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China's Xi Jinping Strengthens His Power


China today introduced its leadership lineup for the next five years. Xi Jingping got a second five-year term, which was entirely expected. What is still not known is who will be his likely successor. Now, all this happened at a National Congress of the ruling Communist Party that confirmed President Xi Jinping as China's most powerful leader in years. And NPR's Anthony Kuhn was at the unveiling of the new leadership and joins us now.

Hi, Anthony.


GREENE: So we should say this was an unveiling. This is not the Electoral College. This is not looking at maps of the United States with blue and red states. This is very different in China.

KUHN: That's right. It's just for the ruling party, which is actually in - above the government. It's this highly ritual, theatrical event that happens every five years. And it's like this. You've got a roomful of journalists at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. And then the most powerful men in China, five of them at the moment, all in dark suits, walk out onto a red-carpeted stage. They speak for a few minutes, and then they leave.

Now, we know very little about how these people are actually chosen. Many of the rules governing the succession process are not written, and the written ones aren't followed. So every time, there's this frenzy of media speculation and interpretation - what's going to happen? What does it mean? But because the succession process is so opaque, we really need to take all this with a big grain of salt.

GREENE: Yeah. And the results, not unexpected at all. And so this congress now is being described as cementing Xi Jinping's place as one of China's most powerful Communist rulers. That sounds significant. I mean, what does this mean for this country's future?

KUHN: I think it is significant. I was standing about, I'd say, about a hundred feet from Xi Jinping, and I could see he was beaming. He clearly has a lot to be pleased with. The narrative at this congress that he was giving was that, thanks to his five years at the helm, China is ahead of schedule in its goals of achieving wealth and power and modernization by the middle of this century.

And I was really struck by how confident he sounded in his speeches. He spoke of a strong and reinvigorated Communist Party in charge of just about everything in China. And he spoke of an assertive China positioning itself as a major global power and flexing its muscles to defend its territory and its global interests. I thought some of his remarks sounded optimistic but at the same time hinted at something a little bit more chilling. Let's hear a clip of Xi speaking at today's event.


PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) We must continue to rid ourselves of any virus that erodes the party's fabric, make great efforts to foster a healthy political environment of integrity and generate waves of positive energy throughout our party.

GREENE: Anthony Kuhn, rid ourselves of a virus, generate positive energy - I mean, those are just words. What exactly is he talking about?

KUHN: OK. Yeah, that's party lingo. By virus, usually he's understood to mean corruption. But it could also be interpreted as dissent. And from his first five years in power, we know that Xi Jinping saw both dissent and corruption as threatening the party, and he took harsh measures to quash both of them. When he talks about positive energy, he means upbeat, noncritical talk about China and its politics. And some people take this as a sign that the tense political atmosphere in China is going to continue and that there may be a real lack of debate for the next five years or even more.

GREENE: And, briefly, is it a big deal that we don't know who will succeed him?

KUHN: Yes. It's very concerning that we don't know where the next leader is going to come from. We don't see anyone in the leadership lineup now, and that raises the question - will Xi Jinping continue after 2022 when he's expected to retire? And that could raise uncertainties about the political risks involved in China's leadership successions.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Thanks, Anthony. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.