Chinese Congress: Xi Jinping defends zero-Covid as party gathering opens

Chinese President Xi Jinping has maintained a controversial zero-Covid strategy as the historic Communist Party congress begins in Beijing.

In a break with decades of tradition, delegates are likely to hand Xi a third term as party chairman. These policies have saved many lives, but also cost China's lives and economy. There is increasing public exhaustion over lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Beijing has been under strict security measures ahead of the congress, fueling frustration in the city with rare and dramatic public protests on Thursday criticizing Xi and zero Covid. Xi also discussed the issue of Taiwan - which China claims as part of its territory. Self-governing Taiwan sees itself as different from the mainland.

Speaking slowly and deliberately, he said Beijing "will never promise to renounce the use of force" and that "the reunification of our country must and will be realized", prompting continuous applause from delegates. In Hong Kong, Xi said Beijing had exercised control there, turning the situation from "chaos to rule". Beijing imposed broad national security laws in the region after pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019. Xi also referred to divisions in China's political institutions, saying his government had "removed serious hidden dangers within the party".

Since reaching the top, he has overseen the fight against corruption that extended to the highest echelons of the party. But critics have described it as a political purge.

He also added that China would accelerate its military build-up, referring to the terms "safety" or "security" about 73 times. The speech, which lasted less than two hours, was significantly shorter than his speech at the last congress in 2017.

His remarks have likely been making their choice of words for months and analysts will scrutinize them for signs of policy change. A third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will pave the way for him to become the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Some 2,300 delegates meet to elect party leaders and debate key policies.

During the congress, delegates are also expected to elect a variety of leaders including the Politburo Standing Committee - the equivalent of China's presidential cabinet - who will appear before the media during the congress. In the past, the twice-decade congress was seen as an opportunity for leaders to promote their supporters, as they competed to increase the power of their faction within the party.

But observers say today there appears to be only one faction in the 20th Party Congress - namely Xi. In a clear sign of this consolidation of power, the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) released a communique a few days earlier supporting him as the "core" of the party and leadership. They also called for the party to unite more closely behind it.

Mr Xi currently holds three of the most powerful positions in China - general secretary of the CCP, head of the country's armed forces and president. He is expected to renew his term for his first two congressional titles. The CCP does not set any time limit. But no leader other than Mao, the founder of communist China, has served for a third time. Xi's path to a historic third term, explained Xi Jinping: From prince to president.

The presidency also had a two-term limit in the country's constitution, imposed by reformist Deng Xiaoping to prevent the emergence of a figure like Mao. But Xi has managed to get rid of this requirement: in 2018 China's parliament abolished the rule, effectively allowing him to remain president for as long as he likes. Since taking power in 2012, Xi has led China on an ambitious and authoritarian path.

He has pushed for the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation", which saw him pursue economic reforms, reduce pollution and reduce poverty. He has also launched a crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. But Xi continues to face many challenges, such as youth unemployment, a slowing economy and the ongoing property crisis - and of course zero-Covid.

How zero-Covid ruined Xi's party Many will also be watching the congress to see if there will be a change in Beijing's foreign policy, especially towards another superpower in the world, the US. Xi's efforts to expand China's influence overseas through the One Belt One Road program and claims in the South China Sea, as well as his support for Russia in the Ukraine war and recent military exercises around Taiwan have raised tensions with the US and other countries.

By remaining led by Xi, all of this will continue to be of core interest - although some experts believe he may undermine China's approach in some respects to pursuing better trade relations with the US and regional partners.

“The CCP's political legitimacy lies in its socioeconomic delivery,” said Dr Collin Koh of Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"The average Chinese will feel that things are not going well, so there is a need to revive the kind of growth that China has been more accustomed to in recent decades.

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