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After years of global crises, Xi is stronger than ever

In 2017, Xi Jinping, the man who would become the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong delivered a message of unity. In 2022, he delivered a message of dominance.

In the five years since thousands of delegates last gathered for the National Party Congress to elect China’s leaders, Xi has asserted his authority over the party to such an extent that a third term in power – once controversial – is now a fait accompli.

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the opening session of the 20th National Congress.Credit:Getty Images

Before 2340 delegates on Saturday night, Xi sat alone on the stage as a sea of hands saluted him. They did the same again on Sunday as he delivered the Chinese Communist Party’s work report, a speech that focused less on the achievements of the country and more on the strengths of the Party under his one-man rule.

In 2017, China was in “the midst of profound and complex changes” Xi said. “The prospects are bright, but the challenges are severe.”

That was before he crushed the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and China hit Australia with $20 billion in trade strikes in 2020. Before the People’s Liberation Army encircled Taiwan and Xi gave Vladimir Putin tacit support for his invasion of Ukraine in 2022. And before COVID-19 – the pandemic would put China into a cycle of draconian lockdowns longer than any other country. In 2017, China’s economy grew by 7 per cent, this year it will be lucky to grow by 2.8 per cent according to the World Bank.

But far from hobbling Xi, the crisis-riddled five years since the last National Party Congress have only made him more powerful. “We have upheld China’s dignity,” Xi said on Sunday.

Delegates wearing masks attend the opening ceremony of the 20th National Congress of China’s ruling Communist Party held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Sunday.Credit:AP

By the end of this week, he is likely to have secured a third term in office – the first since Mao Zedong in 1976, and engraved his own “Xi Jinping Thought” alongside Mao’s into China’s constitution.

Xi spent a great deal more time on Sunday discussing national security and party theory than in previous work reports, which tended to focus heavily on the successes of the economy. “Be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters and even dangerous storms,” said Xi.

Outside the Great Hall of the People, waves are crashing all around the global economy.

On Sunday US President Joe Biden said he was not worried about a US recession but was concerned “about the rest of the world”. “The problem is the lack of economic growth and sound policy in other countries,” he said.

Xi, aware that his own COVID-zero policy is inflicting self-harm on China’s businesses, shifted the focus to security (a favourite tactic of all governments when faced with economic challenges).

Xi lauded China’s “patriotic control” of Hong Kong and its pursuit of unification with Taiwan, while ominously warning those deviating from the Party’s cause that there will soon be “risk monitoring and early warning systems to safeguard China’s system and ideology”.

In his third term, the Chinese president will embark on a fundamental reshaping of China’s economy under his “common prosperity” vision. One that will redistribute income from the wealthy, rattle industrial heavyweights and turn China further towards its socialist roots. Xi will need a powerful combination of ideological and security support if he is to succeed.

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