Chinese President Xi Jinping declared it was time for the nation to become a “mighty force” in an Oct. 18 address, kicking off Beijing’s Communist Party Congress. The week-long event will determine the country’s direction for the next five years. (Reuters)

For 3½ hours, China’s President Xi Jinping commanded the stage and the nation’s television screens as he set out a far-reaching agenda for the Communist Party, outlining a vision of total control, not only of the nation’s economy and the Internet but also of culture, religion and morals.

The Communist Party already has a hand in just about every aspect of life here. But Xi’s speech Wednesday — opening a five-yearly congress of the party’s top leadership — cast the net even wider.

His was a vision of a reinvigorated Communist Party, backed by a strong economy and a powerful, modern military taking an even more central role in the affairs of the nation and a more confident role on the world stage.

“Achieving national rejuvenation will be no walk in the park,” Xi told more than 2,200 members of the party’s elite, speaking beneath gigantic red drapes and a huge hammer and sickle in the mammoth Great Hall of the People, a monument to Communist authoritarianism, on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

“It will take more than drumbeating and gong-clanging to get there,” he added. “Every one of us in the party must be prepared to work even harder toward this goal.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, speaks Wednesday at the opening of the 19th National Congress in Beijing alongside former presidents Hu Jintao, second from left, and Jiang Zemin, second from right. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Yet outside, the run-up to the 19th National Congress has been marked not by confidence but by the Communist Party’s particular brand of paranoia.

Dissidents have been arrested or railroaded out of town, lest they disrupt the celebratory mood by saying anything remotely critical. Ordinary public gatherings — anything from a top-level soccer match to regular gym classes — have been closed down or postponed.

Censorship of the Internet and controls on private chat groups have dramatically intensified, while long lines built up at subway stations in the capital this week as security checks were stepped up. The WhatsApp messaging service has been blocked. Foreigners living in the city have been visited by police for passport checks, and volunteers with red armbands and security personnel patrol almost every street corner. Banners extolling the party dominate almost every free space.

Factories throughout Beijing were ordered to close in a bid to curb air pollution, while every arm and level of the government has been straining for months to make sure nothing is left to chance, that nothing will spoil this, the big moment for the president.

In a week’s time, Xi will be formally granted another five years in power as general secretary of China’s Communist Party. 

On Wednesday, with a large illuminated red star gleaming in the ceiling 30 yards above his head, he painstakingly set out what he sees as his achievements over the past five years and his vision for the next five — a campaign speech with particularly Chinese characteristics, and with the support of the entirety of the tiny, handpicked electorate already guaranteed.

“For five years, our party has demonstrated tremendous political courage and a powerful sense of mission,” Xi said, boasting of having driven profound and fundamental change in China but also warning of many difficulties and challenges ahead.

His speech beaming across the nation on state television, China’s leader also set out his ideological contribution to the party’s intellectual canon, ponderously named “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” One official later described it as the “third milestone” in the party’s “ideological innovation”— after Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory.

The congress may formally incorporate that ideology into the party’s constitution next week — a step that could elevate Xi to the ranks of the most powerful leaders in party history.

Behind him, his immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, listened attentively, his eyes mostly on the text of the speech. But 91-year-old Jiang Zemin, president from 1993 to 2003, seemed less captivated, only occasionally taking out a large magnifying glass to gaze at the text, scratching his ear, yawning. 

Other delegates took notes, or stared straight ahead, looking attentive, stern, impassive, dazed or just tired, as Xi spoke on. In the gallery, one diplomat dozed.

The theme of the congress: that the party should remain true to its original aspiration, hold high the banner of socialism and secure a decisive victory in the battle to build a moderately prosperous society.

It was a call for party members to “snap back into line” and focus on the core tasks of governance, politics and ideology, said Jude Blanchette of the Conference Board’s China Center for Economics and Business in Beijing. “This means we should expect a continuation of calls for cadres to read Marx, study party history and to distrust outside ideologies.”

In bullet point after bullet point, Xi set out a vision of party leadership and discipline, of reform and development, of national security and national pride, of ideological confidence and, above all, of control.

“The party exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavor in every part of the country,” he said, the first sentence of the first bullet point of his ideological exposition.

It was a message of continuity, said Yanmei Xie, China policy analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing. “The policy recipe during his first term has produced results that made him popular with the Chinese people and powerful within the party, and enhanced the party’s legitimacy.”

Small adjustments were possible, she said, but a change in the winning formula was not part of the plan.

Yet President Xi also identified key challenges that strike at the heart of the Communist Party’s claim to legitimacy, include the “contradiction” between unbalanced development and people’s rising aspirations, as well as rampant corruption.

“The people resent corruption the most, and corruption is the greatest threat our party faces,” he said.

Xi’s campaign against corruption has been one of his most popular initiatives with the general public, even if it has also been used to take down factional rivals and may have only pushed graft slightly further underground rather than eliminating it.

Xi told party members to resist vices including “pleasure-seeking, inaction, sloth and problem avoidance.” In general society, he said, the party would launch a campaign to raise moral standards and promote family values and personal integrity.

Under Xi, China has taken a more confident role on the world stage, as he was eager to point out, citing his “Belt and Road” infrastructure development project and his controversial program of island-building in the disputed South China Sea. At the same time, he said, the military would be further modernized and strengthened.

“A military is built to fight,” he said. “Our military must regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work and focus on how to win when it is called on.”

The speech was long on aspiration but largely devoid of concrete new policy measures. Much was devoted to the idea of keeping the party’s ideology the center of public life.

“Culture is a country and a nation’s soul,” Xi said, before explaining how he wanted Chinese culture harnessed to the cause of socialism and following the guidance of Marxism.

“Ideology determines the direction a culture should take and the path it should follow as it develops,”’ he said. Writers and artists should produce work that is thought-provoking but also extols “our party, our country, our people and our heroes,” he said.

Religion must also be “Chinese in orientation” and guided by the party to adapt to socialist society, he said.  

Those remarks would appear to pour cold water on talk of a formal rapprochement between the Chinese government and the Vatican, in a country where the party does not recognize the pope’s authority over a population of about 12 million Catholics.

In the run-up to the congress, popular talk shows and costume dramas were taken off the air by order of the government so the entertainment media could focus more wholeheartedly on propaganda and anti-Japanese war films.

State media has been in overdrive in its praise of Xi in recent weeks, gushing on Wednesday about thousands of foreign journalists who were enthusiastically covering the congress and how schoolchildren were inspired, happy and excited after watching Xi’s speech.

Less enthusiastic was anyone who has tried to stand up for the civil rights of the Chinese people or fight injustice. Chinese Human Rights Defenders documented 14 activists who were criminally detained and two cases of enforced disappearance in the run-up to the meeting. Liu Xia, who is the widow of Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo — who died in Chinese custody this year — and who has herself been under house arrest since 2010, was also reportedly forced to leave Beijing by government agents.

Security was so tight that Airbnb abruptly announced it was suspending its service in central Beijing during the second half of October, as did a well-known online retailer of knives and scissors. The five-star Sheraton Hotel, more than 1,000 miles away in the southern city of Dongguan, told guests that wireless Internet would be disconnected in their rooms from Wednesday onward, on local government orders.

Shirley Feng and Luna Lin contributed to this report.