BEIJING, Dec. 28 (Xinhua) -- One November afternoon three years ago, Xi Jinping met an elderly woman while visiting a poor mountain village in central China's Hunan Province.
A ballad about their brief tete-a-tete, titled "Don't Know How Should I Address You?" after the question the farmer asked Xi when she first saw him, was a hit earlier this year.
Since taking the helm of China's ruling party four years ago, Xi has collected a string of new titles.
He is head of an array of "leading groups" overseeing areas such as China's economic development and national defense. He is commander-in-chief of a newly installed joint battle command center under the Central Military Commission. He is "Xi Dada" or "Papa Xi" on Chinese social networks.
But none carries the weight of his latest title: the "core" of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its Central Committee.
The endorsement of Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, as the core leader at the sixth plenary session of the 18th CPC Central Committee in late October was perhaps the most attention-grabbing event of China's political calendar this year.
In a communique released after the October meeting that brought together high-ranking CPC officials in Beijing, the Party called on all its members to "closely unite around the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core."
Being the core does not confer Xi any extra power. Still, analysts point out that the new position is key for China to keep itself and the Party on the right track of development, and it marks the turning of a new chapter in the long march toward achieving the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.
THE NEED FOR A CORE
The CPC, which turned 95 this year, has been the sole ruling party of New China since its founding in 1949.
In the nearly seven decades since, the country has managed to turn itself from a nation scarred by foreign aggression and civil war into the world's second-largest economy and a major player on the world stage.
The CPC's leadership proved pivotal in this epic transformation.
For any country or political party, having a core figure at the center of leadership is of vital importance to both state and party governance.
This is especially true for China, which boasts a population of over 1.3 billion, and for the CPC whose membership exceeds 88 million.
Without an authoritative, influential and experienced Party chief at its very core, the country and Party could fall flat in uniting the people and pooling wisdom to formulate and implement suitable policies.
As China enters the home stretch in building a "moderately prosperous society," identifying a core leader is more relevant than ever.
China has committed to the "two centenary goals," pegged to the 100th anniversaries of the CPC and the People's Republic of China.
By 2020, China's GDP and per-capita income should double from 2010 levels and the building of a moderately prosperous society should be completed. By the middle of this century, China should become a modern socialist country that is "prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious."
By drawing up an overall plan for promoting all-round socialist economic, political, cultural, social and ecological development, Xi is determined to lead his country toward the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation at a time when sustaining a fast rate of growth is becoming increasingly difficult.
While at it, he has also proposed the strategic layout of the "Four Comprehensives" and the philosophy of innovative, coordinated, green, open and shared development as engines of growth.
Today, China is one of the world's fastest growing major economies and a top trading body. It boasts a strong military of over 2 million and is the biggest contributor to international peacekeeping personnel among permanent members of the UN Security Council.
With inclusive programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative -- proposed by Xi and launched in 2013 -- and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China has also shown that it is committed to connecting regions and countries while creating development opportunities for all.
The Chinese president's vision and ventures toward a fairer global governance system have also helped China create an open, inclusive and responsible image on the international stage.
Never before have the Chinese people been so close to realizing their dreams.
In an editorial published in late October, the CPC mouthpiece People's Daily hailed Xi's core status as of great importance to China and the CPC.
"China and the CPC ... need a core for the Party and its Central Committee, to bond the Party, to unite the people, to tide over the challenges and to continue to forge ahead," it read.
THE MAKING OF THE CORE
The term "core leader" goes back only a few decades. Late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, considered the architect of China's reform and opening-up drive, coined the term in the late 1980s.
While the terming of "core leader" is relatively new, the practice of having a core in the CPC is not.
In its first 14 years of existence, the CPC did not have a full-fledged leadership core. As a result, its revolutionary cause suffered repeated setbacks, and the Party was almost on the verge of dissolution.
The 1935 Zunyi Conference, during which late Chinese leader Mao Zedong established his authority within the CPC Central Committee and the military, was a turning point. Another 14 years later, the CPC came to power in the newly founded People's Republic of China.
Mao himself was known to have flouted an ancient tale in the Spring and Autumn period (770 B.C.-476 B.C.) of divided leadership about a single state with three rulers. "We must establish a core in the leadership," he was quoted as saying in 1940s.
For his part, Deng Xiaoping also pointed out the weakness of a Party leadership without a core. One cannot rely on a collective leadership without a core, he famously said in the 1980s.
According to Deng, Mao was the core of the first generation of CPC central leadership, whereas he himself was that of the second generation.
After Deng, Jiang Zemin, who served as general secretary of the CPC Central Committee from 1989 to 2002, was the "core" of the third generation of CPC central leadership.
Chinese experts today note that the "core" leader is not a self-appointed title, nor is the leading party member automatically regarded as such.
"Xi's core status in the CPC Central Committee and the entire Party was established through his leadership in advancing the Party's great causes," said Dai Yanjun, deputy director of the Party-building department at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee.
"The choice of Xi as the core leader of the CPC and its Central Committee is the choice of the whole Party and the Chinese people as well as one of the times," he said.
When Xi Jinping took the reins in 2012, the CPC had already delivered a longer period of sustained rapid growth than any government had achieved anywhere in human history.
But the need to rebalance the economy meant fresh impetus to sustain the economic miracle has to be found.
Although the economy continued to grow at an enviable rate, downward pressure was already growing and the pace was slowing. The Chinese economy grew 6.9 percent year on year in 2015, the slowest in a quarter of a century, weighed down by a property market downturn, falling trade and weak factory activity.
In the meantime, corruption, a widening wealth gap and problems caused by unbalanced development also added to the challenges, as reforms entered a "deep water zone."
To counter these problems, Xi has promised a long list of "supply-side structural reform," including defusing a debt bomb, reducing pollution and phasing out obsolete industrial facilities.
He has also launched the most thorough anti-corruption campaign in decades, giving sharper teeth to the party's discipline agency, and worked to upgrade the Party's state governance.
"Much of what Xi has done so far had been unachievable in the past," said Yan Shuhan, chief expert on Marxist studies with the Party School of the CPC Central Committee.
"In a sense, the endorsement of Xi as the 'core leader' at the sixth plenum is just a formal recognition of a fact," Yan said.
But analysts said the most important thing to examine is not what the core title means nor why Xi was conferred with it. Rather, it is what Xi, and the Party at large, could do with that title.
Speaking on the 95th founding anniversary of the CPC in Beijing in July, Xi said the past 60-odd years have shown that the Party received "good scores in the test of history."
But the test is not over yet, he warned.
China is in the middle of a hard, long-term struggle to transform the economy, clean up the Party and streamline the military, said Yan.
"The country is closer to its goal of great rejuvenation than at any point in history," he said, adding that identifying Xi as the core is in the fundamental interests of the nation.
His words were echoed by Ruan Zongze, executive deputy president of the China Institute of International Studies, who also said Xi's new title is meant to reinforce China's push through reform measures.
"This will not only benefit China, but the world as well," he said.