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China's leader is poised to secure a historic 3rd term at next week's party congress

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Xi Jinping is poised to secure a historic third term as general secretary of the Communist Party in China. And even though he had risen through the ranks and served as vice president, few understood his ambition or foresaw what he would become - China's most powerful leader since Chairman Mao. NPR's John Ruwitch has been speaking to people whose lives have been impacted by his presidency.

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JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Ten years ago, Xi Jinping waved and flashed a warm smile as he became leader of the most populous nation on the planet and the world's second-largest economy. In his first speech, he talked about the great revival of the Chinese nation.

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

RUWITCH: China, he said, would stand more firmly and powerfully and make a greater contribution to mankind. One person paying close attention when Xi assumed power was a scholar named Ilham Tohti.

JEWHER ILHAM: I do remember him calling his friends, being very excited and sounding very hopeful.

RUWITCH: That's Tohti's daughter, Jewher Ilham, who lives in the United States now.

ILHAM: He sounded so excited. He's like, I think it's going to change now. Things are going to get better.

RUWITCH: Tohti was talking about things for Uyghurs in China. That's the Turkic-speaking ethnic minority from the western region of Xinjiang. Tohti is himself Uyghur, and he was an outspoken activist for Uyghur rights and the Uyghur language and culture. His high hopes for Xi Jinping didn't last long.

ILHAM: He was officially arrested January 15, 2014.

RUWITCH: Three months later, Xi would visit Xinjiang and secretly set in motion an unprecedented crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the name of fighting terrorism and separatism. By some estimates, a million or more people would eventually be detained. That September, Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for separatism.

ILHAM: It's kind of sad that he was so hopeful.

RUWITCH: The past decade in China has been marked by growing authoritarianism, and nowhere has it been clearer than in Xinjiang. That appears to be down to one man, Xi Jinping. Few outside the party's secretive elite know exactly how or why Xi was installed as party boss a decade ago. It was a time, though, when many felt the party was in crisis, riddled with corruption and losing moral authority. Xi's task, according to a common narrative, was to clean things up and reassert the Communist Party's dominance. If so, he's embraced the mission. But one of the biggest challenges he faced, few predicted.

VIS: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: In a yoga studio in Shanghai, an instructor with a ponytail and tattoos runs his students through a series of movements. He goes by the name Vis. He didn't want me to use his full name to avoid trouble from the authorities for speaking freely to a journalist. He's teaching a fair amount these days. Earlier this year, when COVID-19 cases were rising in Shanghai, not so much.

VIS: (Through interpreter) We were locked in for four months in total. It was the longest in Shanghai.

RUWITCH: China has faced the pandemic with an unflinching zero-covid policy that Xi Jinping has stood firmly behind. COVID cases and deaths have been kept to a minimum, but at a cost. In March, Shanghai was hastily shut down. The city's 25 million residents were forced to stay in their homes. Supply chains for food broke down. Businesses suffered.

VIS: (Through interpreter) It was impossible to do any work in person. And online, it was very difficult.

RUWITCH: As the weeks ticked by, frustration grew.

VIS: (Through interpreter) We were angry. We were hopeless and also felt like crying. That's what it was like.

RUWITCH: Vis and his neighbors drafted a statement of protest. He recorded it, and they played it in public for all to hear.

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VIS: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: For that, he was detained by police for 11 days. Vis says he's not political and he doesn't blame anyone, but China's the only major country still enforcing strict COVID controls. The economy continues to suffer, and it runs deeper than that.

VIS: (Through interpreter) It was depressing. And if it happened once, it could happen a second time. In China, there's a saying - if you're bitten by a snake, you'll be afraid of coiled rope for a decade.

RUWITCH: It's hard to gauge public opinion in China. Independent polling on politics is banned, and speaking out against the Communist Party can get you thrown in jail. But it's clear that a lot of people like Xi Jinping. One of them is Lao Zhang, who we met in a park in Beijing.

LAO ZHANG: (Through interpreter) Xi Jinping is a good man. I think he's honest and upright.

RUWITCH: In today's China, that's key according to Zhang, who's 72. He's a retired factory worker and he's seen a lot of change in China over his lifetime. He says Xi has been addressing China's most pressing problems.

ZHANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Zhang applauds Xi for attacking corruption and for tackling poverty and trying to create more equality. He also supports the argument that a tough approach to COVID is necessary for a country as populous as China.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) We want him to stay in office and have at least one more term. He's good.

RUWITCH: Zhang seems likely to get his wish. Critics, however, say Xi has overplayed his hand, that his toughness is creating more problems for China in the long run than it's solving. Take the situation in Hong Kong, for example.

CHUNG CHING KWONG: I'm Chung Ching Kwong. I'm an activist from Hong Kong.

RUWITCH: When Xi came to power, Kwong was just 16 years old. She was dipping her toes into activism for the first time, working on an internet freedom campaign.

KWONG: I actually didn't feel like it's a dangerous thing to do because Hong Kong at the time was so free.

RUWITCH: In 2014, she joined unprecedented street protests that came to be known as the Umbrella Movement.

KWONG: So I'm like, OK, like, they're banning us from having universal suffrage. So we're going to protest because that should be a basic, like, fundamental right that we should have.

RUWITCH: Five years later, a proposed extradition law sparked fresh demonstrations. Kwong, who was getting her master's degree in Germany, flew home to join them. For Xi Jinping, the huge and sometimes violent anti-government protests were too much. In mid-2020, China took a step that would change everything.

KWONG: So when the national security law came out, I knew I wasn't being - I wasn't going to be going back to Hong Kong after I left.

RUWITCH: Arrests since the national security law was enacted have decimated Hong Kong's democracy movement. Xi hasn't blinked. When he visited this summer, he declared the one country, two systems model for running the city a resounding success. But his crackdown has been a major source of friction between China and the West and even led to economic sanctions. As for Kwong, she remains in exile.

KWONG: Basically, my life has, like, go into pieces because of Xi Jinping. Now, like, I lost my home. I lost a lot of my friends. And I can never set foot in Hong Kong again.

RUWITCH: Ten years ago, the Communist Party made a wager that a tougher leader with an unapologetic approach was necessary to keep the party in power and make China stronger. And when it gives Xi Jinping a fresh term in office at the party Congress next week, it'll be doubling down on that bet.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 14, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of the headline and the audio incorrectly said China's leader is poised to become a three-term president. Xi Jinping is actually expected to be granted a third term as general secretary of the Communist Party next week.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.