China's ruling Communist Party will hold its key Congress from Sunday during which a new set of top officials will be appointed except for President Xi Jinping who is set to get endorsed for a record third term, breaking over the three-decade norm for top leaders to step down after a 10-year tenure.
The 20h Congress of the Communist Party of China, in which 2,296 'elected' delegates under the norms and guidelines set by Xi will attend a closed-door meeting, is being held amid a rare protest against Xi and his rigid Zero COVID policy of widespread restrictions and lockdowns, resulting in the slowdown of the world's second-largest economy.
Except for Xi, 69, all top officials including the number two leader, Premier Li Keqiang will be replaced in the massive reshuffle to follow in the days to come, which included a new foreign minister replacing the incumbent Wang Yi.
Ahead of the once-in-a-five-year conclave, photos circulating in social media on Thursday showed banners hung on overpasses of a major thoroughfare in the northwest of the Chinese capital, protesting against Xi's unpopular zero-COVID policy and authoritarian rule.
Banners displayed on a bridge in the district of Haidian, home to universities and tech firms in Beijing, read food, not COVID test; reform, not a cultural revolution; freedom, not lockdowns; votes, not a leader; dignity, not lies; citizens, not slaves etc.
Battery-operated loudspeakers were hung in some places blaring anti-Xi and anti-Zero COVID slogans.
Following the incident, security which is already tight in Beijing has been further beefed up with reports that some of the areas in the city have been virtually shut down and police were deployed on numerous overpasses.
Besides concerns and disquiet over the growing unemployment in the country which climbed to a record 19 per cent, observers say discontent is brewing in the party over Xi's massive anti-corruption crackdown against officials in the last ten years in which lakhs officials, including top brass of the military, were punished.
From day one after assuming power in 2012, Xi has launched a ruthless campaign against corruption, which besides striking a chord with people also helped him systematically weed out political opponents.
"If there were only one lens through which to interpret Chinese President Xi Jinping's remarkable rise over the past decade, then it would have to be his signature anti-corruption drive," Wang Xiangwei, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, said.
Since he came to power, Xi and his supporters have deftly combined this ruthless effort with a relentless ideological campaign aimed at consolidating power by crushing political rivals and strengthening control over all levels of society, Wang wrote in his recent column in the Post stating that nearly five million high-ranking 'tigers and flies' were investigated and disciplined.
Six senior security officials, including a former justice minister, were sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve in a purge of officials in the run-up to the Congress.
At home, there is also concern over the US and EU increasingly turning hostile against China besides neighbouring countries India and Japan over Beijing's military might and belligerent rhetoric over its sovereignty claims.
The Congress is also being closely watched at home and abroad for its leadership changes and the much-expected continuation of Xi for an unprecedented 3rd term, and perhaps for life.
Since the death of party founder Mao Zedong in 1976, successive leaders of the party followed a rule that the party will have a leadership transition at the top and provincial levels every ten years to ensure collective leadership principle and to prevent the emergence of a one-leader dominated system to avert mass violent campaigns like Mao's Cultural Revolution in which millions were exterminated.
To facilitate Xi's continuation in power, China's Constitution has already been amended in 2018 by National People's Congress (NPC), the country's parliament, removing two five-year tenures for the President.
A plenary meeting of the CPC consisting of about 400 senior officials which concluded a four-day preparatory meeting on October 12 ahead of the Congress left strong hints of Xi's continuation in power.
A communique issued after the meeting said: "The party has established Comrade Xi Jinping's core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole, and has defined the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era."
"This reflects the common will of the party, the armed forces, and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups, and is of decisive significance for advancing the cause of the Party and the country in the new era and for driving forward the historic process of great national rejuvenation," it said.
The 20th Congress is also expected to carry out new amendments to CPC's constitution to provide more power to Xi besides elevating his position in the party further.
"We must amend the Constitution in accordance with the new conditions we face and the missions the party needs to carry out. We must incorporate the latest theoretical and strategic thinking into the party constitution," a recent report by the state-run Xinhua news agency said.
Analysts believe the move aims to better enshrine Xi's ruling philosophy into the party charter that governs 95 million members and this would further strengthen Xi's leadership position, a recent report in the Post said.
The CPC already added "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" to its Constitution in 2017.
The amendment, approved at the 19th CPC National Congress, juxtaposes Xi's thought with Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping's Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, and the Scientific Outlook on Development.