

An extract from the official statement released by the government-run Xinhua news agency underlined Xi’s status as China’s most powerful leader since Chairman Mao Zedong.

It read:

“A key meeting convened by the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee has underlined efforts to uphold Xi Jinping’s position as the core of the CPC Central Committee and the whole Party, as well as the authority of the CPC Central Committee and its centralized, unified leadership.

“Members of the Political Bureau were asked to conduct criticism and self-criticism in light of work experience and how they have taken the lead to implement Xi’s instructions and key Party regulations and policies, including the eight-point decision on improving Party and government conduct.

“The Political Bureau members emphasized in their speeches that they would take the lead in studying and implementing the Xi Jinping ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,’ in carrying out decisions and plans made by the CPC Central Committee.

“[He] has shown vision in making strategic decisions, exercised highly adept political leadership and demonstrated a clear commitment to the people and a strong sense of responsibility, which proved that he has been ‘worthy of the core of the CPC Central Committee and the whole Party.’”

State-run media

During the past 12 months, state-run media has continued to cultivate the cult of Xi after the decision earlier this year to scrap the two-term presidential limit.

His reach through the Party even extends to the movers and shakers in business from state-owned enterprises to the giant listed and private companies such as Huawei, Alibaba and Tencent.

Nearly all the senior management in a vast array of key industrial sectors are CPC members.

At the pinnacle of the pyramid is Xi. He controls the powerful Politburo Bureau and the State Council, the government’s de facto cabinet, the armed forces, and domestic and international policy.

“In a disappointing turn for those who have upheld more optimistic prognoses for Xi – and for China – he [has] opted to revert the country back to the era of strongman politics and the personality cult,” Cheng Li, a director of the John L Thornton China Center, and Ryan McElveen, an associate director, wrote in an academic analysis for the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, earlier this year.

“Equally important, [his actions] further alienates a number of critical constituencies whose power Xi may be underestimating. Liberal intellectuals will be among the first to push back and shape the public discourse,” they continued.

“They have been disillusioned by Xi’s leadership ever since 2013 when authorities began cracking down on open discussion of ‘seven subversive currents,’ including constitutional democracy, human rights, civil society and media freedom. Their perceptions of Xi as a Mao-like figure may now be crystallized,” Li and McElveen added.

Those words were penned back in February.

Since then, the president has reinforced his position despite a slowing economy and a costly trade war with the United States, which has triggered another round of promises to further “open up and reform.”

Detailed plans

This time Xi’s administration has delivered detailed plans to address pressing concerns such as technology theft and extensive red tape for foreign companies.

Other issues, including US allegations of cyber espionage which Beijing has denied and China’s state-backed economic model, will be more difficult to resolve when trade talks with Washington resume next month.

In the end, both sides need a deal but, perhaps, Xi has a slightly more rocky road to negotiate.

“The year 2018 will go down as the moment when the United States explicitly shifted from viewing China an awkward counterpart to a strategic competitor,” Robin Niblett, the director at Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent policy-based organization in London, said.

“From the release of the National Security Strategy at the end of 2017 through [US] Vice-President Mike Pence’s speech on October 4, to the administration’s imposition of 10% tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese exports and its global campaign against Chinese tech giant Huawei, the Trump administration has made clear that it sees China as the number one threat to US interests and its longstanding global pre-eminence,” he continued.

“Importantly, their view is widely shared among both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, senior former officials in the Barack Obama and George W Bush administrations, labor unions and much of the US military,” Niblett added.

Solving this dilemma after the New Year fireworks fade in the midnight sky will certainly test Xi’s mettle and bring into focus the “cult of personality.”