There are strong signs of a renewed effort to formally name President Xi Jinping as the "core" of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which will cement his power ahead of a leadership reshuffle next year.
A magazine linked to People's Daily, the CCP's official mouthpiece, said in an article on Oct 18 that China needs a strongman leader like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and that Mr Xi fits the bill.
The People's Tribune made the call based on the results of a survey of 15,600 respondents and interviews with 400 scholars and officials earlier this year on the importance of having a leadership "core".
"Many respondents say Mao helped China stand up and Deng helped China become rich. Now, for China to become strong, many know clearly that we need to depend on Xi Jinping," it added.
The article said many respondents felt Mr Xi has proven himself to be a competent "core leader", through traits such as his "unwavering strategic focus" and "courage to face challenges squarely".
It added the survey registered the highest scores on the need for a leadership "core" to uphold China's national sovereignty and security.
"All quarters of the society hold high expectations for General Secretary Xi Jinping's status as the 'core' leader to be made clear," it said.
Analysts said the CCP-linked magazine article has increased the chances that Mr Xi will be named "core leader" at the close of the party's annual leadership meeting on Thursday .
"The report could be an effort to justify Xi's new title as the 'core' or to use public opinion against those opposed to the move," Wuhan University political analyst Qin Qianhong told The Straits Times.
The sixth plenary session of the CCP's Central Committee, which began yesterday, is also expected to revise two regulations to tighten party discipline, which could boost Mr Xi's authority in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress late next year.
Analysts said that assuming that title is more than a symbolic move for Mr Xi, who already has a string of powerful roles and cemented his authority through an anti-corruption drive that has purged and intimidated rivals.
As "core" leader, Mr Xi will have a stronger hand to push reforms, especially in areas where he has faced internal resistance, such as military restructuring, said analyst Li Nan of the East Asian Institute in Singapore.
"It could also help Mr Xi overcome rivals and gain a bigger say in forming a new leadership team next year," added Dr Li.
The "core leader" concept emerged in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Incident in 1989 when Deng described himself, Mao and then-CCP chief Jiang Zemin as the nucleus of their respective generations. Deng's aim was to empower Mr Jiang, who took over the CCP amid a national crisis.
Mr Jiang's successor Hu Jintao was not named "core leader", likely a reflection of how Mr Jiang's shadow loomed over him during his 10-year reign from 2002. Official media referred to him as "the Central Committee with Comrade Hu Jintao as general secretary".
Talk first surfaced late last year that Mr Xi would be named the "core" - he xin in Chinese - after some 20 provincial party chiefs openly referred to him that way.
It died down after the term was not mentioned at the national parliamentary session in March. The buzz resurfaced in recent months after an aide reportedly described Mr Xi as the "core" at a closed-door meeting at the end of June.
Prof Qin said that should Mr Xi be named as "core leader", he might next move to give himself veto powers in the apex Politburo Standing Committee.
Peking University analyst Zhang Jian said Mr Xi faces considerable challenges in securing the title, stemming from fears within the party that it could lead to the end of the collective leadership framework put in place by Deng.
"If Xi fails, it would be seen as a major setback for him given the year-long effort, including using official media to bolster his chances," he told The Straits Times.