What’s on the agenda for China’s 20th Communist Party Congress?

The Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress is expected to cement President Xi Jinping’s place in history among China’s top leaders, with delegates meeting in Beijing expected to give him the green light for an unprecedented third term in office as the secretary general of the party.

But as the twice-a-decade event begins on Sunday, the party, which has ruled China since 1949, faces some of its most difficult economic challenges in 30 years, with the gross domestic product (GDP) predicted to grow somewhere between 2 and 3 percent, a figure that is a marked drop compared with highs of 6-7 percent over the past decade.

Much of this is due to the government’s strict ‘zero-Covid’ policy that has slowed important industries like manufacturing and, at times, brought it to a standstill during the pandemic. With Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan dropping quarantine travel requirements, China is now one of the few places left in the world, beyond North Korea, to persist with lockdowns and quarantine as a way to tackle outbreaks.

China’s property market, responsible for 15 to 30 percent of GDP, is also in “free fall”, according to analysts, after top developers defaulted on huge loans and left projects incomplete, with people losing their savings in the collapse.

The country is also emerging from one of its most challenging ever summer seasons with record-high temperatures, drought, forest fires and isolated blackouts — a reminder to the leaders gathering in Beijing that climate change has already arrived.

Beyond its borders, China has also suffered reputational damage over alleged human rights abuses and repression in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang, according to polling by the US-based Pew Research Center. A United Nations report has estimated that more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been held in camps in Xinjiang which China has described as vocational skills training centres.

Beijing has also come under pressure over its position on Ukraine, where it has failed to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin for invading the country on February 24.

‘Strongman to dictator’

Despite these challenges, Xi remains “firmly in control”, said Brock Erdahl, director of analysis at the United States-based Center for Advanced China Research.

“The last few months have been tough for China, but recent domestic and foreign woes do not appear to be overshadowing the 20th Party Congress,” he told Al Jazeera. “Xi Jinping does not appear to face any serious challenges to his hold on political power and even appears to have maintained the support of most Party elites. As a result, he will almost certainly secure a third term.”

Xi has already positioned himself on the level of — or higher than — seminal Communist Party leaders like Mao and Deng Xiaopeng, who oversaw China’s opening in the 1980s. The 69-year-old leader has consolidated his power over crucial institutions such as the military and police while also eliminating rivals through a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign.

He has also carved out a place for himself in the Chinese Constitution which enshrined his political writings — Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era — in 2017. While many of China’s top leaders have written treatises steering the direction of the Communist Party’s Marxist-Leninist doctrine, only writings by Mao, Deng and now Xi include their names when added to the constitution.

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said watching how Xi’s writings are discussed within the Communist Party could signal a further deepening of the president’s power over China’s internal political system and greater society.

“Xi is focused on the single most important outcome which is to reaffirm his leadership of the CCP and China for the foreseeable future, but it will be a future guided by ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,’” Tsang said by email.

Signals will likely come from changes in the name of Xi’s writings as his political ideology is equated with the founding Marxist-Leninist principles of the Communist Party.

“A big question is whether he will be able to get the description shortened to just ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ or ‘Marxism-Leninism-Xi Jinping Thought’ or ‘Marxism-Xi Jinping Thought,’” he said. “If he does, he will move forward to transform himself from being the strongman of China to being the dictator of China in the coming decade.”

Consolidation of power

Cheng Li, director and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s China Center, said Xi is also expected to further shore up his political base by appointing supporters to vacancies in the party’s elite decision-making bodies — the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee.

They will include some “younger” members of the Party brass born in the 1960s as per the Communist Party’s highly-structured system of promotion and retirement. “This meeting will differ from previous ones. At the last Party Congress, Xi Jinping governed largely through his political allies, now this time he will be firmly in control and the people in the top leadership will be his protégés,” Li said.

“It’s a shift from governing by allies to governing by his people,” he said.

Erdahl said key names to watch for promotion to the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the highest rung of China’s leadership, could be long-term loyalists like Chongqing Party Secretary Chen Min’er, General Office Director Ding Xuexiang, Organization Department Head Chen Xi, and Propaganda Department Head Huang Kunming.

“If these officials succeed in getting promoted, Xi will further cement his authority within the Party and be even better positioned to pursue his policy preferences going forward,” Erdahl said.

Common prosperity for all

Beyond Xi’s third term, addressing China’s economic woes will be front and centre of the agenda, according to analysts, including the drive for “common prosperity” among different income groups.

China under Xi officially eliminated “absolute poverty” last year, defined as living on $2.30 or less per day in rural areas, but it still has a way to go in closing the rural-urban poverty gap, according to Li.

Manoj Kewalramani, chairperson of the Indo-Pacific Studies Programme at India’s Takshashila Institution, said China’s pursuit of “common prosperity” will probably lead to more policies around access to education, healthcare and employment.

“We’re not going to see too much money being handed out to people like vouchers,” he said, arguing policies were more likely to be framed around the idea of getting people upwardly mobile, economically and socially.

How to remedy China’s property market will also be a major concern.

For three decades, the industry was used by local leaders to drive economic growth, with Chinese citizens funnelling their earnings into an industry that offered an opportunity to invest and make money.

Addressing the property crisis — exemplified by the spectacular collapse of companies like Evergrande, a mega-developer with liabilities now worth 2-3 percent of China’s GDP, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — will require extra care given that consumption has already been affected by persistent COVID-19 lockdowns.

Brookings’s Li says policymakers will attempt to shift the country’s growth model from property and land development as they try to prevent a countrywide property collapse.

“The Chinese government policy on one hand will monitor the property bubble at the same time pay attention to local variation – different policies and provinces have different policies tools,” he said.

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