Xi Jinping’s expected coronation begins as 2022 Communist Party National Congress gets underway

Hong Kong

The expected coronation for China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping has officially begun, as the ruling Communist Party convenes a week-long meeting to extoll his first decade in power – and to usher in a likely new era of strongman rule.

Amid heightened security, escalated zero-Covid restrictions and a frenzy of propaganda and censorship, the party kicks off its most consequential national congress in decades in Beijing on Sunday morning.

At the 20th Party Congress, Xi, who came to power in 2012, is poised to secure a third term as the party’s general secretary, breaking with recent precedent and paving the way for potential lifelong rule.

The expected anointment will cement the 69-year-old’s status as China’s most powerful leader since late Chairman Mao Zedong, who ruled China until his death aged 82. It will also have a profound impact on the world, as Xi doubles down on an assertive foreign policy to boost China’s international clout and rewrite the US-led global order.

At the heart of the Chinese capital, nearly 2,300 handpicked party delegates from around the country have gathered in the Great Hall of the People for the highly choreographed event.

Sitting in neat rows with face masks on, they await Xi to deliver a lengthy work report that will take stock of the party’s achievements over the past five years and lay out in broad strokes its policy priorities for the next five.

Observers will be closely watching for signs of the party’s policy direction when it comes to its uncompromising zero-Covid policy, handling of steep economic challenges, and stated goal of “reunifying” with Taiwan – a self-governing democracy Beijing claims as its own despite never having controlled.

The meetings will be mostly held behind close doors throughout the week. When delegates reemerge at the end of the congress next Saturday, they will conduct a ceremonial vote to rubber stamp Xi’s work report and approve changes made to the party constitution – which might bestow Xi with new titles to further strengthen his power.

The delegates will also select the party’s new Central Committee, which will hold its first meeting the next day to appoint the party’s top leadership – the Politburo and its Standing Committee, following decisions already hashed out behind the scenes by party leaders before the congress.

The congress will be a major moment of political triumph for Xi, but it also comes during a period of potential crisis. Xi’s insistence on an uncompromising zero-Covid policy has fueled mounting public frustration and crippled economic growth. Meanwhile, diplomatically, his “no-limits” friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has further strained Beijing’s ties with the West following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

In the lead-up to the congress, officials across China drastically ramped up restrictions to prevent even minor Covid outbreaks, imposing sweeping lockdowns and increasingly frequent mass Covid tests over a handful of cases. Yet infections caused by the highly transmissible Omicron variant have continued to flare. On Saturday, China reported nearly 1,200 infections, including 14 in Beijing.

Public anger toward zero-Covid came to the fore Thursday in an exceptionally rare protest against Xi in Beijing. Online photos showed two banners were unfurled on a busy overpass denouncing Xi and his policies, before being taken down by police.

“Say no to Covid test, yes to food. No to lockdown, yes to freedom. No to lies, yes to dignity. No to cultural revolution, yes to reform. No to great leader, yes to vote. Don’t be a slave, be a citizen,” one banner reads.

“Go on strike, remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping,” read the other.

The Chinese public have paid little attention to the party’s congresses in the past – they have no say in the country’s leadership reshuffle, or the making of major policies. But this year, many have pinned their hopes on the congress to be a turning point for China to relax its Covid policy.

A series of recent articles in the party’s mouthpiece, however, suggest that could be wishful thinking. The People’s Daily hailed zero-Covid as the “best choice” for the country, insisting it is “sustainable and must be followed.”

On Saturday, on the eve of the congress, party spokesman Sun Yeli told a news conference China’s Covid measures have ensured the country’s extremely low rate of infections and deaths, and enabled “sustained and stable operations of the economy and society.”

“With everything considered, China’s epidemic prevention measures are the most economical and effective,” Sun said.

“Our prevention and control strategies and measures will become more scientific, more accurate, and more effective,” he said. “We firmly believe that the dawn is ahead, and persistence is victory.”