From China Digital Space
A reference used for several historical top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. When officially applied to a leader, it indicates his strongman status and high consolidation of power.
The term, coined by Deng Xiaoping when he called Mao the "core" of the CCP's first generation and himself that of the second, was widely used in reference to Jiang Zemin, "the core of the third generation." The term was not commonly applied to the low-key fourth generation Party leader Hu Jintao, but was resurrected by state media to refer to Xi Jinping amid the fifth generation leader's drive to consolidate power, and used widely by provincial and municipal leaders for Xi in early 2016 during a loyalty drive. Writing about the term's comeback in official media dialogue in late 2015 and early 2016, The New York Times' Chris Buckley noted that the "new push to praise [Xi] as China’s 'core' leader, a term resonant with the formidable stature once held by Deng Xiaoping, suggests that his steely quest for dominance is not over."
In late October of 2016, as speculation about internal Party power jockeying was heating up ahead of the leadership transition expected at the 2017 19th Party Congress, the title of "core" Party leader was formally bestowed on Xi Jinping by the CCP. A communique released following the 6th Plenum of the 18th Party Central Committee appealed for Party members to "closely unite around the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi as the core." State media widely covered the official statement, echoing it's naming of Xi as the "core."
Writing again on the term's application to Xi following the 6th Plenum, The New York Times' Chris Buckley noted the unprecedented nature of officially referring to Xi as a "core" leader before his tenure as CCP General Secretary was up, and speculated that this could mean that Xi will indeed have an enormous amount of say over the leadership lineup to be unveiled the following year. Buckley wrote:
The party had earlier deemed only Mao, Deng and the former president Jiang Zemin as "core" leaders. It is a kind of political halo that suggests the holder dominates his peers. The latest decision suggests that Mr. Xi has already won similar pre-eminence, even before finishing his first term.
Christopher K. Johnson, an expert on Chinese politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that the elevation was a "huge deal.""The core designation puts him on a path toward granting him ideological arbiter status," Mr. Johnson said by email. That, he said, "could have big implications for appointments next fall," when the congress is likely to meet and endorse a new leadership. [Source]