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20th National Congress of Communist Party of China: Xi Jinping strengthens his power as China’s leader

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The highly anticipated 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) opened on the morning of October 16 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC central committee, walked onstage to thunderous applause from the 2,300 hand-picked attendees who had gathered at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People for the event. He pointed out the importance of the meeting for the future of the CPC and the country. In a hundred minutes opening address, China’s leader promoted and defended several policies under his rule, like the party’s efforts to eradicate Covid, which he considered a major achievement. Xi said that the Congress was taking place in “a critical moment” for the country.

The National Congress has been held every five years since the 11th Communist Party of China Congress in 1977–the first one since Mao’s death a year before. The first National Congress of the Communist Party of China took place in 1921, in which a young Mao Zedong participated. Of the thirteen participants, only two – Mao Zedong and Dong Biwu – were present at the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Following the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party under Deng Xiaoping set a two-term limit for its leaders in 1982. Xi abolished this rule in 2018, paving the way for him to rule indefinitely after his second term ends in 2023. Xi Jinping will be the first leader since Mao to serve three successive terms.

At its conclusion, Congress confirmed the re-election of about 200 members of the elite central committee. The list of names included eleven women and did not include several party veterans, of which there are four current members sitting on the Politburo Standing Committee. Analysts have said that this happens to have a Standing Committee comrpised of Xi loyalists.

The National Congress has revealed a new Central Committee, missing two key characters closely related to Xi Jinping. The party’s new 205-member Committee did not include Li Keqiang, the outgoing Premier, nor Wang Yang, former Guangdong party boss and potential replacement as Premier. 

The opening session started with a speech by Xi Jinping touting China’s fight against COVID-19, the party’s safeguarding of national security, maintaining social stability, and taking control of the situation in Hong Kong – rocked by anti-government protests in 2019. He remarked on the importance of economic development and called for the accelerated construction of a world-class military.

During the Congress, Xi Jinping clinched a third leadership term and introduced a top governing body stacked with loyalists. Li Qiang, Shanghai’s Communist Party leader, followed the country’s leader onstage as the new Politburo Standing Committee was introduced, putting him in line to become premier after Li Keqiang retires in March from politics, along with other major figures. Therefore, the seven-man Standing Committee consists of Xi Jinping, Li Qiang, Zhao Leji and Wang Huning – who return from the previous Committee – and Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi, the newcomers. 

The new Standing Committee lineup does not have a clear successor to Xi Jinping, whose predecessor Hu Jintao was unexpectedly escorted out of the Congress, clearly against his will, shortly before the closing ceremony on Saturday. The ascension of Li Qiang portrays the importance of ties for the second most important world-economy leader. Li and Xi share a long history, including Li’s stint as Xi’s chief of staff when Xi was party chief in Zhejiang province.

Xi Jinping has been in power in the country since 2012, and before abolishing the two-term policy for the leaders, he would have been stepping down the charge this week. Now, he has the potential to be China’s leader for life.

“The results of the Party Congress fully confirm your high political authority, as well as the unity of the party you lead,” Putin told Xi, according to the Kremlin’s website. Such congratulatory statements extended to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, who also sent a letter to Xi, state news agency KCNA reported.

Xi Jinping’s goal in these years has been to strengthen the party and its control over the economy and society. This is the reason for the unleashing of a crackdown on the private sector that has consequently led to mass layoffs. China’s growth miracle has stopped, and many challenges in the country’s economy have been exacerbated due to Xi’s policies. China is now facing the collapse of the housing sector and the toll of zero-covid. The efforts to achieve zero-covid were pointed to as a major success by Xi Jinping during the National Congress.

The collapse of the housing sector occurred after Beijing started clamping down on easy credit for property firms in 2020. It led to cash crunches and defaults for many developers in the housing sector –which accounts for up to 30% of the GDP– provoking a significant negative impact on China’s broader economy.  On the other hand, in year three of the pandemic, China’s policy –which relies on mass testing, extensive quarantines and snaps lockdowns to eradicate infections– has rocked its economy more severely than anything previously experienced during Xi Jinping’s tenure, proving to have a woeful effect on Chinese society. 

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