Almost 2,300 delegates from the Chinese Communist Party will gather in Beijing on Sunday for a congress that is expected to deliver President Xi Jinping a historic third term in control of a country his zero-COVID policy has closed off from much of the rest of the world.
Should everything go to plan, the 69-year-old will be reconfirmed as the party’s general secretary after the week-long meeting, cementing his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
“This gathering will be China’s most consequential political event in decades” and will set the country’s course for the next 10 years or more, consultancy firm Trivium China said, adding that a new five-year term for Xi was “the headline everyone one is watching for”.
The CCP’s five-yearly talking shop will open at 10 am (0200 GMT) at the Great Hall of the People—a huge Stalinist building in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—with a speech by the leader who has been in power since 2012.
Xi’s address will give an assessment of the previous term but also a roadmap for the next five years and will almost certainly be lengthy, with 2017’s lasting three-and-a-half hours.
Congress spokesman Sun Yeli told a press conference on Saturday that the event would end on October 22, meaning Xi and other Party top brass would probably be unveiled the day after that.
In the highly choreographed, mostly closed-door conclave, the 2,296 participants will also pick members of the party’s around 200-member Central Committee, which in turn selects the 25-person Politburo and its all-powerful Standing Committee—the country’s highest leadership body.
One of the key questions will revolve around whether or not to maintain the strict zero-Covid strategy to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
The policy has strengthened social control over Chinese citizens, whose every move is now computer-registered, in a country already criticised internationally for human rights violations.
While state media this week hammered home the notion that “lying flat” in the face of the virus would be “irresponsible”, zero-Covid has caused widespread hardship and pulled the handbrake on China’s economy.
“It’s quite a paradox,” said Valarie Tan, an analyst from the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin. “Xi is going to come out of the Congress really very powerful but the country that he is in charge of is in trouble.”
The country’s near-closure to the rest of the world and repeated lockdowns have stifled the growth rate, which this year is set to be China’s weakest in four decades, excluding 2020 when the global economy was hammered by the emergence of the coronavirus.
“You do see fatigue after close to three years of zero-Covid,” Tan said, added, pointing to discontent that is “percolating to the surface” on social media.
Earlier this week China’s internet censors removed virtually all references to reports of a rare protest in Beijing that involved banners denouncing President Xi and the country’s COVID policies.
Video footage and photos shared on social media on Thursday appeared to show a defiant protester draping two hand-painted banners with slogans criticising the Communist Party’s policies on the side of a bridge.
Sunday’s opening ceremony will be held under a strict zero-COVID policy, sealing organisers and journalists in a virus-secure bubble two days in advance.
Participants have been ordered to take daily Covid tests to attend events, some of which are being held remotely by video link instead of in person.
At a hotel in western Beijing, organisers have set up a press centre crammed with exhibitions extolling Xi, festooned in the Communist Party’s signature red and gold.
Scattered around the venue are tables piled with books on Xi’s philosophy and China’s development, while one display features an AI-driven “digital human” that tells jokes and sings songs upon request.