How Xi Is Ensuring China’s 2022 Party Congress Will Be a Landmark

President Xi Jinping looks set to disrupt how power transitions in China, the world’s No. 2 economy, by securing a precedent defying third term as leader at the Communist Party’s 20th party congress this fall. Before then, he will host a Winter Olympics diminished by diplomatic boycotts in February, convene legislators for the National People’s Congress in March, and try to prevent a pandemic flare-up from derailing the Covid Zero strategy his government’s touted as evidence it’s superior to Western democracies.

1. Why does this congress matter?

Party congresses decide China’s leaders and policy priorities for the following five years, positioning cadres for greatness. Xi’s decision not to appoint a successor at the 19th congress in 2017, however, combined with changes to the constitution, sparked speculation he’d ignore unwritten party rules on succession and retirement age. A landmark “history resolution” in November confirmed that Xi, 68, had the party’s firm backing, as only previous leaders-for-life Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping had the privilege of passing such a text. That means this year’s congress could set up Xi to hold power for decades.

2. What’s at stake for the world?

When Xi became Communist Party leader in 2012, he pledged to spearhead China’s “great rejuvenation.” Nearly 10 years on, China has an economy on course to topple the U.S. as the world’s biggest, boasts the largest navy, and has invested billions of dollars in international infrastructure projects. Domestically, he’s eliminated extreme poverty and largely contained the pandemic. But Xi has also tightened controls on free speech, detained minorities and become more aggressive on territorial claims, resulting in increasing fractured relations with Western democracies. With Chinese authorities maintaining a hard line on Hong Kong and Taiwan, sparring with the U.S. on trade and cracking down on big tech and real estate developers, Xi’s path to preserving power is complex.

3. What are current priorities?

Xi’s government has executed bold economic reforms that roiled stocks and bonds. Initially targeting monopolies in big tech, it fanned out to clipping after-school tutoring companies, imposing restrictions on overseas initial public offerings and reigning in the property sector. All that served Xi’s common prosperity drive to more evenly distribute wealth, even at the expense of growth, as he works to avoid social unrest that could threaten the Party’s grip on power. With crackdowns now easing, China will focus on ensuring the economy grows at a reasonable pace and society remains orderly.

4. What should be watched before the congress?

Maneuvering for the week-long summit has already begun. In December, Ma Xingrui became Xinjiang’s party secretary, laying the groundwork for his ascension to China’s top decision-making body, the 25-person Politburo. That stirred speculation that outgoing Chen Quanguo could be promoted to vice premier. Expect more of these moves throughout the year. In July or August, party elders and power brokers will retreat to the seaside town of Beidaihe to lobby for their personnel picks – although with former heavyweights Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji in their 90s, their influence is uncertain.

5. How does the congress work?

More than 2,000 delegates including provincial leaders, top military figures, farmers and minority representatives will descend on Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Ostensibly, they’ll elect the party’s general secretary and top leaders. In reality, by the time Xi delivers his speech under a giant red Communist star outlining the party’s policy priorities, everything has been decided. It’s only when Xi strides along a red carpet at the summit’s close with the new Standing Committee, or inner cabinet, following him in order of importance will China’s 1.4 billion people learn who will be running their economy, military and foreign policy.

6. Who are others to watch?

Xi has few challengers. An anti-corruption campaign peeled off rivals over the past decade, and no one in the Standing Committee with the right age or experience has been groomed as a successor, if traditional paths to power stand. Internal party rules ask Politburo officials to retire at 68. This year, Standing Committee members Han Zheng and Li Zhanshu turn 68 and 72, respectively. If they remain it could create a logjam, frustrating younger cadres, but analysts say that’s unlikely because Xi won’t want top leaders acquiring their own power bases. Furthermore, when Xi amended the age limits for the president, he left them unchanged for the premier, meaning Li Keqiang has to stand down in 2023. Normally, the first-ranked vice premier should take that role, but since Han is also set to retire, it’s unclear who will inherit Li’s key economic portfolio. Chongqing’s party chief Chen Miner, 61, and Xi ally Ding Xuexiang, 59, are both young and experienced enough. But their posts will only be revealed when Xi decides.

Author: Jenni Marsh, Bloomberg

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