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The countdown to Xi Jinping’s expected coronation has officially started.
In 47 days, China’s ruling Communist Party will hold its 20th National Congress, at which Xi is widely expected to extend his hold on power for another five years – a move that would cement his status as the country’s most powerful leader in decades.
The congress will begin in Beijing on October 16 at a “critical time” for the country, the party’s 25-member Politburo announced Tuesday, adding that preparations were “progressing smoothly.”
That start date is in line with tradition – in recent decades, the party has always held its congresses between September and November. The highly choreographed affairs usually last about a week, bringing together some 2,000 delegates from across the country in a show of unity and legitimacy.
But this year’s congress is anything but conventional.
Xi, who has consolidated enormous power since taking office a decade ago, is widely expected to seek an unprecedented third term as China’s top leader, breaking with convention set by his predecessors since the early 1990s.
It’s a plan years in the making, ever since Xi removed the presidential term limits from the country’s constitution in 2018. But for an authoritarian leader obsessed with stability, the months leading up to it haven’t exactly been a smooth ride.
Xi’s insistence on a zero-Covid policy has seen cities across China imposing strict lockdowns to stamp out infections – an attempt that appears increasingly futile in the face of the highly infectious Omicron variant.
Its often ruthless and chaotic enforcement – as seen during a two-month lockdown in the financial hub of Shanghai – has sparked waves of public outcry, with many growing increasingly frustrated with the unending restrictions on their daily life.
The zero-tolerance approach has also crippled economic growth – long a source of legitimacy for the party. Youth unemployment has surged to a record high of 20%, while a rural banking scandal and a spiraling property crisis have sparked large protests.
Diplomatically, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a “no-limits” friendship between the two countries weeks before Moscow launched its war on Ukraine. Beijing’s refusal to recognize – let alone condemn – the invasion has further strained its fraying ties with the United States, Europe and much of the developed world.
And on Wednesday, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a long-awaited report that China’s arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in its western region of Xinjiang may constitute “crimes against humanity” – in a challenge to Beijing’s repeated denial of any human rights violations there.
The political headwinds have fueled intense speculation about Xi’s authority in some quarters of the overseas China-watching community, with some questioning his prospects of securing a third term.
But experts well-versed in elite Chinese politics said claims about threats to Xi’s grip on power are massively overblown. Since coming to power, Xi has waged a sweeping anti-corruption crackdown to purge opponents, silence dissent and instill loyalty. He has revamped and secured a firm grip over the military, and other critical levers of power.
“Very often, when there are challenges, it’s not necessarily bad for the supreme leader at all,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “In fact, authoritarian leaders like Xi thrive on challenges – and often use such crises to enhance their power.”
Yang cited Xi’s ability to fill important positions of power with his trusted aides – from the domestic security apparatus to the propaganda front and leadership roles at key provinces – as signs the top leader is firmly in control.
The latest announcement on the party congress is a sign that Xi has straightened out decisions on personnel arrangements and political paths, according to Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper who now lives in the United States.
“I don’t think there is any question that Xi Jinping’s term will be extended,” Deng said in his YouTube commentary show. “The confirmation of the start date of the 20th Party Congress shows the die is cast, and any opposition to Xi is powerless to change the situation.”
The official announcement on the congress is scant on details, but it offered clues on the agenda, vowing to make solid progress in the pursuit of “common prosperity,” advance party building and promote “a community with a shared future for mankind” – all catchphrases put forward by Xi.
“Xi wants to leave his political legacy at the 20th Party Congress, and these three will be the key themes at the meeting, as well as the political lines to be laid out after the congress,” Deng said.
Holding the congress in mid-October also leaves some buffer time for Xi to attend major international events in November, such as the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia. “Xi hasn’t left the country for nearly three years, and it has had a very negative impact on China’s diplomacy,” Deng said.
As for the Chinese public, many have paid little attention to the party congresses in the past – they have no say in the country’s political leadership transition, or the making of major policies.
But this year, for those who are getting increasingly impatient and frustrated with the endless lockdowns and Covid testing, news of the congress’ start date has come as a long-awaited relief.
“There are a lot of people who are eagerly waiting for this Party Congress to happen, (because) they hope there could be a shift in the way that China is dealing with Covid,” Yang said.
But when – and how – that will happen is still anyone’s guess.