Xi Jinping will secure a third term as China’s president at a rubber-stamp parliament that starts this weekend, enjoying unchallengeable status despite criticism over his handling of Covid and the economy.
Xi is certain to be reappointed as president after he locked in another five years as head of the Communist Party (CCP) and the military – the two more significant leadership positions in Chinese politics – in October.
Since then, 69-year-old Xi has faced unexpected challenges and scrutiny over his leadership, with mass protests over his zero-Covid policy and its subsequent abandonment that saw countless people die.
But those issues are almost certain to be avoided at the National People’s Congress (NPC), a carefully choreographed event that will also see the unveiling of a Xi ally as the new premier.
Starting on Sunday, the NPC is expected to last around 10 days and culminate with Xi’s presidency being endorsed by the 3,000 delegates casting votes in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
“Public opinion is probably not very good about him – zero-Covid has damaged people’s faith,” said Alfred Muluan Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Yet Xi still enjoys a “pretty strong” position at the top of the party that makes him virtually unchallengeable, Wu said.
China maintained some of the world’s strictest Covid curbs until late last year, pounding growth and social life under a constant barrage of testing mandates, quarantines and travel restrictions that Xi himself championed.
Public resentment exploded in November into the most widespread public demonstrations for decades, followed by the rapid dismantling of the policy and a maelstrom of infections and deaths that went mostly unreported by authorities.
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The country is still tentatively emerging from the outbreak, after three years in which business, employment and even education were subjugated to the government’s demand to shut out the virus at any cost.
And the gathered lawmakers will likely set some of China’s lowest economic growth goals in decades on the opening day of the NPC, according to experts interviewed by AFP.
However, there is no sign that the position of Xi – who has stacked the party’s top bodies with loyalists, and expunged rivals in last year’s Congress reshuffle – is in any doubt.
Li Qiang, a Xi confidant and former Shanghai party chief, is set to be named premier.
Crisis? What crisis?
Instead of threatening Xi’s rule, last year’s protests actually “gave him just the out he was looking for”, according to Christopher Johnson, president and CEO of China Strategies Group.
“If abandoning zero-Covid went well, he could… say he listened to the people. If it went poorly, he could blame the protesters and the ‘hostile foreign forces’ that his top security chief publicly suggested were behind them,” he wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs magazine last week.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said Xi now had an opportunity to flaunt his response to pressure.
“He acted decisively when the protests included calls for him and the CCP to step down. He quashed them and removed the basic cause,” Tsang told AFP.
“He can present himself as leading from the front, rather than being pushed to react.”
But Oxford University professor emeritus Vivienne Shue suggested it was time for Chinese leaders to reflect on “what certainly looks like a cumulative record of failures” to respond to crises in recent years.
Delegates to the NPC – and to the concurrent “political consultative conference” (CPPCC) – will also approve a slate of personnel changes and discuss a range of issues from the economic recovery to improved sex education in schools, according to state media reports.
The meetings serve as a forum for attendees to present pet projects, but they have little say in broader questions of how China is run.
This year’s conclave will take place against the backdrop of increasingly fraught ties with Western countries.
A spat with the United States over alleged surveillance balloons has added to dismay over Beijing’s equivocal stance on its ally Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As well as announcing China’s GDP target for the coming year, outgoing Premier Li Keqiang is expected to use his speech at Sunday’s opening ceremony to pledge a bump in military spending.