Xi set to open party congress at tough time for China

BEIJING, Oct 14 (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping will take the stage on Sunday to kick off a landmark congress of the ruling Communist Party, where he is set to win a third term that cements his place as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

The congress comes at a tumultuous time, with Xi joining his zero COVID policy hitting the economy, while his support for Russia’s Vladimir Putin further alienated China from the West. Still, diplomats, economists and analysts polled by Reuters say Xi is poised to consolidate his grip on power.

The week-long congress will take place with around 2,300 delegates, mostly behind closed doors, in the sprawling Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese capital has enhanced security and intensified COVID screening. In neighboring Hebei province, steel mills have been ordered to scale back operations to improve air quality, an industry source said.

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The opacity of Chinese politics, which has grown since Xi took power a decade ago, means party watchers must speculate on who will be named in key positions and what these appointments mean.

Yet few expect a significant directional shift in a third Xi term, with a continued emphasis on policies that prioritize security and self-reliance, state control over the economy, stronger diplomacy and a stronger military, and growing pressure to take over Taiwan.

The congress will end with the introduction of the next Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the elite body now numbering seven and which Xi has come to dominate.

“It is likely that the new line-up will be uncompromising ‘xi-ist’,” said former British diplomat Charles Parton, a member of the London-based Council on Geostrategy.

The congress will likely begin with Xi reading a lengthy report in a televised address that will outline overall priorities for the next five years. He begins a months-long process of changing the leadership of the party and the government that will end in March during the annual session of parliament.

By securing a third term, Xi breaks with the two-term precedent of past decades. Also breaking with the norm: no successor to Xi, 69, is expected to be identified, analysts say, indicating he plans to stay in power even longer.

MYSTERIOUS MAN

China watchers are most interested in knowing who among the PSC members will be chosen as the next prime minister – a job burdened with the arduous task of managing the world’s second-largest economy – when Li Keqiang steps down in March.

While several senior officials appear on lists of “usual suspects”, none are the obvious choice to succeed Li – an uncertainty that departs from the norm.

Yet analysts say the opinions of any individual matter less these days as Xi has sidelined those seen as “reformers” in favor of his more statist and nationalist economic policies.

“There is growing evidence that promotion decisions over the past few years have been made less on technocratic ability, which you might expect from reformers, and more in terms of loyalty to Xi Jinping, so I think that we really should take this idea away from the reformers,” said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics.

EXPECTATIONS

Xi’s opening speech at the last congress in 2017 was broadly optimistic, including ambitious plans to make China a leading global power by 2050. He mentioned “reforms” 70 times in a speech that lasted nearly three and a half hours. .

Since then, circumstances have changed drastically: China’s economy has been battered by COVID curbs, a crushing crisis in the real estate sector and a backlash after Xi’s crackdown on the tech sector under the banner of “common prosperity “. Overall, Beijing’s relations with the West have deteriorated sharply.

Investors and countless frustrated Chinese citizens who hope the congress will mark a milestone after which China will start laying the groundwork to return to zero-COVID seem increasingly likely to be disappointed as Beijing has repeatedly reaffirmed this week his commitment to politics.

Analysts also say Congress is unlikely to trigger any immediate or sweeping policy changes to revive an economy that is expected to grow about 3% this year, well below the official target of about 5.5%.

“By March 2023, we do not expect any significant policy changes, particularly regarding the historic zero-COVID strategy and the unprecedented restrictions on China’s real estate sector,” Nomura analysts wrote.

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Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian, ​​Kevin Yao, Eduardo Baptista and Beijing Newsroom; Edition by Lincoln Feast.

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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