China’s governing Communist Party will conduct its five-yearly congress beginning on October 16, with Xi Jinping expected to clinch an unprecedented third term as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
The Politburo announced the start date for the congress on Tuesday, which generally lasts about a week and takes place primarily behind closed doors in downtown Beijing at the Great Hall of the People on the western side of Tiananmen Square.
Since becoming party general secretary a decade ago, Xi Jinping, 69, has gradually consolidated control, eradicating any known factional resistance to his reign. At a Congress that many China observers compare to a coronation, he is likely to exercise nearly uncontested control over key appointments and policy directions. Despite the headwinds that have buffeted his path to a third term, including a stagnant economy, the Covid-19 pandemic, and rare public protests, as well as rising frictions with the West and tensions over Taiwan, Xi is poised to secure a mandate to pursue his grand vision for the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” for years to come.
Since taking power, Xi, the son of a communist revolutionary, has increased the party and its position in society while eradicating dissent. Under Xi, China has also grown significantly more aggressive on the global arena as a developing-world leader and an alternative to the post-World War II system established by the United States.
Xi’s anticipated ascension to a third five-year term, and maybe more, was established in 2018 when he abolished the presidential term restriction of two terms, a stance that is scheduled to be renewed at the annual legislature meeting in March. A day after the 20th Party Congress, Xi is anticipated to be re-appointed as Communist Party General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. With little change predicted in broad policy direction, the focus of the Congress will be on personnel: who will join Xi on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and who will succeed Premier Li Keqiang, who is slated to retire in March.
Wang Yang, 67, who heads a crucial political advisory body, and Hu Chunhua, 59, a deputy premier, are also candidates for premier, a job associated with economic management. Both previously served as Communist Party leaders in the powerful southern province of Guangdong. Chen Min’er, 61, a Xi disciple who is party chairman of the enormous municipality of Chongqing but has never held national government, is another option for the premiership. The composition and size of the next PSC, which already has seven members, will also be extensively scrutinized.
Two existing members have reached the typical retirement age, and China observers will be looking to see if the admission of any new member signals a desire to tolerate other opinions, even though the concept of “factions” in Chinese politics appears to be mostly a relic under Xi.
Following the congress, many in China and around the world will be watching for Beijing’s efforts to avoid a prolonged economic downturn, which raises the possibility of Covid restrictions being eased, though a lack of widespread immunity among China’s 1.4 billion people and the lack of more effective mRNA vaccines remain constraints. Beijing’s rigorous “dynamic zero” Covid policy has resulted in frequent and disruptive lockdowns, frustrating residents, battering the Chinese economy, and making China a global outlier. Investors will also be watching how Beijing handles deteriorating relations with the West.
Xi’s declared intention to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control will be a focal point during a third term, especially with tensions high following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taipei. Taiwan’s democratically elected government firmly opposes China’s claims to sovereignty. Since taking office, Xi has suppressed opposition in the once-tense areas of Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as brought Hong Kong to heel with a broad national security statute.
Few China analysts believe Beijing will launch a military strike against Taiwan anytime soon, and there is no evidence that society is prepared for such a high-risk step and the fallout, such as harsh Western sanctions. However, settling the “Taiwan question” effectively would ensure Xi’s position in Chinese history alongside Mao’s.