There is an argument that what’s happening in China this week is more important than any US or European election. It could well have much longer reaching implications.

Party congress is the biggest political event in China, it happens every five years and decides who will sit at the top echelons of the Chinese government.

This year, the “20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party”, to give it its full name, is set to make history and break away from precedents that have been in place for decades.

The week-long event which opens today will be attended by around 2,300 delegates from the Chinese Community Party (CCP). That number includes political leaders of all ranks from all 34 provinces and regions as well as delegates from the private sector, doctors, firefighters, farmers, “model workers”, and even China’s first female astronaut.

The delegates will select the 200 members of the new central committee, officially China’s most senior governing body.

That 200 will then choose the new members of the 25-strong politburo and the politburo standing committee, which currently has seven members including the president. In reality, these are the apex of Chinese political power.

There will be ceremonial voting but the outcome will have been pre-decided in a series of backroom negotiations and straw polls.

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While there’ll be no new policy announcement, there will be a lengthy “work report” speech given by President Xi – and it really is long, five years ago he spoke for three and a half hours!

This will summarise the achievements of the last five years and offer hints about priorities for the coming term.

Here are eight things to look out for.

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Xi Jinping set to tighten grip on China

1. How long will President Xi rule?

It’s now almost beyond doubt that Xi Jinping will be appointed to a precedent-breaking third term as general secretary of the CCP and the country’s president.

It means he’ll be at the helm for at least another five years.

This is hugely significant. Rules were established in the early eighties, shortly after the death of Chairman Mao, to limit future leaders to just two five-year terms. After Mao’s brutal and chaotic 27 years in power, the aim was to establish a “collective leadership” model and ensure power could never again be so contracted in the hands of one person.

But Xi successfully removed the two-term limit rules from the constitution in 2018, meaning he could now, in theory, be “ruler for life”.

It’s important to remember though, that while this may speak volumes about Xi’s personal ambition and his increasingly unchallenged power within the CCP, it probably also says a lot about the party’s desire for stability. In the face of unpopular “Zero COVID” measures and considerable economic challenges, many party faithful may see continuity under a strong leader as desirable.

2. Could he also get a promotion?

He’s already one of, if not, the most powerful man in the world. But it’s possible he could elevate his position yet further.

There’s speculation he could be given the “chairman” position within the CCP, a role that has not existed since the days of Chairman Mao.

This could involve him sitting above the seven-strong politburo standing committee and offering the general secretary position (currently the top job) to a young man.

Look out for other symbolic moves too. It’s expected that “Xi Jinping Thought” might be enshrined into the constitution. Xi’s political ideology currently has the catchy name “Xi Jinping Thought Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Children are already taught it in schools and party members are tested on it.

But no leader since Mao has had their “thought” enshrined in this way.

Neither of these things would necessarily change much in practical terms, Xi would likely continue to be in control in much the same way he is now, but it would be a major ideological elevation, and would perhaps make him even harder to challenge.

3. Who will be on the top team?

The congress “moment” China watchers get the most excited by is towards the end when the leader walks out of stage followed in rank order by the new politburo standing committee.

Cue frenzied analysis of who has been promoted, who has gone from the group, what do these people stand for and what faction are they from.

Who is picked might offer some insight into policy priorities and direction, but also might shed some light on the scope of Xi’s power and control.

All eyes this time will be on who replaces Li Keqiang, the current premier (second in command) who is stepping down from that post having completed his two terms.

People will also be watching for whether the top team is stuffed full of Xi’s close allies.

If it is, it may be a sign of a hard consolidation of power.

If the group is more mixed, it could signal modest curbs on his authority. However, Xi has so successfully disrupted the power bases that used to exist behind rival factions that even those who are not close allies probably don’t pose him much threat.

Promoting them could also be something of an olive branch and symbol of unity within the leadership.

4. How old are they all?

It might seem a strange one to watch out for but it matters because there is a longstanding convention that someone can only serve another term if they are aged 67 or younger at the time of the Congress. Anyone 68 or older should retire.

Xi is 69 and, as we have already discussed, is breaking with convention to stay on.

But will he also break with it when it comes to this top team? He has strong allies on the politburo standing committee who are aged 68 and 72. If they don’t retire, it will signal a full-scale ripping up of the rule book and what one expert has called a “constitutional crisis” when it comes to term limits and succession.

5. Speaking of succession, is there a plan?

It’s usually quite easy to spot who the designated successor is within the top echelons of the CCP. They are usually the highest-ranking member of the top team, young enough to serve one term in waiting and then two terms as leader before they reach the retirement age.

Thus, if there is any new member of the standing committee aged 57 or younger, it will be a major moment and a sign that Xi might step aside in five years’ time.

If there is no one, it sends a strong signal that Xi intends to stay in post for longer, perhaps another 10 years or more.

Many fear what this would mean if anything were to happen to Xi (who, remember, is 69 years old, overweight and a longtime smoker). With no obvious successor a sudden power vacuum could be very dangerous indeed.

6. Will ‘Zero COVID’ continue?

When it comes to policy, this will be the most eagerly watched by the Chinese.

China still has a zero tolerance approach to COVID with whole cities facing sudden and draconian lockdowns over just a handful of cases.

But any hopes that “Dynamic Zero COVID” might be eased at congress will likely be dashed. Just last week state media ran a series of articles extolling the virtues of the policy describing it as “sustainable” and in an interview one of the country’s top experts said there was no timetable for easing it.

The party has backed itself into a corner when it comes to COVID. It needs a way to declare victory and there’s no evidence that a political “off-ramp” has been prepared.

China faces the reality of very little community immunity and a poorly resourced hospital system that would very quickly become overwhelmed.

Expect comparisons of China’s low death toll with those in the West. Beyond that, how many times “Dynamic Zero COVID” is mentioned may be one of the strongest indicators.

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Are China and Taiwan about to go to war?

7. Will we hear more about Taiwan?

Bringing the self-governing Island of Taiwan, that China sees as its own, back under mainland control has been a long stated dream of President Xi’s.

It’s likely Taiwan will be discussed alongside the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, reiterating the party’s belief that this is a domestic not a foreign policy issue.

While it’s very possible rhetoric could be stepped up, and tough talk about “national unity” and “sovereignty” is a pretty safe bet, any major signals about military action would be less likely.

Despite the nationalist rhetoric an international conflict over Taiwan would have huge costs for China and some in the CCP may feel it has a lot of domestic instability to iron out first. The experience of Russia in Ukraine, while potentially offering lessons to China, will also have likely have warned against swift action.

It will however want to keep its options open.

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8. What about the economy?

China faces major economic challenges at the moment, from the Zero COVID lockdowns, to a major crisis in the real estate sector and US blocks on microchip development.

It’s economic growth in the last few decades has been astonishing but it has noticeably slowed this year. How that trend is reversed while Zero COVID persists is hard to see.

Listen out for Xi’s “Common Prosperity” project – a flagship policy with the aim of challenging acknowledged inequalities in society.

How this will be achieved may be less clear. Measures up to now have included cracking down on some of the country’s most profitable private companies and spooking investors.

Expect plenty on IT, technological upgrading and economic “self-reliance”.

Finally remember that congress is a lot about reading between the lines and picking up on subtle hints. The emergence or disappearance of catchphrases and even how often certain things are mentioned or not mentioned are important.

For instance, foreign policy may not be mentioned at all, but code words like “openness” might indicate a pivot to a slightly less bullish approach.

“Common Prosperity” may well be code for the economy, and “self-reliance” may mean security.