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Xi Jinping outlines plans for the near future at China's Communist Party congress

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Beijing today, an important political meeting got underway - a Communist Party Congress. These meetings happen once every five years, and they mean a lot in China's top-down political system. This one is expected to cement Xi Jinping's role as the country's undisputed leader. To help explain it all, we are joined by NPR's John Ruwitch, who's in Beijing covering the event. Welcome, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, John, I understand you were at the opening of the congress earlier today. What was that like?

RUWITCH: Yeah, it's really something else. You know, about 2,300 delegates from around the country gathered today at the Great Hall of the People, which is this massive, massive marble building on the western side of Tiananmen Square. And it was an event that was really full of pomp and circumstance. Here's a little bit of color for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILITARY BRASS BAND)

RUWITCH: So that's a military brass band playing marching music and officials, all these delegates clapping in time while the country's leaders walked on to stage with a backdrop of these huge red flags and a giant hammer and sickle. The main event today, though, was this two-hour speech by Xi Jinping. He talked about the achievements that the party has made over the last five and 10 years. And he outlined in broad brush strokes what sort of the policy priorities and guiding principles will be for the party in the coming few years.

RASCOE: So what were some of those priorities and principles that he, you know, discussed?

RUWITCH: Yeah, in a way, I think Xi was kind of making a case. His case is really that, you know, China's faced a lot of challenges at home and on the global stage. It's making strides towards what he calls the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. That's almost within reach, but it's not there yet. And the country really needs the party, the Communist Party, to get there. He pledged investment in education and science and technology. He said the party should strengthen the military, consolidate China's leading position in certain strategic industries, for instance, promote innovation, those type of things. But again, he was pretty clear the Communist Party needs to be in control. And it went unsaid that that means that, you know, it's he who's going to be leading the party.

Unity is key. He said that means no divisions. And China is at a historic opportunity, really, as Xi Jinping sees it. It faces risks. He mentioned security dozens of times in this speech - national security, political security, economic security, food security, which really highlights his concerns as the leader. And it was interesting - his biggest applause, though, came when he talked about Taiwan. He reiterated that, you know, China is not going to renounce the use of force if necessary to seize the island.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: So he says, you know, the wheels of history are rolling toward China's reunification with Taiwan. And he says that's something that must be realized.

RASCOE: You know, at the top, we mentioned that Xi Jinping might get another term as party chief. Why would that be significant? You know, a lot of people listening will think, oh, isn't he already the leader for life?

RUWITCH: Yeah, good point. He's been the leader for a while. He - power transitions - right? - in authoritarian systems like this have historically been dangerous and destabilizing times. And there had been this sort of sense - or maybe it was more of a hope - that China had figured it out, right? The leaders before Xi - Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin - passed power peacefully from one to the other. It was sort of institutionalized. But Xi so far, you know, has cast questions over that - his staying on. You know, he's all in on this idea that China needs strong leadership, a strongman to sort of avoid the fate of the Soviet Union and ultimately become what he calls a qiangguo, a strong country. He mentioned that term a lot in the speech.

And in terms of policy going forward, you know, the expectation is for continuity but continuity backed by sort of a stronger mandate. You know, he's cracked down very hard on dissent. He eviscerated what little civil society had existed in China. And the country has taken a much bolder posture on the international stage. Again, also China's controversial, very tough COVID controls are closely associated with Xi Jinping. And in the speech, he said those measures had saved lives. And he gave no hints that they were reconsidering it.

RASCOE: So in the 30 seconds we have left, what comes next?

RUWITCH: Well, there's a couple things to watch. Later this week, there will be amendments to the party constitution. It's quite arcane, but some of the wording could put Xi up on sort of a higher pedestal as a leader. And then later in the week, the Party Congress will select a new central committee, which are the top leaders. And we'll know with the final leadership lineup next Sunday.

RASCOE: NPR's John Ruwitch is in Beijing. Thank you so very much.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.