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What Makes China’s 2022 Party Congress a Landmark

President Xi Jinping looks set to disrupt the transition of power in China by securing a precedent-defying third term as leader of the Communist Party at its 20th congress starting Sunday. In the runup, Xi has stressed such ambitious goals as narrowing the country’s wide wealth gap and more aggressively asserting its interests globally. In any case, he has few challengers: An anti-corruption campaign peeled off rivals over the past decade, and no one with the right age or experience has been groomed as a successor.

In China’s system of national government, there’s no popular vote: The party itself is supreme. Members hold a congress every five years to decide their leaders and policy priorities — and thus the country’s — and position cadres to move up the ladder. Former leader Deng Xiaoping introduced a system for orderly succession in the 1980s to prevent a repeat of the turbulent, 27-year, one-man rule of Mao Zedong. Xi’s decision not to anoint a successor at the last congress in 2017, combined with changes to the constitution the following year that abolished a two-term limit for the president (a title he would otherwise have had to give up in 2023), sparked speculation he planned to ignore that system. While he may have critics inside the party, there’s no obvious faction against him. The party’s adoption last year of a landmark “historical resolution” by Xi confirmed he had its firm backing — such resolutions had been made only twice before, by Mao and Deng, both of whom dominated Chinese politics until they died.