By Philip Wen
BEIJING (Reuters) - The ruling Communist Party's flagship newspaper on Thursday provided more evidence that President Xi Jinping should be regarded as China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong after this week's party congress.
Xi's official portrait dominated the People's Daily's front page report on the unveiling of the party's new top leadership. Below that was a smaller group photograph of the new top leadership - the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee including Xi.
It is a stark departure from recent precedent, with Mao Zedong the last leader to be granted such status on the front page after the party conclave - which is held once every five years.
The People's Daily did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Since Deng Xiaoping introduced collective leadership three decades ago to ward off the rise of another Mao-like cult of personality, the official portraits of all newly-selected Politburo Standing Committee members have been presented together on the front page in a grid.
The portrait of the party's top leader, the general secretary, is usually only slightly more prominent; reflecting his position as the first among equals.
Xi is the party's general secretary, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and president of the country.
In Thursday's People's Daily, the portraits and biographical information of the six other standing committee members - Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Han Zheng - were relegated to the inside pages.
"That's definitely the first time since Mao," said Ryan Manuel, a China expert at the University of Hong Kong, referring to Xi's oversized portrait on the front of the paper.
The People's Daily is closely parsed by party cadres and others, and sets the tone for media coverage in state-run newspapers at the provincial level.
Manuel said the paper closely followed regimented rules and norms and would have done so especially meticulously for its "most important front page in five years".
"It's a strict system," he said. "The rules of placement and the rules of what type of photos you put on there are incredibly tightly argued and defined."
Xi's status as China's most powerful leader since Mao was underlined on Wednesday when the party, in another break with precedent, revealed a new leadership line-up without naming an obvious successor to him.
There has been persistent speculation Xi could seek to stay on in some capacity beyond the end of the customary second five-year term in power, which ends in 2022.
During the congress, Xi became the first leader since Mao to have a political ideology bearing his name enshrined in the party's constitution while in office.
(Reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Martin Howell)