Xi Jinping Opens China’s Party Congress, His Hold Tighter Than Ever

Since taking power in 1949, the party has reinvented itself at critical moments to survive — after Mao Zedong’s death and following the Tiananmen massacre, for example. Mr. Xi, 64, contends that it faces one of those moments now, even as it moves closer to surpassing its Soviet brethren as the longest-ruling Communist Party in history.

In his speech, Mr. Xi referred repeatedly to social tensions unleashed by economic inequality, pollution and inadequate access to health care, schools and housing.

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Pictures of China’s past Communist Party leaders on display at a Beijing museum in 2006. The party is poised to overtake the Soviet Union’s one as the longest-ruling Communist party in history.

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Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Party leaders always feel peril close at hand, especially Xi, and that has not gone away,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor with a Communist Party journal who now writes current affairs commentaries. “For him, this hard-line, centralized style of rule is the solution and must be consolidated.”

While Mao promoted class struggle and Deng Xiaoping embraced pragmatic capitalism, Mr. Xi’s vision of the party’s rule centers on restoring China to greatness — what he calls the “China Dream” — and it draws on both the fervent dedication of Mao’s era and the glories of China’s traditional culture that Mao tried to destroy.

In practice, that has meant a campaign to impose greater discipline in the party’s ranks, and political repression outside the party, including a crackdown on activists and more stringent media censorship, including on the internet.

“Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party is headed in the direction of strongman rule,” said David M. Lampton, the director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a longtime analyst of Chinese leaders. “The 19th Party Congress is more likely to look like a coronation than an institutionalized transition to a leader’s second term.”

One big question as the congress got underway was whether Mr. Xi would try to claim an even bigger role than he already has in the nation’s future.

Video explainer: China’s 19th National Party Congress Video by ConversationEDU

If he follows the script for leadership successions that his predecessors have followed since the 1990s, Mr. Xi will…

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