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What To Expect As China's Ruling Communist Party Prepares For 19th National Congress


China's leader, Xi Jinping, is the most powerful the country has seen in years. And China's ruling Communist Party is about to give him a second five-year term. Now, that's likely to have far-reaching implications both for China and the rest of the world. NPR's correspondent in Beijing, Anthony Kuhn, is covering this story. Hey there, Anthony.


KELLY: So this forum for President Xi getting a second term as president is the party congress, which starts tomorrow. What will you be watching for?

KUHN: Well, on one level, Mary Louise, this is all just political theater. All the big decisions are made in advance. And then they're handed to this congress to rubber stamp. At the same time, we're going to see a major reshuffling of the leadership. And more than half of the most powerful 25 or so positions are going to change hands. And it will serve to highlight the power - the political power that - Xi Jinping has accumulated in the past five years, mostly by knocking out his rivals and replacing them with his allies. And it'll provide a rationale for him to amass even more power in the next five years.

KELLY: And when you say the decisions were made in advance, and this is something of an exercise in rubber stamping, was there ever any doubt that Xi would get a second term?

KUHN: There never was. This whole thing is designed to look democratic. And the congress is on paper the most powerful organ in the party. But it doesn't provide any check and balance on Xi Jinping. And the elections that take place in the congress are not competitive.

KELLY: And then lessening the suspense even more, I guess, does he have any rivals? Are there any challengers on the horizon?

KUHN: No. As I said, he's used this anti-corruption campaign to knock out his rivals and appoint allies to key positions. This is one of the problem with Chinese politics. And that is that it's very personal. Politicians are loyal to whoever gives them their jobs. And they tend to drag their heels with the policies of newcomers. So he has to clean out the bureaucracy and appoint his own people.

KELLY: Well, that prompts my next question, which is, what do we expect him to do with this second term? What's his vision?

KUHN: Most experts I talked to say that we will probably see five more years of the same thing. The anti-corruption purge will continue. He will continue to be tough on national security. He will push for a bigger role for the state in the economy. And in diplomacy, we're going to probably see more assertiveness in contesting disputed territories like in the South China Sea, on the China-India border and more of his signature sort of Silk-Road policy, which is designed to link Europe and Asia with infrastructure.

KELLY: And you mentioned the economy. The backdrop for all of this is the forecast that China's economy will overtake the U.S. within the next five years - in other words, during this next term President Xi's.

KUHN: That's correct. Depending on the calculation, it already has. But I don't think that's one of the biggest things on Xi's agenda because I think most people assume it's a done deal.

KELLY: Now, Anthony, there's supposed to be a two-term limit for Chinese presidents, similar to the system we have here in the U.S. Is there any chance, looking well down the road, that Xi might try to break that and stay on for a third?

KUHN: Many people think this is possible. And they say that one reason he might want to do it is that he has very big ambitions for China's geopolitical and economic role. And he wants to complete that agenda. Other people more darkly say that Xi has made a lot of enemies with his anti-corruption campaign. And it's not going to be physically safe for him to retire - maybe ever. It's important to remember that, besides being president, Xi's also boss of the party which actually outranks the president. And the party charter, unlike the constitution, does not specify any term limits at all.

KELLY: So Xi as party boss outranks Xi as president, which, as you know, is convenient if you might be eyeing a third term.

KUHN: Exactly.

KELLY: That's NPR's Beijing correspondent, Anthony Kuhn. Thanks, Anthony.

KUHN: You're welcome.


Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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