Key issues and players: Xi’s next 5 years as China’s president

China’s Xi Jinping faces severe economic challenges and growing tension with the United States as his third term begins.

Secondary school students gather in front of a screen displaying an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the Memorial of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai, China March 10, 2023. REUTERS/Aly Song TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Secondary school students gather in front of a screen displaying an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the memorial of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai, China on March 10, 2023 [Aly Song/Reuters]

Chinese leader Xi Jinping was handed an unprecedented third term as president on Friday and was also named commander of China’s two million-strong People’s Liberation Army.

Considered the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong – who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 – Xi is facing several challenges as he begins his latest five-year term.

Six other officials who serve with Xi on the ruling Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee are taking up new roles. All are party veterans with close personal and professional ties to Xi.

Here are some of the main issues facing the president’s new term and some of the key players on team Xi.

China’s sluggish economy

  • China’s growth is slowing and will likely dominate Xi’s next five years.
  • The world’s second-largest economy expanded just three percent last year, widely missing its target of about 5.5 percent in the face of a draconian zero-COVID policy and a bubbling crisis in China’s property market.
  • Beijing has set a growth target of “around five percent” for 2023, one of the lowest in decades.
  • Xi’s decision to stack the Chinese Communist Party’s top leadership with his loyalists has stoked concerns about him prioritising ideology and loyalty at the expense of growth.
  • With the United States promising to prioritise maintaining “an enduring competitive edge” against Beijing as the two countries battle for dominance over technology, China may find itself under growing pressure internationally as growth slows at home.

China, US tension

  • Relations between Beijing and Washington have declined in recent years, with both sides tussling over everything from trade to human rights, China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia Pacific and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The US recently shooting down a Chinese balloon – said to be conducting surveillance over US territory – has seriously strained ties with Beijing.
  • Beijing denies the balloon was involved with surveillance and Chinese diplomats have since gone on the offensive with anti-US criticism: On Friday the foreign ministry accused the US military of “looting in Syria” and foreign minister Qin Gang this week warned of “conflict and confrontation” with potentially “catastrophic consequences” if Washington does not turn away from its confrontational path with China.

  • Xi also made a rare direct rebuke of Washington, accusing “Western countries led by the United States” of trying to thwart China’s rise.
  • China on Sunday said its military budget would this year rise at the fastest rate for four years.
  • Taiwan is now a flashpoint between Washington and Beijing with military planners on both sides assessing the possibility of Xi fulfilling his stated ambition of seizing the self-ruled democratic island and bringing it back under Chinese control.
  • Chinese military activity around Taiwan has greatly intensified since the visit to Taipei last year of then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which enraged Beijing.
  • But any attempt to invade Taiwan would be met with global revulsion and would also bring havoc to global supply chains as the island is a major supplier of semiconductors – an essential component of nearly all modern electronics.

Dissent and critics

  • Xi has overseen the almost-total eradication of civil society in China. In Hong Kong, scores of activists have fled the country and opposition to Beijing has been all but snuffed out.
  • In the far-western region of Xinjiang, rights groups say the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities face severe abuses that amount to crimes against humanity.
  • Human rights in China are unlikely to improve in the next five years as Xi’s power grows and his leadership digs in its heels against international pressure.

Team Xi

Li Qiang

  • Perhaps the official closest to Xi, Li Qiang, 63, is widely expected to take over as premier, nominally in charge of the cabinet and caretaker of the economy. Li is best known for ruthlessly enforcing a brutal “zero-COVID” lockdown in Shanghai last spring as party boss of the Chinese financial hub, proving his loyalty to Xi in the face of complaints from residents over their lack of access to food, medical care and basic services.

Zhao Leji

  • A holdover from the previous Politburo Standing Committee, Zhao Leji, 66, won Xi’s trust as head of the party’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, pursuing an anti-graft campaign that has frozen all potential opposition to the leader. He was named the head of the National People’s Congress on Friday.

Wang Huning

  • Another returnee from the previous standing committee, Wang Huning is from an academic background, having been a professor of international politics at Shanghai’s Fudan University and a senior adviser to two of Xi’s predecessors. Unusual for a top official, Wang, 67, has never held office at either the local or central government level. He is known for authoring books critiquing Western politics and society.

Cai Qi

  • As leader of the capital since 2017, Cai Qi oversaw the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been celebrated by the party as a victory. Cai, 67, also oversaw the forcible eviction of thousands of migrant workers from rundown urban neighbourhoods and kept COVID cases relatively low in Beijing without enacting the harsh measures seen in Shanghai and elsewhere.

Ding Xuexiang

  • As director of the party’s General Office since 2017, Ding Xuexiang has effectively served as Xi’s chief of staff, notably present on state visits and meetings with foreign leaders. Like Wang, Ding, aged just 60, has never held government office but Ding’s career took off after he was appointed secretary to Xi during his brief term as Shanghai party head.

Li Xi

  • Prior to his appointment to the standing committee, Li Xi, 66, headed Guangdong province, one of China’s wealthiest regions and the base of its vast manufacturing sector. He earlier served as party secretary of Mao Zedong’s famed revolutionary base of Yan’an and became an early pioneer in what is known as “red tourism,” promoting sites hallowed to the party’s history prior to its seizure of power in 1949.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies