Qiao Mu, a former scholar at Beijing Foreign Studies University who was banned from teaching for his dissident writing, said selling a benevolent strongman image is a classic tactic. In Mao’s day, propaganda also tied his personal image to the country’s progress.

“The cults of personality and nationalism are invariably linked,” Qiao said by phone from the United States, where he now lives. “If you look at Xi’s speeches, the leading phrase you hear is ‘strong nation,’ and another is ‘new era.’ It’s … empty words and slogans, except one clear message: ‘I’m going to handle everything.’”

Aside from Xi, the “Five Years” exhibit had few mentions or photos of other top Communist Party leaders, and only cursory video clips of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — party leaders from 1989 to 2012.

The less seen of Jiang and Hu the better, said Lu, the former wastewater worker who admired Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. China’s economy was always bound to develop, so those leaders did not deserve much credit for steering the country’s opening and growth, Lu said.

Instead, Jiang and Hu let elite corruption fester until Xi cleaned it up on behalf of the people, said Lu, who worked for decades in the oil fields of Jilin province in northeast China.

Lu also admired Xi’s muscular presence on the international stage compared to China’s previous timidity. One example, he said, was China’s response when US bombs in 1999 hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, killing three Chinese reporters. The US said it was a mistake due to faulty targeting, but the Chinese public responded with outrage.

“How did Jiang Zemin react when a US missile hit us?” Lu said. “He didn’t dare to make a noise — not even fart!”

Then Lu walked out of the hall, past a massive red-and-yellow banner, 10 meters (yards) high and 40 meters across, erected directly in front of the exhibition entrance.

Unite around the leadership of Xi Jinping as the core, it said, to “ceaselessly advance the great mission of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”