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China's Xi set to enhance powers at Communist congress

© AFP / by Joanna CHIU, Laurent THOMET | A man walks past decorations for the Communist Party's 19th Congress in Tiananmen Square, on the eve of its opening

BEIJING (AFP) - 

China's Communist Party opens a twice-a-decade congress on Wednesday for a leadership reshuffle expected to enhance President Xi Jinping's already formidable powers over the world's second largest economy.

Xi will address nearly 2,300 delegates at Beijing's imposing Great Hall of the People to roll out the party's vision for the next five years as he prepares to secure a second term as general secretary.

Authorities stepped up policing for the week-long congress, with red armband-wearing "security volunteers" fanning out across the capital, karaoke bars closing and online kitchenware firms even suspending knife sales.

The 64-year-old leader is expected to use the congress to stack the leadership with loyalists.

The party will amend the constitution to add his "new vision and thinking" on governance, congress spokesman Tuo Zhen said, without indicating whether Xi's name would also be added.

Adding Xi's name would signal his rise to the pantheon of Chinese leadership. Such an honour has only been bestowed upon modern China's founder, Mao Zedong, and the father of economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping.

Xi, considered China's most powerful leader since Deng or even Mao, could use the congress to lay the foundation to stay atop the 89-million-strong party even longer than the normal 10 years, according to analysts.

This would break the unwritten two-term limit accepted by his immediate predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and end the era of "collective leadership" aimed at preventing the emergence of another Mao.

"Xi has consolidated power, that's obvious," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, China specialist at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Potential rivals have been swept aside under Xi's vast anti-corruption campaign, which punished 1.3 million Communist Party officials over five years, and Tuo warned that strengthening self-governance was a "never-ending journey".

Xi's rise has also been marked by a relentless crackdown on dissent, with authorities even refusing to free Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo before he died of cancer in July.

On the global stage, he has restructured the military, asserted China's claims to disputed seas and used the country's economic prowess to increase its influence in Asia and beyond.

He has taken up the mantle of globalisation in the face of US President Donald Trump's "America First" policy.

But foreign companies will look for signs at the congress that Xi will live up to his promises to further open up China's economy in the next five years.

- Legitimacy at risk -

The conclave, which ends next Tuesday, will select new top party members, including in the Politburo Standing Committee, the all-powerful ruling body.

Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are expected to remain on the committee while the five other current members are supposed to step down under an informal retirement age set at 68.

But Xi may lobby to retain his 69-year-old right-hand man Wang Qishan, who heads the anti-graft campaign. This would create a precedent for Xi himself to remain in charge beyond retirement age in 2022.

"If Xi expresses intent to lead beyond his 10-year limit, this would be reminiscent of the Mao era, which would be damaging to Xi's legacy and call his legitimacy into question," said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Sydney-based researcher and co-author of "China and the New Maoists".

- Bigger than Mao? -

But a Xi heir apparent could emerge from the congress.

One former potential successor who was outside Xi's circle, Sun Zhengcai, was ousted from the party last month due to graft allegations.

Chen Miner, a former Xi aide who succeeded Sun as political chief in the city of Chongqing, is now well positioned for promotion.

"The question is what is Xi going to do after he secures absolute power after the 19th party congress," said Hu Xingdou, a Chinese governance expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

"If he can lead China's modernisation, establish a modern state system, avoid the cycle of peace and upheaval of China's 2,000-year history, then we can say his influence may be bigger than Mao's."

by Joanna CHIU, Laurent THOMET

© 2017 AFP