Xi Jinping’s expected anointment for an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is likely to generate global headlines when the party’s five-yearly National Congress begins on 16 October.
But with that outcome so widely forecast, interpreters of the CCP’s tea leaves will be paying closer attention to a range of more contested – and sometimes byzantine – issues that will shape China’s trajectory for the next five years, and reverberate around the world.
These are five key issues to watch out for during Xi’s political report, a dry but authoritative account of the CCP’s policy priorities for the next five years, and the subsequent deliberations over personnel appointments.
1. From market economy to ‘common prosperity’
As the world grapples with the economic impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese economy is entering particularly choppy waters. China is forecast to grow at a slower rate than the rest of Asia for the first time in more than 30 years, according to the World Bank, as the impact of Xi’s COVID zero policies compounds a growing list of structural and cyclical challenges.
Xi is under pressure to offer some new prescriptions for the world’s second biggest economy, and he is likely to signal further shifts away from the market economics that propelled Chinese growth for decades toward his vision of ‘common prosperity’.
His ambition is to redefine progress, not in terms of producing double-digit growth, but in tackling long-standing challenges such as demographic decline, social inequality and high property prices – thereby meeting ‘people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’.
China’s leader may have arrived at the right diagnosis, but he has so far failed to find measures that deliver common prosperity. He will use the Party Congress to redesign some policy measures, likely putting a stronger focus on the development of rural areas to promote economic dynamism and generate employment opportunities.
2. COVID zero to endure?
While most of the world has opened up and learned to live with COVID-19, China is still pursuing a COVID zero policy that requires frequent lockdowns, stringent movement controls and closed borders. This approach has intensified economic pressures, exacerbated high youth unemployment, and is testing the patience of China’s upwardly mobile middle classes.
Those not employed by the state have been particularly hard hit and it is difficult to see how China’s economy can start to crank up again until Beijing reduces internal restrictions and reconnects with the world.
Xi has championed the COVID zero policy, which Beijing continues to insist is vital to protect vulnerable people and support economic and social stability. So, observers will be playing close attention to his political report for any signs of a possible softening or indications of alternative future pathways for managing the pandemic. But a wholesale shift does not appear to be on the cards.
3. Xi Jinping’s team
Sinologists’ enthusiasm for predicting leadership changes in the CCP is not matched by their ability to do so. The party’s roots as a secret organization ensure that it keeps a tight lid on information about top leaders.
Observers will be closely following appointments to the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power for the CCP and China’s supreme decision-making body. These choices will shape China’s future policy trajectory and give some signals about the extent of Xi’s concentration of power and his future plans.
Names to watch for possible promotion include Xi allies such as He Lifeng, currently head of the National Development Reform Commission, a key economic planning entity, and Zhang Qingwei, currently the party secretary of Hunan, an important and populous province.
As Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, the only woman on the Politburo, reaches the retirement age, there is also likely to be a slot open for her replacement, with Shan Yiqin, the party secretary of Guizhou, one potential option.
Tracking the fate of key Xi allies will also indicate how far he has managed to overturn the collective leadership system he inherited in 2012 and how comprehensively the CCP endorses this more centralized approach to governing China.
After the escalating tensions of the last few months, analysts will be looking for any possible change in tone when Xi speaks about Taiwan, a self-governing island that China claims as a renegade province. During the past five years, Xi has approached the outside world with a mix of high-octane rhetoric with pragmatism and patience.