China's 19th Party Congress

China's 19th Party Congress: Xi Jinping rolls out Party's vision for next five years as he prepares to secure second term

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - China's Communist Party (CCP) opened a twice-a-decade congress on Wednesday (Oct 18) expected to enhance President Xi Jinping's already formidable powers over the world's second-largest economy.

Mr Xi entered a packed chamber in Beijing's imposing Great Hall of the People, along with his two predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, to roll out the party's vision for the next five years as he prepares to secure a second term as general secretary.

The authorities stepped up policing for the week-long congress, with red armband-wearing "security volunteers" fanning out across the capital, karaoke bars closing and online kitchenware firms even suspending knife sales.

The 64-year-old leader, who was to give his speech in front of a huge hammer and sickle in the hall's chamber, is expected to use the congress to stack the Communist Party's leadership with loyalists.

The CCP will amend its constitution to add Mr Xi's "new vision and thinking" on governance, congress spokesman Tuo Zhen said, without indicating whether Mr Xi's name would also be added.

The addition would signal Mr Xi's inclusion in the pantheon of Chinese leadership. Such an honour has only been bestowed upon modern China's founder Mao Zedong, and the father of economic reforms Deng Xiaoping.

Mr Xi, considered China's most powerful leader since Mr Deng or even Mao, could use the congress to lay the foundation to stay atop the 89-million-strong party even longer than the normal 10 years, according to analysts.

This would break the unwritten two-term limit accepted by his immediate predecessors Mr Jiang and Mr Hu, and end the era of "collective leadership" aimed at preventing the emergence of another Mao.

"Xi has consolidated power, that's obvious," said Mr Jean-Pierre Cabestan, China specialist at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Potential rivals have been swept aside under Mr Xi's vast anti-corruption campaign, which punished 1.3 million Communist Party officials over five years, and Mr Tuo warned that strengthening self-governance would be a "never-ending journey".

Mr Xi's rise has also been marked by a relentless crackdown on dissent, with the authorities even refusing to free Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo as he lay dying of cancer in July.

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On the global stage, he has restructured the military, asserted China's claims to disputed seas and used the country's economic prowess to increase its influence in Asia and beyond.

He has taken up the mantle of globalisation in the face of US President Donald Trump's "America First" policy.

But foreign companies will look for signs at the congress that Mr Xi will live up to his promises to further open up China's economy in the next five years.

The conclave, which ends next Tuesday, will select new top party members, including in the Politburo Standing Committee, China's all-powerful ruling body.

Mr Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are expected to remain on the committee while the five other current members are supposed to step down under an informal retirement age set at 68.

But Mr Xi may lobby to retain his 69-year-old right-hand man Wang Qishan, who heads the leader's signature anti-graft campaign. This would create a precedent for Mr Xi himself to remain in charge beyond retirement age in 2022.

"If Xi expresses intent to lead beyond his 10-year limit, this would be reminiscent of the Mao era, which would be damaging to Xi's legacy and call his legitimacy into question," said Sydney-based researcher Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, who is also co-author of "China and the New Maoists".

But a Xi heir-apparent could emerge from the congress.

One former potential successor who was outside Mr Xi's circle, Sun Zhengcai, was ousted from the party last month due to graft allegations.

Mr Chen Miner, a former Xi aide who succeeded Sun as political chief in the city of Chongqing, is now well positioned for promotion.

"The question is what is Xi going to do after he secures absolute power after the 19th party congress," said Chinese governance expert Hu Xingdou at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

"If he can lead China's modernisation, establish a modern state system, avoid the cycle of peace and upheaval of China's 2,000-year history, then we can say his influence may be bigger than Mao's."

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