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China's Xi stands tall but challenges mounting: analysts

[BEIJING] China's front pages were plastered Friday with images of President Xi Jinping reviewing a giant military parade, but analysts say the show of untrammelled power is undermined by signs of disquiet within Communist ranks and fears the economy is eluding its control.

In less than three years Xi has consolidated authority to a remarkable degree compared with his predecessors, demonstrated when he rode in an open-topped Red Flag limousine past row upon row of soldiers.

"Just symbolically you can see that he is at the apex of his power," said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Mr Xi has become the "big boss" of the Communist Party, Mr Lam added, far outpacing other top leaders such as Premier Li Keqiang, who was relegated to announcing the start of the parade.

Alongside the president on the rostrum stood his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao in a show of party unity under Mr Xi - even though some of their close allies have fallen victim to his much-publicised anti-corruption drive.

"At this stage he seems unassailable," Lam said.

Since coming to power in late 2012 as Communist Party general secretary, Mr Xi has pushed what he calls the "Chinese dream", a promise to revitalise the nation so it can assume a world position befitting its status as a great power.

Under him the ruling party has pledged reforms to give the market the "decisive role" in the economy, and his campaign against graft has rocked the 88-million-strong organisation that has ruled the People's Republic since 1949, as well as its armed force, the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

His public image has been burnished by common touch demonstrations such as a visit to a bun shop, as well as the glamour of his wife Peng Liyuan, a popular singer.

Later this month Xi will make a state visit to Washington, affirming what Beijing sees as its equal "great power" status with the United States.

Mr Xi was "full of dignity and did a great job showing off China's qualities", enthused Wang Wei, a spectator at the parade.

But the public displays cannot hide the fact that China faces serious problems, especially slowing growth and financial market turmoil.

The deployment of hundreds of billions of dollars on the exchanges, which failed to stop share prices falling, has spurred concern that Mr Xi and other leaders still have interventionist tendencies and could struggle to handle an increasingly sophisticated economy.

State media commentaries last month suggested deep aversions within the Communist Party to Mr Xi's reforms, adding another element of uncertainty.

"The scale of the difficulties and resistance, and the obstinacy, truculence, complexity and weirdness of forces that cannot adapt to, or even oppose the reforms, are probably beyond what could have been imagined," said a commentary on state broadcaster CCTV's website.

Now that Mr Xi had established himself as the "supreme leader", Mr Lam said, questions were being asked on "what is the next step, what is he doing in the area of reform?" "So the pressure is building," he added.

The People's Daily, the ruling party's official mouthpiece, last month carried a rare denunciation of retired leaders' continued influence, fuelling speculation over how far Mr Xi's anti-graft campaign could go.

Mr Xi's crackdown has nabbed once powerful figures such as ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang, jailed for life in June and who was regarded as an ally of Jiang, as well as former close Hu aide Ling Jihua, expelled from the party in July and handed over to prosecutors.

The fall from grace of figures previously seen as untouchable has sent ripples of disquiet through the party ranks.

Part of the purpose of the parade to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan's World War II defeat was to reassure the military of its place in Mr Xi's China, said Carl Baker, director of programmes at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum CSIS.

"He's done the military thing... he's demonstrated the ability to maintain loyalty in the senior ranks through his anti-corruption campaign," he told AFP, and Mr Xi was now "giving some space to the PLA to show they've participated in the rise of China as well".

But Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, stressed that Xi has underachieved in many ways.

Crackdowns on civil society, lawyers and journalists had given a "sense that the political dimension of reform is constantly being pushed into the future, even as the imperatives for it (have) grown stronger", he said in an email.

"This leadership is as fixated by stability as its predecessor, and works broadly within the same political parameters. So I don't see any grand new bold thinking, just the same ideas from the past - economic reform, political and social stability - dressed up in new language."

Mr Xi's prestige has been hit by the financial turmoil, analysts say, with many of China's 90 million investors losing money in the country's torrid summer on the markets.

Mr Baker told AFP: "Now he's going to have to demonstrate that they can actually survive their own version of a financial crisis."