China's Xi Jinping to secure third term as president despite criticism

Friday March 03 2023
Chinese president Xi

China's leader Xi Jinping. He will glide into his third term in power unbowed by the mass protests, deadly Covid-19 wave and economic malaise that have afflicted his rule in recent months. PHOTO | NOEL CELIS | AFP


China’s President Xi Jinping will secure a third term at a rubber-stamp parliament that starts this weekend, enjoying unchallengeable status despite criticism over his handling of Covid-19 and the economy.

Xi is certain to be reappointed as president after he locked in another five years in October as head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the country’s military - two significant leadership positions in Chinese politics.

Since then, 69-year-old Xi has faced unexpected challenges and scrutiny over his leadership, with mass protests over his zero-Covid policy and its subsequent abandonment that saw countless people die.

But those issues are almost certain to be avoided at the Chinese National People's Congress (NPC), a carefully choreographed event that will also see the unveiling of a Xi ally as the new premier.

Starting on Sunday, the NPC is expected to last around 10 days and culminate with Xi's presidency being endorsed by the 3,000 delegates casting votes in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

Views about Xi


"Public opinion is probably not very good about him. His zero-Covid policy damaged people's faith," said Alfred Muluan Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. 

“Hitherto, Xi still enjoys a "pretty strong" position at the top of CCP making him virtually unchallengeable,” Wu said.

China maintained some of the world's strictest Covid-19 curbs until late last year, pounding growth and social life under a constant barrage of testing mandates, quarantines and travel restrictions that Xi himself championed.

Public resentment exploded in November 2022 into the most widespread Chinese public demonstrations in decades, followed by rapid dismantling of the zero-Covid policy as well as a maelstrom of infections and deaths that went mostly unreported by authorities.

The country is still tentatively emerging from the outbreak, after three years in which business, employment and even education were subjugated to the government's demand to shut out the virus at any cost.

According to experts interviewed by AFP, gathered lawmakers will likely set some of China's lowest economic growth goals in decades on the opening day of the NPC.

However, there is no sign that Xi’s position, who has stacked CCP with loyalists and expunged rivals in last year's Congress reshuffle, is in any doubt.

Li Qiang, a Xi confidant and former Shanghai party chief, is set to be named premier.

Xi’s calculated game plan

“Instead of threatening Xi's rule, last year's protests actually gave him just the out he was looking for,” said Christopher Johnson, president and CEO of China Strategies Group.

"If abandoning zero-Covid went well, he could say he listened to the people. If it went poorly, he could blame the protesters and the 'hostile foreign forces' that his top security chief publicly suggested were behind them," Johnson wrote in an article for Chinese Foreign Affairs magazine last week.

Steve Tsang, Director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said Xi now had an opportunity to flaunt his response to pressure.

"He acted decisively when the protests included calls for him and the CCP to step down. He quashed them and removed the basic cause," Tsang told AFP.

Tsang said he could present himself as leading from the front, rather than being pushed to react.

But Oxford University former professor Vivienne Shue suggested it was time for Chinese leaders to reflect on "what certainly looks like a cumulative record of failures" to respond to crises in recent years.

Drifting apart

Delegates to the NPC and to the Concurrent Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), will also approve a slate of personnel changes and discuss a range of issues from the economic recovery to improved sex education in schools, according to Chinese state media reports.

The meetings serve as a forum for attendees to present pet projects, but they have little say in broader questions of how China is run.

This year's meeting will take place against the backdrop of increasingly fraught ties with Western countries.

A spat with the United States over alleged surveillance balloons has added to dismay over Beijing's equivocal stance on its ally Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As well as announcing China's GDP target for the coming year, outgoing Premier Li Keqiang is expected to use his speech at Sunday's opening ceremony to pledge a bump in military spending.