By Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - Bestowing President Xi Jinping with the title of "core" leader is not a sign of dictatorship in China's ruling Communist Party, a senior party official said on Monday, stressing that the designation was crucial to achieving important reforms.
Since assuming office almost four years ago, Xi has rapidly consolidated power, including heading a group leading economic reform and appointing himself commander-in-chief of the military, though he already controls the armed forces as head of the Central Military Commission.
While emphasizing the importance of collective leadership, a suggestion his power would not be absolute, the party last week named Xi "core", putting him on par with past strongmen Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin.
The title marks a significant strengthening of Xi's position ahead of an important party congress next year, at which a new Standing Committee, the pinnacle of power in China, will be constituted.
Deng Maosheng, a senior researcher under the Policy Research Office of the Communist Party's central committee, which drafts policy recommendations and political theory for the ruling elite, said there was no contradiction between having a "core" leader and a party mandate for collective leadership.
"At this time, with so many difficulties and challenges ... if we do not concentrate and unify leadership, I'm afraid these problems cannot be resolved and these duties cannot be finished," Deng told a media briefing.
"Our unified leadership can have an appropriate system to prevent personality cult and dictatorship, because we have many relevant democratic systems as guarantee," Deng said.
Leaders have struggled to push forward promised reforms, such as battling vested interests in powerful but underperforming state enterprises and letting market forces play a more decisive role in a slowing economy.
While head of the party, the military and the state, Xi had not previously been given the title "core", and some analysts have said it signaled he was reversing more recent leadership norms.
Deng Xiaoping coined the phrase "core" leader. He said Mao, himself and Jiang were core leaders, meaning they had almost absolute authority and should not be questioned. But Xi's immediate predecessor Hu Jintao never assumed the title.
Deng, the party researcher, said Hu had turned down the status.
"In Comrade Hu Jintao's era, many representatives had proposed the use of the core title, but he repeatedly declined. That time had its own circumstances, and the current time has its own demands," Deng said.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)