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The Communist Party congress will set the tone for China's next 5 years


What can a meeting in China tell us about the direction of the second-largest economy in the world? The ruling Communist Party there is holding its 20th party congress this week. This meeting will set the tone for policy for the coming years, reshuffle senior officials, and very likely, it will give leader Xi Jinping another five years at the helm. NPR's John Ruwitch joins us now from Beijing, where he is following all of this.

Good morning, John.


MARTIN: What's this gathering all about? Put it in context for us.

RUWITCH: Well, the party holds congresses like this once every five years. So for this one, there's about 2,300 delegates picked from around the country who have come into town. And they're here for a week of meetings and speeches and votes, most of which will take place behind closed doors. These congresses are seen by outsiders as kind of ceremonial, something like political theater, because the major outcomes are negotiated in secret and in advance by party's powerbrokers.

The big thing that people watch at party congresses like this are the personnel moves. And at this one, as you said, you know, the big one is that Xi Jinping seems likely to get another term as general secretary of the party. That's the most powerful political position in China. And this will be his third term in that role. He's already served 10 years. It's a reversal of recent precedent for just two terms. So that might be a big deal. Beyond that, you know, it would be key to watch who among the other top leaders retires and who gets promoted. Those will potentially be signals about how much power Xi actually has as he embarks on his second decade as China's top leader.

MARTIN: He's had a tough go of it, though, as of late, right? I mean, his zero-COVID policy has weakened the Chinese economy. Relations with the U.S. are strained, to say the least. Is that going to have - are those things going to have any bearing on the meeting and in his future?

RUWITCH: Yeah. Right. Well, also, remember, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, you know, met and declared that the China-Russia relationship has no limits right before the invasion of Ukraine, which is arguably a risky look for China on the global stage.

MARTIN: Right.

RUWITCH: Look, these things, you know, are perhaps vulnerabilities for Xi on some level. But, you know, in the past decade, he's shown that he's not one to back down in the face of challenges. He's amassed, also, so much power and control within the party that it may not matter much. I mean, take COVID policy, for instance. It's hurting the economy. I've talked with countless people here who are sick of it. But in a speech yesterday, Xi defended it.

I asked Joseph Torigian about all of this ahead of the congress. He's an expert on Chinese politics at American University. And he says it's very likely that within sort of the top ranks of the Chinese leadership, people agree with Xi - on things like the idea that the Western powers are bent on preventing China's rise or that the code policy is working.

JOSEPH TORIGIAN: But even if there were lots of people who did subscribe to the narrative that Xi Jinping isn't - is a failure, the Chinese Communist Party is not a popularity contest.

RUWITCH: In other words, it's a top-down, leader friendly system. Even if there are people out there quietly critical of Xi, it doesn't amount to much. Top officials don't usually get voted out.

MARTIN: So if Xi is likely to get another term, is he going to be emboldened to make big changes of any kind?

RUWITCH: He may be emboldened. I mean, analysts expect that we will see more of the same in terms of policy. His speech yesterday at the start of the congress talked about all the great things that happened during the past 10 years, which is a time when he, of course, was in charge, all the challenges that the party overcame. And that suggests that there'll be a continuation of his strongman approach.

I mean, in terms of sort of next steps here, at the end of the congress, there will be a new central committee. That's the top 200 or so officials in the country. And then next Sunday, the leaders at the very top - a group called the Politburo Standing Committee, which is now seven men - will walk out from behind a screen onto a stage. And that's when we'll know if Xi Jinping is the new boss, or is the boss again, and who's around him to help him lead the country.

MARTIN: NPR's John Ruwitch from Beijing. Thank you.

RUWITCH: You bet, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.