Nothing left to chance as 19th congress of Chinese Communist Party opens today

As the red curtain rises on this week’s key meeting of China’s rulers — the 19th congress of the Communist Party — nothing is being left to chance.

Large gatherings are banned, country-wide. The internet is in virtual lockdown, with “dangerous” sites like Twitter and Facebook (not to mention CBCNews.ca) blocked more firmly than ever. Online chit-chat is being scrubbed clean in real time. Complaints about bottlenecks caused by extra security on Beijing’s subway this week simply vanish.

And of course, criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping is especially sensitive. In the months leading up to the congress, online messages pointing out a resemblance to Winnie the Pooh have been a regular target for censors.

But politics in China is not child’s play, and the congress is expected to consolidate Xi’s clout — giving even more power to one man over the lives of 1.4 billion people.

 Chinese President Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping is pre-eminent among past leaders, both in the souvenir stands and at this week’s once-in-five-years Communist Party Congress. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

He has vowed to lead them in a rejuvenation of “the Chinese dream.”

“The greatest Chinese dream is the revival of the Chinese nation,” he said soon after becoming party leader in 2012. That theme of national pride has been a constant ever since.

He continued with that theme again today at the opening of the congress in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is no walk in the park or mere drum-beating and gong-clanging,” Xi said in a three-and-half-hour speech to delegates. Former Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao sat nearby. “To achieve great dreams there must be a great struggle,” Xi said.

Many more of his supporters will take seats on the all-important Central Committee of the party at the congress, in what’s predicted to be an unprecedented turnover in the top leadership.

Xi’s name, ideas and policies are in line to be enshrined in China’s constitution. The party has already declared him a “core” leader, on the level of the legendary Chairman Mao Zedong. Xi’s own drive for control has earned him the nickname “the chairman of everything.”

Likely, that lays the foundation for Xi to stay in power beyond the traditional two five-year terms.

China Party Congress Banners Photo Gallery

Bicyclists wait to cross an intersection near a banner for the Communist Party congress in Beijing. The banner reads ‘Stick to confidence, strive for progress, welcome the victorious opening of the 19th Party Congress with excellent achievements.’ (Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press)

“I think that’s the general expectation, 10 more years at least,” says Victor Gao, director of China National Association of International Studies. Gao supports a longer mandate for Xi, because “he can bring more stability to the political activities here in China and also create greater stability on the world stage.”

Gao adds: “I think the world right now needs a more stable China.”

Under Xi, the world has certainly seen a much more assertive China.

It has staked a huge claim to the disputed South China Sea, dredging up sand bars to build military facilities on artificial islands. Half a dozen other countries have competing claims and an international tribunal in The Hague has ruled against Beijing. China has answered with defiance.

‘Xi has his ambitions. He is not only aiming to be the undisputed leader of China, but also a world leader.’– Beijing historian Zhang Lifan

It has expanded its navy, modernized its army and set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Xi has insisted his intent is peaceful and stabilizing, but he has also warned any “invaders” that China has “the confidence and capability to defeat all armies that dare to offend.”

And as U.S. influence and involvement has faded around the world, China has stepped in.

Xi’s most ambitious move has been a multi-billion dollar infrastructure program, dubbed the “Belt and Road Initiative.” Designed to pave its way across three continents and more than 60 countries, China calls it a plan to facilitate trade.

Others — notably Beijing’s regional rivals in Delhi — have accused Xi of trying to exert his country’s power and influence far beyond its borders.

Indeed, earlier this year in a speech at the Davos Summit, Xi painted China — and himself — as a champion of economic globalization. He vowed to “promote trade and investment liberalization” and to “say no to protectionism.”

China Party Congress

A visitor poses near a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition highlighting China’s achievements under five years of Xi’s leadership. Xi is primed to consolidate his already considerable power as the ruling Communist Party begins its twice-a-decade national congress Wednesday. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

Much of that may have been for show. China still has many protectionist barriers designed to keep foreign companies at a disadvantage.

But, says Beijing historian Zhang Lifan, the message was deliberate.

“Xi has his ambitions,” he says. “He is not only aiming to be the undisputed leader of China, but also a world leader.”

There may even be a more ominous intent to Xi’s foreign and military maneuvers, Zhang says.

“China may in the near future challenge the US,” he says. “It’s not capable of starting a war with the United States right now, but I think there is a chance China is preparing for that day.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping in N.Z.

Chinese President Xi Jinping: Many more of his supporters will take seats on the all-important Central Committee of the party, in what’s predicted to be an unprecedented turnover in the top leadership. (Greg Bowker/Getty Images)

Xi’s foreign leadership plans haven’t all been a success. China has struggled to influence North Korea, failing to curb Kim Jong-un’s nuclear missile ambitions despite shared Communist roots.

That failure has also raised questions about how committed Xi is to putting international security concerns ahead of China’s economic interests. Despite some tougher sanctions, and a dip in trade, Beijing remains Pyongyang’s biggest economic partner.

But there’s little doubt that at home, Xi’s “Chinese dream” message campaign has contributed to a growth in Chinese nationalism.

And little wonder, perhaps, that the most hugely popular movie in China right now is the patriotic thriller Wolf Warrior 2. In it, a former Chinese soldier takes on bad guys and rescues humanitarian workers in Africa.

Still, some of Xi’s biggest preoccupations are domestic.

Tackled corruption

He has stifled free speech, jailing human rights lawyers and activists.

Winnie-the-Pooh

No sign of Winnie the Pooh references. (Disney)

He’s tackled corruption, too. Shortly after becoming party leader, he vowed to clean up rampant corruption by going after high ranking officials as well as lowly bureaucrats — both “tigers and flies,” as he put it.

The investigations have been tough and far-reaching, netting dozens of generals, as well as former and sitting members of the Central Committee. That’s part of the reason for the large turnover at the top during this congress.

More than 100 provincial ministers and many lower officials have also been punished for transgressions involving bribery, abuses of power, sex and morality. It’s made Xi plenty of enemies among those he’s gone after.

But vested interests remain, and many say that’s kept Xi from truly reforming China’s economy — from closing obsolete plants that still produce steel and burn coal, and push up debt levels because they get too many government loans.

“China’s state-owned enterprises dominate the economy,” says Hu Xingdou, an economist at Beijing Institute of Technology. “They are monopolies controlled by the party’s princelings, or privileged families, and that’s the main reason for continued corruption and social injustice,” he says.

Hu says he is “disappointed” that Xi hasn’t tackled them more forcefully.

He hopes that with more power and a longer tenure, China’s leader will feel more comfortable to open things up, to reduce the control of government and free up market forces.

And on the political side, he hopes Xi will loosen up to “grant people more freedom, allow them their own thoughts and independent ideas.”

Based on the trend so far — and the prospects for this congress — that doesn’t seem likely.

China Party Congress Banners

Workers change the letters on a slogan on the side of the under-construction China Zun tower in Beijing. The new slogan reads: ‘Don’t forget why we started, continue to move forward.’ (Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press)

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