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Xi presents China as ‘new choice’ for humanity as he readies for next term

Chinese President Xi Jinping is applauded as he waves to senior members of the government as he arrives to the opening ceremony of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on Oct. 16. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged Sunday to turn China into a “great modern socialist country” that represents a “new choice” for humanity, as he opened a Chinese Communist Party meeting where he is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term.

From a lectern onstage at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xi spoke without a mask for an hour and 45 minutes to open the twice-per-decade meeting that sets the national agenda for the next five years.

Xi declared that the new “core mission” of the party is to lead a country “united in struggle” to be a powerful, modern socialist nation by 2049, a hundred years after the People’s Republic was founded. As the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, Xi has promoted his nationalist vision of a “Chinese dream” to reclaim the nation’s place at the center of global affairs.

Xi Jinping’s quest for total control of China is just getting started

Under banners that read, “Long live the Chinese Communist Party” and “Fully Implement Xi Jinping Thought,” delegates in the packed hall followed along with their own copies of his remarks, turning the pages in unison, studiously taking notes and applauding enthusiastically. The meeting, broadcast on the state-run CCTV, caught some delegates sleeping.

Xi said China’s “great rejuvenation” is now an “irreversible historical process” and the party had already created a “new choice” for humanity with its unique path to modernization — a nod to China’s emergence as an alternative to Western democracies.

The congress adds urgency to Xi’s ambition at a time when China’s economy is slowing and Beijing faces renewed criticism from Western nations over aggression toward Taiwan and its close partnership with Russia.

For China to become a military, economic and cultural power, he added, the party will need to navigate “abrupt changes” in the international situation and be ready to weather “high winds and dangerous storms.”

“In recent years, Xi has been placing a lot of emphasis on calling on the party leadership to revive a spirit of struggle,” said Dali Yang, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.

Analysts are closely watching the six-day meeting for signs that recent criticism of the party may have weakened Xi or other politicians. Former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli made his first public appearance since he was accused by Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai of sexual assault.

Xi did not mention the war in Ukraine or Beijing’s deteriorating relationship with the United States, which ordered export bans earlier this month that could cripple China’s high-tech aspirations. He briefly touched on China’s increasingly criticized “zero covid” policy, claiming it had earned his country “international acclaim.”

Few signs that China is trying to escape its ‘zero covid’ trap

When Xi took office in 2012, the smooth transfer of power was seen as a sign that China’s political system had evolved from personal rule toward a system of regularized leadership transitions. But Xi defied expectations.

With unending anti-corruption campaigns and an emphasis on discipline, he took charge of the party. The rest of Chinese society was brought in line with security clampdowns that pushed human rights activists underground and crushed resistance in Hong Kong and the far western province of Xinjiang. Under his rule, international criticism of China has been met with fierce pushback from “wolf warrior” diplomats.

The gathering will conclude when delegates formally approve Xi’s report, pass changes to the party constitution and choose a new Central Committee. The committee then meets and appoints a new 25-member Politburo and the seven-member Standing Committee, which is the apex of power.

Xi is almost certain to be reinstated as general secretary and head of the party’s Central Military Commission, his two most important positions.

Who will succeed Xi Jinping as China’s leader? It’s complicated.

Observers are watching who will be promoted to join him on the Politburo for any signs of challenges to Xi’s rule or an anointed successor. But after a decade of Xi concentrating power in his own hands, few consider either outcome probable. Term limits for the presidency were scrapped in 2018, clearing the way for Xi to rule for life if he so chooses.

“Xi Jinping is aiming not just for a third term but for a fourth term as well,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation think tank. “He has 10 more years to choose his successor.”

Xi’s leadership style, characterized by a preference for splitting people into enemies and friends, means he is not someone who is willing to compromise, said Chien-Wen Kou, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.

“This tells us how he thinks about dealing with enemies,” Kou said. “He essentially will not make a concession on his basic principles, whether for China-U.S. ties, relations with Taiwan or his approach to corrupt officials.”

Xi’s looming third term in China raises threat of war over Taiwan

Even if there is resistance to Xi’s agenda, it is unlikely to appear during the carefully scripted congress. After months of closed-door negotiations between Xi and other top-ranking officials, the work report broadcasts policy prescriptions to the party’s rank-and-file. For the party, the choreographed process, culminating in a vote by show of hands to rubber-stamp the new agenda, is a way to bolster legitimacy in line with claims that China, too, is democratic.

Many of Xi’s most significant updates to China’s policy outlook took place at the last party congress, in 2017, when he announced a “new era.”

“Xi has tried to revive some Maoist policies for the economy,” such as focusing on state-owned enterprises, tackling inequality and creating a system of “internal circulation” as a way to prepare for decoupling from the United States and the West, Lam said.

In a nod to these goals, Xi called “high-quality” growth the primary task of the next stage of China’s development and said internal circulation — a bid to bolster domestic markets to become self-reliant — should be made “lively and reliable.” He said the party would continue to support “common prosperity,” one of his key slogans.

Ever stronger party leadership, guided by Xi’s personal ideology, was a common theme of the speech. Channeling Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, he said the military — the “barrel of the gun” — must forever listen to party orders. And the party will never change, Xi added, because it had learned the art of “self-revolution” to break historical cycles of rising and falling governments.

Under Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, the party experimented with small moves toward what it called “intraparty democracy,” allowing a straw poll by senior officials as a way of gauging support for various leaders to reach the Politburo and its Standing Committee.

Xi scrapped those changes in 2017. Instead, he met with party elders one by one to gather recommendations, helping him prevent the formation of cliques that could challenge his power. “It’s another example of Xi Jinping’s paranoia,” said Susan Shirk, a scholar of Chinese politics at the University of California at San Diego.

Tighter control doesn’t necessarily mean Xi will get the outcomes he wants. In a recently published book, Shirk argues that Xi’s centralized power and top-down pressure on officials pushes cadres toward overenthusiastic praise and over-compliance with Xi’s objectives, which can lead to policy mistakes. “The bandwagoning of subordinates to prove loyalty and protect their own careers leads to overreach,” she said.

Shirk argues that Xi is unlikely to use his third term to change course. “He’s really boxed himself into a tough next five years,” she said. “After the congress, subordinates will be all the more intimidated and fearful unless Xi diffuses his personal authority to share it with other senior leaders.”

Just before the speech, CCTV interviewed Jiang Lijuan, a local official from Zhejiang province, who breathlessly praised Xi’s “personal guidance” in the development of her village. She said the residents had formed a habit of watching the evening news to “see what the general secretary was up to, just like you would care for a family member.”

Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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