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At China's Communist Party Congress, Xi Jinping is set to secure a third term

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Chinese Communist Party Congress begins tomorrow - major political event where China's leader, Xi Jinping, is expected to secure a third term in power as head of the Chinese Communist Party. He is also expected to lay out the goals of the party, including China's ambitions for the democratic island of Taiwan. NPR's Emily Feng is in Taiwan and joins us. Emily, thanks so much for being with us.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Who gets to go to the Party Congress?

FENG: It's a good question. About 2,300 Communist Party representatives are chosen from across the country. They get together in Beijing, usually every five years, and then they announce the party's next round of top leaders. How these 2,300 people actually choose these leaders is not exactly known. The process is not public. But what is at stake for us is whether Xi Jinping, who is currently the general secretary of the party - if he'll get that title for a third time and which of his allies will get appointed to the top party body, called the Politburo Standing Committee. This congress is also a chance to signal to the rest of the country where the ruling Communist Party is headed for the next five years. And so far from what we've seen, this party congress is all about showing just how much power Xi Jinping has.

SIMON: So how significant is a third term for Xi?

FENG: Well, it will prove, definitively, that Xi Jinping has consolidated enormous power in China, probably to a level not seen since Chairman Mao Zedong. But to put his potential third term in context, actually, it's not super important because staying in power for longer than designated is actually really common in China. And these clean power transitions in the Communist Party are rare because the reality is, there's very little set in stone about how the Communist Party in China runs itself. I asked Damien Ma about this. He's managing director of the Chicago think tank Paulson Institute.

DAMIEN MA: So I wouldn't read too much into sort of how much norm was actually breaking because that implies there were very strong norms in this regard to begin with, and there just weren't. So this is all about optics, all about politics, all about Xi Jinping projecting strength.

FENG: Just because there are no norms, though, doesn't mean that party leaders haven't tried to institutionalize norms, beginning in the 1980s. And so what is exceptional about this Party Congress is not so much that Xi Jinping is likely going to secure a third term as head of the party but what is exceptional is by doing so, he's completely dismantling any effort at these political reforms.

SIMON: Emily, there were reports about a rare protest in Beijing leading up to this event. What do we know about that?

FENG: Right. Last Friday, someone hung up two protest banners in Beijing, the Chinese capital. And they'd handwritten on these bed sheets, essentially, these big red characters with phrases like, we don't want COVID tests. We want food. And, astonishingly, down with the dictator Xi Jinping. And this is notable because any kind of dissent is just so rare in China these days under Xi Jinping's rule that to see something like this during such a politically sensitive week is extraordinary.

SIMON: As we note, Emily, you're speaking from Taiwan. Tensions, of course, have - well, they're always at odds. Tensions have recently been high with China. Tell us about the view of the Party Congress from Taiwan. What will they watch for?

FENG: They're watching for what Xi Jinping says about Taiwan in his opening speech at the congress tomorrow because China, Xi Jinping, believes it controls Taiwan. And the concern is, as the U.S. draws closer to Taiwan, and China gets more powerful, one day China might invade the island and make its belief that it controls the island a reality.

SIMON: NPR's Emily Feng in Taiwan, thanks so much.

FENG: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.