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China's major party congress is set to grant Xi Jinping a 3rd term. And that's not all

Attendants wait to guide visitors to the the exhibition entitled "Forging Ahead in the New Era," highlighting Chinese President Xi Jinping's years as leader, at the Beijing Exhibition Center in Beijing, ahead of the 20th Communist Party Congress meeting.
Noel Celis
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AFP via Getty Images
Attendants wait to guide visitors to the the exhibition entitled "Forging Ahead in the New Era," highlighting Chinese President Xi Jinping's years as leader, at the Beijing Exhibition Center in Beijing, ahead of the 20th Communist Party Congress meeting.

BEIJING — China's ruling Communist Party kicks off a national congress on Sunday, the 20th in its 101-year history.

Xi Jinping, China's top leader, is widely expected to secure another five-year term as party boss and commander-in-chief of the military.

How the rest of the chips fall remains to be seen, and could offer hints about Xi's power and priorities.

What exactly is a party congress?

The party congress is the "highest leading body" of the Chinese Communist Party, according to the country's constitution.

In reality, it's a rubber stamp for an elite coterie of party grandees and their affiliates, which meets once every five years.

The congress is made up of a delegation of some 2,300 party members from every corner of the country and normally lasts about six days.

The group is carefully curated to include people from all walks of life, a wide range of professions, and each of China's ethnic groups. It is designed to confer legitimacy on the outcomes of the congress.

What's going to happen during this congress?

While the party congress will not lay out specific new policies, it will offer important guidance about China's future.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (center) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (third from left) arrive for a reception at the Great Hall of the People on the eve of China's National Day in Beijing on Sept. 30.
Noel Celis / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping (center) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (third from left) arrive for a reception at the Great Hall of the People on the eve of China's National Day in Beijing on Sept. 30.

Early in the congress, Xi will deliver a long speech akin to the State of the Union address in the United States. It will provide an official summation of how the party leadership thinks things have gone for China over the past five years, and articulate policy priorities for the future.

Analysts say there will likely be guidance about the direction of economic reform.

Many are also hoping for hints about how much longer China's "zero COVID" policy — including aggressive lockdowns and testing and tight border controls — might remain in place.

Will there be new leadership?

Party members walk by an image showing Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition highlighting Xi's years as leader, as part of the upcoming 20th Party Congress, in Beijing on Wednesday. The ruling Communist Party of China will open its 20th Party Congress on Oct. 16 and Xi Jinping is widely expected to secure a third term in power.
Kevin Frayer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Party members walk by an image showing Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition highlighting Xi's years as leader, as part of the upcoming 20th Party Congress, in Beijing on Wednesday. The ruling Communist Party of China will open its 20th Party Congress on Oct. 16 and Xi Jinping is widely expected to secure a third term in power.

Near the end of the event, the congress will pick a new Central Committee, which comprises about 200 full members and 180 alternates.

These are the top officials in the country — the heads of provinces, key state-owned enterprises and government ministries.

Shortly after the party congress ends, the Central Committee will hold its first plenum to select a Politburo (the top 20-25 officials), a Politburo Standing Committee (the top seven to nine leaders), and a general secretary (the boss).

Analysts say Xi is expected to be anointed for a third term as general secretary. (Xi is also China's president, a government role that will not change at this party congress.)

Why is it a big deal if Xi Jinping gets another term?

There are no term limits for general secretary, but in recent decades the norm has been for leaders to step down after two five-year terms and pass the reins to a younger generation.

By all accounts, 69-year-old Xi does not intend to do that. He consolidated power quickly after coming into office in 2012, eliminated political rivals through a ruthless anti-corruption campaign.

If — or when — he gets a third term as party chief, as expected, he will be in a prime position to drive his policy agenda even further. That could include expanding the party's reach in Chinese society, making the country more self-sufficient and less dependent on the West, boosting China's influence and power projection abroad, and working toward the possible annexation of Taiwan.

Party members look at a helicopter and missile launcher as part of a display of military hardware at an exhibition highlighting President Xi Jinping's years as leader, as part of the upcoming 20th Party Congress, in Beijing on Wednesday.
Kevin Frayer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Party members look at a helicopter and missile launcher as part of a display of military hardware at an exhibition highlighting President Xi Jinping's years as leader, as part of the upcoming 20th Party Congress, in Beijing on Wednesday.

Who will succeed Xi Jinping then?

A key question mark hanging over the congress is succession.

"He will serve the third term, but then people are like, well, what about five years from now? What about ten years from now? Is there ever going to be a plan to have a successor to Xi Jinping?" said Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese politics and finance at the University of California, San Diego.

By convention, potential successors should have been promoted into the Politburo Standing Committee, or at least the Politburo, at the last party congress, five years ago, but none were.

Young officials will make it into the Central Committee, and potentially the Politburo, this time around.

But it is unclear if any will be elevated into positions to be considered likely successors to Xi.

Emily Feng contributed reporting.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.