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.
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.
“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.
“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.