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Commentary: For China's next five years, 'only Xi Jinping is indispensable'

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BEIJING: On his first trip as the Chinese Communist Party's newly installed general secretary, Xi Jinping travelled to the southern city of Shenzhen in December 2012 and laid a wreath at a larger-than-life bronze statue of Deng Xiaoping.

Mr Xi's homage to Deng, who used Shenzhen as a test-bed for his historic economic reforms, appeared to signal continuity with the policies of modern China's founding father. "The Communist Party must stick to the correct path of reform and opening up," Xi said.

We must be unwavering on the road to a prosperous country and people.

As Mr Xi prepares to preside over a Party Congress starting on Wednesday that will mark the start of his second term in office, the question is whether China's leader intends to use his power to continue the Deng legacy of "opening up" or whether he will instead pursue a narrower agenda of defending the position of the ruling party and his own allies.

The president's supporters argue that his ruthless anti-corruption campaign and more muscular defence of the country's territorial claims enjoy popular support, which has allowed him to accrue vital political capital.

For his first term, Mr Xi was largely surrounded by men and women groomed by his predecessors. But with his A-team in place after this Party Congress, the argument goes, he will finally begin to deliver on difficult economic and financial challenges.

Yet Mr Xi has also signalled that he intends to loom over a new period in China's modern history distinct from the ones defined by Deng and Mao Zedong, the party's revolutionary leader.

"Mao beat the foreign invaders and Deng ended hunger," says Li Xiguang, a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University and a Xi admirer. "Xi talks about having confidence in our (political and economic) system ... it's a total breakthrough."

In one big departure from the Deng era, Mr Xi has deliberately blurred the division of labour Deng drew between the Communist Party and the Chinese state, while also halting or reversing a range of financial and economic reforms as soon as they encountered turbulence.

This has inspired grumbles in Beijing that Mr Xi has proved himself a master of the party's internal power dynamics, purging his rivals and cowing others. But when it comes to using his accumulated power to push through difficult reforms, as Deng did, the president's critics argue that he is a paper tiger.

"Xi knows, like Machiavelli said, that it is better to be feared than loved," says one person who advises Chinese policymakers.

"Yet as a strategist, Xi is much smaller than Mao and Deng in every respect. Deng rarely - and Mao never - took charge of everything. They only took charge of the big things. Xi Jinping takes everything, big and small, in his own hands."

Xi Jinping's strongman style of leadership has attracted comparisons with former Chinese Communist party chairman Mao Zedong. (Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

"Mao and Deng paid attention to substance first," the person adds. "Xi worries about appearance. When Mao and Deng made their minds up, they would stick with it because it can take years to see the real effects of your struggle."

Mr Xi's ambitions will be laid bare at this week's 19th Party Congress, where he will be nominated for a second term as general secretary. Xi's second........

© Channel NewsAsia