It’s Xi Jinping’s big moment.
On Wednesday, the Chinese President kicked off the biggest and most-watched event in China’s political calendar: The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.
This twice-a-decade meeting is akin to a closed-door election, and will see President Xi formally granted a second five-year term as the party’s general secretary and a new generation of senior Chinese leaders anointed.
In his opening speech, Xi stressed “national rejuvenation” but warned that China’s development had been “unbalanced and inadequate.”
“China’s international standing has risen as never before,” he told the almost 3,000 delegates gathered in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
The week-long session will also chart the country’s future course in a world where China’s reach is now extending – and being felt – further than ever before. At stake, analysts say, is Xi’s vision and legacy.
Here’s why you should be paying attention.
Cult of Xi
The congress is being seen, in and outside of China, as a referendum on Xi’s success in positioning himself as China’s unquestioned political supremo, says Christopher Johnson, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
With what Johnson describes as “political shock and awe,” Xi has taken down senior leaders in his anti-corruption drive, launched an unprecedented crackdown on free speech, and radically overhauled the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest fighting force.
At the congress, Xi may cement his standing by revising the party charter to include “Xi Jinping Thought” as one of the party’s guiding theories, elevating his stature to that of Chairman Mao Zedong who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. China’s previous two presidents haven’t had their ideas enshrined in the constitution in this way.
Some have speculated that Xi may also seek to stay in power beyond 2022, breaking a tradition followed by his two predecessors and emulating Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Wherever one looks, Xi seems to be at center vision in modern China. The only issue is whether one person can really extend their influence over such a wide area,” said Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese Politics at King’s College London.
Why does it matter to the rest of the world?
With Xi expected to emerge from the congress stronger than ever, the world will likely see China continue to step into a global leadership vacuum as the US turns inward under President Donald Trump.
In his first five years in power, Xi eschewed the cautious foreign policy that had been a hallmark of his predecessors.
He’s overseen the development of China’s first overseas military base, backed a military buildup in the South China Sea and has unveiled a grand plan for the world economy that has China front and center.
So far China has more or less stuck to global norms – but an emboldened Xi could change this approach in ways that may put China at odds with the existing international order and the US, which badly needs China’s help reining in North Korea.
The first test of how this will play out comes in November, when Xi hosts Trump on his inaugural visit to Asia.
It’s China’s ‘Game of Thrones’
The congress opens on October 18 at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing. It’s attended by 2,287 delegates from around the country who represent nearly 90 million party members.
They are set to elect a new leadership for the next five years, including the now seven-strong Politburo Standing Committee, whose members effectively rule China. But most, if not all, of the outcomes are predetermined after a long period of secretive bargaining between party power brokers.
While there’s little doubt that Xi’s grip on the top job is iron clad, the Party isn’t monolithic and different factions vie for power. Who is admitted to the politburo and its standing committee will show which group is in the ascendant. Recent conventions, although not a hard and fast rule, have suggested that if members are above 68, they will retire.
However, there have been suggestions that Wang Qishan, Xi’s right-hand man in his anti-corruption drive, may stay on even though he’s 69. If Wang keeps his place in the standing committee, it will be a telling symbol of Xi’s sway.
“Wang led the corruption crackdown, he’s clearly a trusted ally. It would be surprising if he was to entirely disappear,” said Christopher Balding, a professor of economics at Peking University’s Shenzhen Graduate School.
Balding says he will primarily be looking to see if there’s an “infusion of younger talent” into the powerful committee that sits atop the Chinese system – a signal that Xi would look to step down at the end of the next five-year term.
“If it’s the older crowd, it’s a sign Xi could be staying on,” he said.
The crunch moment will come at the end of the congress, when the Politburo Standing Committee, led by Xi, strides out onto the stage of the Great Hall of the People in a carefully choreographed performance of political pomp.
Will North Korea poop the party?
China’s unpredictable and unruly neighbor is the one factor that could disrupt the proceedings.
North Korea has a track record of provoking its only real ally during key high-profile events, firing off missiles during last year’s G20 meeting in Hangzhou, during the One Belt One Road forum in May, and again during the BRICS summit in Xiamen in September.
“Any kind of provocation would be considered a real affront to Xi,” said Balding.
However, Paul Haenle, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beijing, says that Pyongyang’s “persistent disruptions of Xi’s most important occasions in the international limelight are not deal breakers for Beijing.”
He says that Xi is likely to shrug off any provocation, barring the release of significant radioactive material or a test of a nuclear missile in the Pacific.
“Such actions could bring chaos and therefore undermine the party’s longevity and directly challenge China’s interests – Beijing’s only true red line.”
Blue skies and granny spies
Beijing, and the rest of the country, is already under extremely tight security as the congress gets underway.
China's Party Congress
Passengers arriving at Beijing’s railway stations face extended security checks, according to the Beijing Daily News, and China’s uniformed and plainclothes police, as well as its army of granny spies (think neighborhood watch on a huge, coordinated scale) will be out in force to ensure the event goes off without a hitch.
Some bars and clubs have been ordered to close for the session, and some small businesses have shut, with the extra security likely to deter customers and make commuting difficult for employees.
Already-strict internet censorship has been ratcheted up, with China this year slamming shut loopholes in its sophisticated “Great Firewall.” WhatsApp has suffered serious disruption in China and there’s been widespread deletion of “sensitive content” on social media.
But Beijing residents may be thankful for one potential upside to the congress: As during other high-profile and politically sensitive events, officials are trying to create blue skies and clean air by shutting down factories and restricting traffic.
CNN’s Ben Westcott in Hong Kong and Yuli Yang and Steven Jiang in Beijing contributed to this report