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China's Xi Jinping embarks on his third, 5-year term as Communist Party boss

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Communist Party Congress wrapped up in China over the weekend and it was historic. Leader Xi Jinping emerged with virtually unchecked power as he embarks on his third five-year term as party boss and possibly beyond. Here to talk us through the outcomes of the Congress and what they mean, we're joined by NPR's John Ruwitch, who is on the line from Beijing. John, so explain how all this went down.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Sure. Well, let me offer a little bit of context. Help understand this. This was a party congress, which is - it's a time when the leadership is reshuffled. There's an opaque period in the run-up to party congresses where analysts say there are all sorts of backroom deals happening among powerbrokers in the party. And usually, the outcome is a sort of balance of power to some degree, where factions and patronage networks within the party all get sort of some representation at the top levels of the party. That did not happen this time around. Xi Jinping seemed to have outmaneuvered everybody.

The Politburo Standing Committee, which is the pinnacle of power - it's seven members, including Xi. You know, in that, he got rid of two people who he didn't like. And so now it's stacked with Xi's men, including the Shanghai party chief, a man named Li Qiang, who presided over the controversial lockdown of that city in the spring. You know, a lot of people in that city are still upset about it. Many thought that this guy Li Qiang's political star was falling. You know, but it's - Xi Jinping's zero-COVID policy - Li Qiang saw it through, and he's been rewarded. He's now the No. 2 official in China behind Xi Jinping.

MARTINEZ: What does all of this mean in a practical sense, in terms of things like foreign policy and also China-U.S. relations?

RUWITCH: Sure. I mean, the Congress endorsed Xi's agenda across the board. And it's very much an agenda of boosting China's strength, clamping down on dissent, increasing self-sufficiency, positioning China to be able to withstand growing pressures from outside, things like that. The personnel changes now mean that Xi has sort of loyal yes men, really, to help carry out these policies, according to Chongyang, who's an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

CHONG JA IAN: So what that means is that what we've seen in the past few years, the wolf warrior diplomacy, the toughness on disputes, the friction with the U.S., the pressure on Taiwan, South China Sea, etc. - all that will continue. Likely, it may even increase because there are fewer checks or other opinions.

RUWITCH: In other words, there's really no one to tell Xi no. To be fair, stability is still extremely important to the Communist Party. And so, you know, it doesn't want things to go off the rails completely with the U.S. But it's worth bearing in mind that, you know, Xi Jinping broke a lot of norms and rules to get where he is, like the power sharing thing. China's an opaque system to begin with. And now - so there are fewer guideposts sort of along the way to help people understand how it all works. And Chong says that means that, you know, possibly misunderstanding, miscalculation - the risk of that is higher now.

MARTINEZ: I know the economy in China has been hurting a bit. What's the takeaway from the congress when it comes to that?

RUWITCH: Well, they waited until after the congress was over to announce third-quarter GDP, which is what they did today. It showed that growth is picking up somewhat, but the story is still pretty grim. A few other important things emerged from the congress. You know, it gave a strong signal that one of the big sort of immediate things that's dragging the economy down is not going to change anytime soon. That's the zero-COVID policy. And I talked with Edward Cunningham about another key issue. He's a China expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

EDWARD CUNNINGHAM: I mean, I don't envy, obviously, Xi Jinping in the sense that he's unveiled the leadership, right? I mean, you look at it, and sure, it makes sense. There's a lot of consolidation of power. But if you look at them, there really are no people left who have real experience on the economy.

RUWITCH: It's loyalty above all else. Investors are nervous. And, you know, stocks in China and Hong Kong fell pretty sharply today.

MARTINEZ: NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. John, thanks.

RUWITCH: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.