Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is set to secure a third term as president at a rubber-stamp National People’s Congress that starts tomorrow, with unchallenged status despite criticism over his handling of COVID-19 and the economy.
Xi is certain to be reappointed as president after he locked in another five years as head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the military — the two more significant leadership positions in the country — in October last year.
Since then, 69-year-old Xi has faced unexpected challenges and scrutiny over his leadership, with mass protests over his “zero COVID” policy and its subsequent abandonment that saw countless people die.
However, those issues are likely to be avoided at the congress, a carefully choreographed event that would also see the unveiling of a Xi ally as the new premier.
The congress is expected to last about 10 days and culminate with Xi’s presidency being endorsed by the 3,000 delegates casting votes in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
“Public opinion is probably not very good about him — ‘zero COVID’ has damaged people’s faith,” said Alfred Wu (吳木鑾), an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
However, Xi still has a “pretty strong” position at the top of the party that makes him virtually unchallengeable, Wu said.
China maintained some of the world’s strictest COVID-19 curbs until late last year, pounding growth and social life under a constant barrage of testing mandates, quarantines and travel restrictions that Xi championed.
Public resentment exploded in November last year into the most widespread public demonstrations in decades, followed by the rapid dismantling of the policy and a maelstrom of infections and deaths that went mostly unreported by authorities.
The country is still tentatively emerging from the outbreak, after three years in which business, employment and education were subjugated to the government’s demand to shut out the virus at any cost.
The gathered lawmakers are likely to set some of China’s lowest economic growth goals in decades on the opening day of the congress, experts said.
However, there is no sign that the position of Xi — who has stacked the party’s top bodies with loyalists, and expunged rivals in last year’s Congress reshuffle — is in any doubt.
Xi confidant and former Shanghai CCP secretary Li Qiang (李強) is set to be named premier.
Instead of threatening Xi’s rule, last year’s protests “gave him just the out he was looking for,” China Strategies Group chief executive officer Christopher Johnson said.
“If abandoning zero-COVID went well, he could ... say he listened to the people. If it went poorly, he could blame the protesters and the ‘hostile foreign forces’ that his top security chief publicly suggested were behind them,” he wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs last week.
Xi has an opportunity to flaunt his response to pressure, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
“He acted decisively when the protests included calls for him and the CCP to step down. He quashed them and removed the basic cause,” Tsang said.
However, it could be time for Chinese leaders to reflect on “what certainly looks like a cumulative record of failures” to respond to crises in recent years, Oxford University professor emeritus Vivienne Shue said.
Delegates to the congress are expected to approve a slate of personnel changes, and discuss issues from economic recovery to improved sex education in schools, Chinese state media reported.
As well as announcing China’s GDP target for the coming year, outgoing Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) is expected to use his speech at tomorrow’s opening ceremony to pledge a bump in military spending.
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