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China is holding the most important meeting in its political calendar. Here’s what you need to know.

“It’s not just about ideas. It’s really about signaling a leader’s power and legacy,” one expert said.
Xi Jinping China President in the Communist Party Museum, Beijing.
People stand in front of images of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party in Beijing last month.Noel Celis / AFP - Getty Images

It will be a grand affair, which is partly the point.

China is holding the most important meeting in its political calendar, the five-yearly Communist Party congress, where President Xi Jinping is expected to gain an unprecedented third term as the country’s leader.

Closely watched across the world to gauge the direction Beijing will take in the next half-decade, this year’s congress, the 20th in its more than 100-year history, opens on Sunday.

Here’s everything you need to know about the weeklong conclave.

What is the Communist Party congress?

Twice a decade, during a series of meetings in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on the western side of Tiananmen Square, 2,296 delegates selected from the 96-million-member party gather to decide policy and pick China’s leadership for the next five years.

State media report that these representatives are “elected,” but all of them were carefully vetted and no open campaigning is allowed. 

A Central Committee of around 200 voting members will also pick 25 members for the Politburo, the highest policy-making body in the world’s second-largest economy.

This group of officials, including two military officers, will in turn pick the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the core group of elite officials that sits at the top of the body and makes China’s top decisions.

While this decision-making process on the leadership is notoriously shrouded in secrecy, a work report released at the party congress will review the party’s past five years and lay out the country’s direction for the coming five.

“It’s not just about ideas. It’s really about signaling a leader’s power and legacy,” David Bandurski, a co-director at the China Media Project, a research program at the University of Hong Kong, said.

China Xi Jinping at 19th Communist Party Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
Xi Jinping took center stage at the 19th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in October 2017. NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP - Getty Images

What is at stake at this year’s conclave?

While no significant changes to the political or economic system are anticipated, Xi is expected to receive a third five-year term as the uncontested head of the party, the government and China’s military.

He paved the way for this back in 2018, when the country’s rubber-stamp legislature abolished its constitutional two-term presidential limit.

A third term would consolidate the 69-year-old’s place as one of the most powerful Chinese leaders in decades.

The congress is also expected to produce a new set of leaders handpicked by Xi, who has yet to indicate a successor.

Some China observers are also looking to see whether the principles of “Xi Jinping Thought” will be formally adopted and whether he will gain the title of chairman, which would put him on a par with Mao Zedong, who many call the founding father of the People’s Republic of China.

Some argue the historic decision, if taken, could set Xi on a path to being leader for life.

“In a sense Xi Jinping has elevated himself into a stratosphere where only Mao is a precursor within the history of the party,” Bandurski said.

Who is Xi Jinping?

The country’s leader since 2012, Xi holds several titles, the most powerful being Communist Party general secretary. He is also China’s president and the head of its army.

Xi, whose father was a Communist commander later persecuted after falling from Mao’s graces, rose through the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, holding positions at the village, provincial and county levels, according to Professor Albert L. Chan, who has written a biography of Xi.

As vice president in the five years before 2012, he was in charge of restoring order after social unrest in regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, where China has been accused of human rights abuses. He was also responsible for ensuring security during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Xi Jinping Chinese Communist Party Leader in Beijing
Visitors take pictures of a screen showing Xi Jinping at the Beijing Exhibition Hall last week.Andy Wong / AP

Since taking the top job he has focused on consolidating the party’s control, cracking down on corruption and overseeing the establishment of a surveillance state with heavy online censorship.

“There hasn’t been a year when the the party’s hand seemed lighter than it had the previous year,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine.

What might a third term for Xi mean for China domestically?

Xi’s China is currently facing myriad internal problems, including slowing economic growth that has been further hampered by a “zero Covid” strategy that has placed millions in strict lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus. It’s also facing longer-term demographic problems with a declining birthrate.

Many will be watching to see which policies will emerge as priorities at this year’s congress, in particular whether China will continue with strict Covid controls that have severely restricted travel and imposed a growing economic cost, setting off rare protests

Some will also keep a close eye on whether Xi’s principle of “common prosperity,” which has been used to crack down on overt displays of wealth in China, as well as tightening regulations on its largest tech companies, will be maintained.

China Covid Restrictions in Macau Face Masks
Residents wearing masks take a public bus in the Chinese territory of Macao this month. Eduardo Leal / AFP - Getty Images

Although there is no evidence yet that there will be any clear indication of a successor, many will be watching for signs about who might eventually take the reins from Xi.

“He spent so much of the last year talking about a core, but if you name a successor, then it weakens the discipline that comes with the party having one unambiguous leader that’s not a lame duck,” said Joseph Torigian of American University, who is writing a biography of the Xi family.

Despite Xi’s consolidation of power, Torigian said, it “doesn’t mean that the problems the party faces can be easily solved.”

What might a third term mean for U.S.-China relations?

Under Xi, China has become increasingly belligerent toward the West and its allies.

“During his tenure, China’s relationship with Western countries has gotten much worse, and created a much more challenging environment in which China would be able to continue to pursue cooperative relations with much of the world,” said Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

President Biden video call with Chinese President Xi Jinping
President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in November. Susan Walsh / AP

“If [Xi] continues along the same track, we’re going to see a continued downward spiral in the relationship,” Kennedy, who was in China in the lead-up to the party congress, added. “We will see greater Chinese focus on ideology domestically and internationally, and a greater emphasis on military security.”

Tensions over Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy China claims as its own, have also soured relations between Beijing and Washington.

Beijing views Taiwan as an illegitimate breakaway province, “a sacred and inalienable part of China’s territory.” When the civil war in China between the communists and nationalists ended in 1949 with the former triumphant, the latter set up a rival government in Taipei.

Xi has vowed to realize “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, but he has also directly threatened the use of force to bring the island under Beijing’s control.

However, few analysts see an imminent threat of cross-strait conflict within this third term. “He cares a lot about the Taiwan issue for both political and personal legacy, but he also doesn’t want to make choices that would put the regime at risk,” Torigian said.

Ultimately, how Beijing chooses to engage with other countries depends on Xi’s own vision of China, Kennedy said.

“If there’s a country that has a choice about which direction it wants to go in and how it interacts with the rest of the world, China’s that country. So it has immense amount of agency in choosing which direction it goes in,” he added.