(CNN) -

The 110th birthday of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was celebrated on August 22 with an exhibition, a television biopic, and a series of national events. The "paramount leader" ruled for more than a decade, kick-starting China's market economic reform.

All these events have prompted much talk not just on Deng, who died in 1997, but also on Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Straws in the wind here hint that China is again entering an era of strongman rule.

Less than two years after Xi took over the top Communist Party post, Xi's leading position is looking virtually unassailable.

He now holds the top posts in the party, state and the military. Recently, he has cleverly maneuvered to put himself at the head of two new supra-ministerial bodies.

The "central leading group on national security" gives him the final say on diplomatic, military, security, police and intelligence institutions.

The other leading group on "deepening of economic reform" gives him oversight on economic affairs, clipping the power of Premier Li Keqiang, China's No. 2 leader and the de facto COO of the economy.

This, China analysts say, signifies that Xi has become the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng.

Mao or Deng?

Xi's shrewd moves makes China watchers wonder: Is he mimicking Mao, who wielded absolute power during his decades-long rule? Is he building a cult of personality that befits an omnipotent modern-day emperor?

To be sure, Xi does not approve of totally repudiating Mao.

"To completely negate Mao Zedong would lead to the demise of the Communist Party of China and to great chaos in China," Xi said early last year.

He rejected "historical nihilism," instead advocating "not being negative about the 30 years before Deng Xiaoping's economic reform."

Still, some China experts say Xi is not following Mao's policies.

"If you look at what he does and how he does it, I don't see much Maoism," said Ezra Vogel, a retired Harvard professor and author of the book "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China." "I see much more of Deng Xiaoping."

Vogel recalled how Xi chose Shenzhen as the site of his first "inspection tour" as president. The Special Economic Zone is where Deng Xiaoping experimented with his market-reform in the early 1980s. Xi referred to that in his speech commemorating the 110th anniversary of the birth of the late Deng.

"It was a very sentimental thing," Vogel noted. "I think the effect of the speech and what Xi was trying to say is that 'OK, Deng was a bold leader who tried to make changes. I'm going to make some changes too.'"

Like Deng, Vogel explained, Xi believes that the country must be strong.

"But he felt in the end that only if the country had enough internal stability could you make changes," the Harvard professor said. "And he was quite cautious about releasing and allowing more freedom until the conditions were met. It looks to me that Xi Jinping was very much following it."

Keeping friends close

The Harvard historian has not seen much sign that Xi wants to be more democratic.

"He has been very tough on corruption, and the way I see it now he's beginning to talk about the law, the legal reform," he said.

Early this month the Communist Party announced that Zhou Yongkang, the former public security minister and member of China's Politburo Standing Committee, would be investigated "on suspicion of grave violations of discipline."

This is by far the biggest step Xi has taken in his anti-corruption campaign, confirming his pledge to take on the "tigers" (top officials) as well as "flies"(minor violators).

Like Deng, Vogel added, Xi wants to centralize things in his own hands. "He wants to be a strong leader. He wants to make bold decisions. And he wants to make it very clear that he's in charge."