Chinese Communist Party Congress affords another milestone in Xi Jinping’s quest for complete control

In the coming days, Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to further cement his standing as the Communist Party’s most powerful leader in decades. But last week A flare of dissent emerged in China’s capital.

Two banners were hung on an overpass amid a plume of smoke in northern Beijing’s Haidian district on Thursday. One called on students and workers to strike and oust Xi, calling him a traitor to his country.

The other condemned life in China during his 10-year tenure as party general secretary. “We want food instead of COVID tests, reforms instead of cultural revolution, freedom instead of lockdowns, votes instead of leaders, dignity instead of lies, be citizens not slaves,” it said.

Images of the banners circulated around the Chinese internet before social media censors quickly removed the offending posts.

The rare protest in a nation where pervasive surveillance and censorship are conspiring to swiftly crush political opposition was all the more remarkable for its timing, ahead of the high-profile political conference where Xi is almost certain to set a precedent by speaking a third term of five years is anointed for this.

It also served as a reminder that even one of the most powerful men on earth cannot claim total control — at least not yet.

Regardless, the 20th Chinese Communist Party National Congress will almost certainly bring him a step closer.

“We have ensured that the party will never change its nature, creed or character,” Xi said at the opening ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sunday. “The rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is now on an irreversible historical course.”

The twice-decade convention is a heavily managed and notoriously opaque affair. The decision on Xi’s third term and senior leadership changes, all expected to be announced on Oct. 23, the day after the event closes, are traditionally decided in advance behind closed doors.

“This is probably the clearest convention in a long time,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute. “The real problem is how much more powerful he gets.”

Lawmakers abolished term limits in 2018, allowing Xi, who turned 69 this year, to retain his posts of president, general secretary and military chief for life. The new makeup of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top governing body, will decide the degree of autonomy Xi will have in realizing his vision for the nation.

Facing mounting economic and social challenges, Xi’s primary goal was to make China an undisputed world leader in economic prosperity, technological innovation and military prowess under the constant control of the Communist Party.

“He’s not someone who grabs power to be power-hungry,” Tsang said. “He will push harder because he wants to make his China dream come true.”

Party leadership continues to be stacked with loyalists will allow Xi to aggressively pursue his goals. But analysts say autocratic control means there are few checks for miscalculations and one man has full responsibility.

When Xi first took the helm in 2012, few saw him as the supreme leader of today’s brazen, nationalist China. Many had hoped he would continue to lead the country on a path of reform and openness that would lead to more international engagement and collective party leadership, and that he would step down under the two-term limit imposed by Deng Xiaoping.

But Xi has ruthlessly consolidated power and increasingly turned the nation inwards. He eliminated political rivals in a sweeping anti-graft crackdown, stifled an already limited civil society and promoted loyalists to top government posts.

Dissenters were jailed, intimidated or censored while the state media touted his achievements and fomented nationalism. He has branded himself as the core of the Communist Party and the Chinese Dream, and has injected his own “Xi Jinping Thought” into the country’s politics, economy and education plan.

In his televised address, Xi touted China’s increasing influence as a political and economic force on the world stage. Trade and foreign investment have made the country of 1.4 billion people an even more important part of global production and consumption, complicating decoupling efforts. At home, Xi boasted about improving citizens’ daily lives and eradicating extreme poverty.

“These were historic feats accomplished by the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people seeking unity… feats that will forever go down in the nation’s history and will profoundly affect the world,” he told the gathering of nearly 2,300 party delegates .

While Xi has modernized the People’s Liberation Army, he has not hesitated to deploy the country’s military might, with 975,000 troops and the world’s largest navy. As China’s military influence grows, Japan, Taiwan and Australia, among others, have sought to bolster their own defense capabilities in the region.

The party has also strengthened its grip on disputed areas such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, and has all but eliminated contesting China’s claims, despite condemnations of its crackdown on ethnic minorities and local people abroad for shocking human rights abuses.

“That [party] can say: Now China is strong and we can do as we see fit and we don’t take orders from anyone in the world,” said Ho-fung Hung, professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University.

Still, Xi faces some of the country’s biggest challenges in recent times.

The leader’s uncompromising zero-COVID policy first eradicated the domestic spread of the virus, allowing for economic recovery and a much faster return to normal life than in other countries. But while the rest of the world has reopened, China has stuck to strict lockdowns, quarantines and contact-tracing programs. This has hampered economic activity and fueled public discontent, particularly after a two-month lockdown this year in Shanghai, China’s most populous city.

Economic growth, a key pillar of the country’s international influence, has stagnated, leading to pessimism among China’s middle class and high unemployment, particularly among urban youth. Both foreign and domestic private companies are losing confidence in the Chinese market amid the COVID-19 restrictions and a crackdown on China’s tech giants. The real estate sector, which accounts for about a quarter of the country’s GDP, has been hit by mortgage boycotts and defaults.

Alluding to some of these issues, Xi outlined efforts to increase employment and economic development and boost birth rates in response to concerns about the country’s aging population. However, he called his zero-COVID policy a great success and pointed to it indicated that the government would continue to adhere to its rigid containment measures.

As Xi’s authority has increased, so has more international interest. NATO turned to China for the first time this year to challenge the Alliance’s security and values.

China’s ongoing ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin have also strained the country’s ties with Europe. Weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Xi was touting a borderless partnership with Moscow. As Russia’s military has suffered heavy casualties, Xi’s task of balancing diplomatic interests and claiming neutrality has become more difficult.

Xi may face a similar challenge in his determination to assert China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, which is fast becoming one of the most contentious flashpoints in US-China relations. On Sunday, Xi again stressed reunification with Taiwan as a crucial part of national revitalization.

“We have always shown respect and care to our fellow Taiwanese,” he said. “We will continue to seek peaceful reunification … but we will never promise to refrain from the use of force, and we reserve the option to take any action necessary.”

In August, a visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to Taipei was sharply condemned by Beijing and there was an unprecedented level of military drills around the self-governing island. Analysts said that while Xi’s response has been somewhat muted by the upcoming party congress, he will not face the same obstacles in the years to come.

“Xi Jinping will be in a better position compared to this year to take a more confident stance on foreign policy,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.

Experts said the lack of a clear successor is another indication of Xi’s ambitions to remain at the helm for at least the next decade. Although this election keeps the party away from obvious challengers, it could also destabilize the party if he were suddenly unable to govern.

“The problem of succession will be the most difficult problem to solve under the current system of highly centralized power,” said Chien-Wen Kou, director of the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “There will be a power vacuum and competition between factions. … Since the original rules of the game have been broken, the power competition during this time will be more of a zero-sum game.”

Officials are taking no chances at the tightly choreographed ceremony, which saw order increased this year by pandemic prevention checks. In Beijing, the government has increased security and surveillance of dissidents or potential demonstrators.

Thursday’s banners didn’t survive long on the Chinese internet. It wasn’t long before censorship deleted photos from social media, along with any direct or covert mention of the display. Among the deleted keywords were “Sitong Bridge” where the signs were hung, “Haidian”, “Beijing”, “banner”, “brave” and “I saw it”.

“I don’t think Xi will ever feel safe. He’s always looking for potential enemies to ensure he can further consolidate his power,” said Johns Hopkins’ Hung. “That kind of insecurity never goes away.”

Yang is a Times staff writer and Shen is a special correspondent. Chinese Communist Party Congress affords another milestone in Xi Jinping’s quest for complete control

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