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China Cues Up National Congress, With President Xi Jinping in the Ascendant

China’s ruling Communist Party has finally released a date, if not a full agenda, for its National Congress, the quinquennial event that formally decides who will run the world’s most populous country for the next five years and what direction it will take.

The showcase gathering, to kick off Oct. 18, and last up to 10 days, will elect the 25-member inner circle of government, known as the Politburo, and will reshuffle the party’s 400-member Central Committee. Most importantly, the congress is expected to confirm the strength and position of Xi Jinping, general secretary of the party and China’s president.

Xi has already been in the job since the last National Congress five years ago and has worked tirelessly to make himself the most powerful Chinese leader in decades. This year’s congress is expected to give him even more leverage, though exactly how much more and what he will do with it remains to be seen.

In the statement announcing the National Congress, released late Thursday, Xi is once again described as a “core” leader – a title bestowed on only two previous presidents. Analysts expect a line of political philosophy to be named after Xi, but that philosophy is not yet wholly clear. He has launched a huge anti-corruption drive that has toppled military generals, senior party figures, top-ranked civil servants and high-flying businessmen but that has also removed challengers and bolstered his personal position.

Observers will be watching for signs, particularly in his choice of appointments, of whether Xi is grooming a successor or whether he plans to lay the groundwork for ditching the rules on retirement age in order to secure a third mandate in 2022.

The National Congress’ stated policy objectives are boringly familiar. Its “four comprehensive” goals are to promote “a moderately prosperous society, deepen reform, advance rule of law, and strengthen strict Party governance.” It aims also to “create new prospects for Socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

One aspect of Xi’s political credo seems to be the need for a dominant leader who will guide China through tougher times ahead. A slowing economy, international frictions and a technological balancing act may all call for the Xi brand of tough, conservative, focused leadership.

Over the past 30 years, China has made astonishing economic progress and lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and into a burgeoning, predominantly urban, middle class. One side effect of ballooning disposable income has been a rejuvenated cinema industry. The economy is still expanding at more than 6.5% per year.

But Xi is worried by the mountains of debt that have been built by provincial governments and by large corporations. Recently, the Chinese government confirmed that big overseas acquisitions in the entertainment sector are off the table for the time being, as seen in the collapse of such deals as Dalian Wanda’s attempted purchase of Dick Clark Productions.

Indeed, while Xi turned up with a huge retinue of Chinese business leaders to proclaim the advantages of international trade at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, he is no economic liberal.  He wants trade on China’s terms. Foreign capital is welcome, but investment is taboo in many sectors – film and TV, for example – and it cannot be allowed to challenge local champions. That puts China in breach of several of its World Trade Organization obligations, but the criticisms are regularly shrugged off.

In the past year, Xi has put increasing emphasis on central control of the economy, through regular intervention in the stock markets, the maintenance of a closed capital account, and punishment for private companies that are not doing enough of the government’s bidding. (The recent troubles besetting Wanda may offer one of the clearest examples.) In their place, inefficient but obedient state-owned enterprises are being pushed forward, along with the new Silk Road development policy known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

Xi’s relationship with technology and the media has sparked concern. While hundreds of millions of Chinese have turned to mobile devices and the Internet for news, entertainment, and commentary, China has updated legislation to extend government control of the domestic online space, part of what Xi described last year as “Internet sovereignty.” China has toughened rules on foreign content, shut down VPNs, crimped live-streaming activity, and all but outlawed news reporting by non-state organizations.

Chinese tech giants Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, which have recently been pricked by government rebukes and regulatory catch-up, will be watching the National Congress especially carefully. As huge, profitable and innovative, private sector companies, do they still have Xi’s trust? Will they be allowed to become China’s national champions at home and abroad? Or will their competitiveness and aggression be sacrificed for a domestic agenda of control?

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