In one recent video shown on state television, he was depicted as the “arms, legs and heart” of the entire nation. The script evoked the “family-state” ideal at the center of Confucianism, showing a cutout of Mr. Xi guiding a bicycle with a young girl behind him. In the report from Sichuan, part of a 23-minute feature that appeared on state television two days later, not one but two villagers uttered the same refrain on the theme.
“He is like our parents,” each said.
Out of public view, Mr. Xi’s deliberations and decisions unfold in utmost secrecy. Leaks have all but ended in the Xi era, a reflection of fear as much as loyalty. Even a move that could profoundly reshape China’s destiny was opaque to all but the few who work closely under him in Zhongnanhai, the government compound beside the Forbidden City that is, for ordinary Chinese, an informational black hole.
“We know nothing about how this decision came about,” said Kerry Brown, a professor at King’s College London and author of a 2016 biography, “C.E.O., China: The Rise of Xi Jinping.”
He and other experts described the extreme secrecy around China’s leader — even where Mr. Xi lives is not broadly known — as symptomatic of an affliction that can often hobble autocratic leaders: living inside a closed bubble of self-affirmation, echoed by yes-men (all men, in his case).
“The reason it is hard to see inside,” Mr. Brown said of Zhongnanhai, “is in part because it is hard to see out.”
The secrecy certainly contributes to the mystique of power in China, as elsewhere, but the closed and by all accounts small circle where decisions are made could also lay the foundation for challenges to his rule, especially if China faces unforeseen crises in the years ahead, experts say.
That could explain why the government seemed not to anticipate the opposition to removing the term limits, which sent the censors into overdrive last week, blocking mentions of words like “my emperor.” The state news media has since played down the issue as if it were a small, routine matter.
“Chinese politicians value term limits and retirement rules as protection for their security against a leader who otherwise could ruin their careers at anytime,” Susan L. Shirk, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in an essay titled “The Return to Personalistic Rule,” which appears in the April issue of “Journal of Democracy.”
“Although the odds of success for an elite rebellion may be low,” she went on, “the more autocratically a leader behaves the more likely are other politicians to try to bring him down.”
It is difficult to measure popular opinion in China, but there seems to be little doubt that the country’s economic and political stability in recent years — bolstered by hagiographic coverage — has bolstered Mr. Xi’s efforts to consolidate political power.
So has his campaign against corruption, which, according to Ms. Shirk’s count, punished 20 members of the Central Committee or the Politburo and more than 100 generals or admirals. The campaign has had the dual benefits of eliminating potential political rivals while delivering a populist message to ordinary Chinese sickened by the flaunting of wealth among the politically connected.
“The conventional theory is that the party hates him but the people love him,” said Richard McGregor, the author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”
In his book, Mr. Brown writes that Mr. Xi, unlike his predecessors, used his personal narrative to give himself “political validation” that proved useful as he rose through the ranks.
His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a military commander in the war against the Japanese and then in the civil war that brought the Communists to power. He went on to become a senior government minister, working in the propaganda ministry when the younger Xi, the third of four children, was born in 1953.
Mr. Xi grew up as a princeling of the new ruling elite, but in the fractious era that followed, his father fell out of favor, targeted for humiliation in the Cultural Revolution and imprisoned. Mr. Xi was also harassed — paraded by Mao’s Red Guards, with his mother forced to join in one public denunciation — before he was, at 16, “sent down” to toil in the countryside in the name of the revolution.
He spent seven years in Shaanxi Province, but instead of recollecting the experience as a punishment, he has done as Mao evidently intended, describing it as a lesson that made him more confident and enlightened. He often describes himself as having been a farmer for those seven years.
“I am from the grass roots, too,” he told a group of farmers during a 2013 visit to Costa Rica in remarks shown in a documentary on his diplomatic travels that was broadcast in January. “I have a natural bond with the common people.”
In the same way, he uses his brief service in uniform — he worked on the general staff of the State Council and the Central Military Commission from 1979 to 1982 — to claim a military pedigree as well, though he was more of a staff officer than a foot soldier.
With commander in chief being one of his many titles, he often appears in fatigues when overseeing military parades, which have become more prominent as he has pressed ahead with a modernization program for the People’s Liberation Army. Mr. McGregor said that Mr. Xi’s predecessors were far less personable and charismatic, especially Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
“He presents much better in public,” Mr. McGregor said. “Hu Jintao was, by comparison, an automaton.”
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