Xi Jinping is set to secrure a third term as China's leader at the Communist Party's 20th Congress

Beijing (AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping will on Sunday open the Communist Party’s five-yearly Congress at which thousands of hand-picked delegates are set to rubber stamp his bid to rule for a historic third term.

Should everything go to plan for Xi, the 69-year-old will be reconfirmed as the party’s general secretary after the week-long meeting, cementing his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

A heavy police presence was in place around Beijing early Sunday as authorities prepared for the twice-a-decade Congress – set to open at 10 am (0200 GMT) at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square.

A fleet of buses whisked journalists and other attendees to a virtually empty square rimmed by fluttering red flags and bathed in autumn sunshine.

From there, the participants navigated a string of security checks before entering the Great Hall of the People, where a giant hammer-and-sickle emblem hung over the stage on which top leaders are due to be seated.

“Long live the great, glorious and correct Chinese Communist Party,” blared one of the bright red banners adorning the hall.

The event, gathering 2,296 Communist Party delegates, will begin with a speech by Xi, who has been in power since 2012.

His address will give an assessment of his previous term and a roadmap for the next five years. It will almost certainly be lengthy, with his 2017 speech lasting three-and-a-half hours.

Congress spokesman Sun Yeli told a press conference on Saturday that the event would end on October 22.

Xi will cement his position as China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong

The delegates’ main task is to endorse Xi’s unprecedented campaign to rule for three terms.

Xi and the party’s other leaders are likely to be unveiled the day after the Congress closes.

In the highly choreographed, mostly closed-door conclave, the delegates will also pick members of the party’s roughly 200-member Central Committee, which in turn selects the 25-person Politburo and its all-powerful Standing Committee – the country’s highest leadership body.

An editorial in the state run People’s Daily on Sunday said the Congress will “plan out the goals, tasks and major policies for the development of the party and the country for the next five years or even longer”.

- ‘Fatigue’ -

One of the key issues will revolve around whether or not to maintain the strict zero-Covid strategy to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The policy has strengthened social control over Chinese citizens, whose every move is now computer-registered, in a country already criticised internationally for human rights violations.

Timeline of China's leaders since 1949

While state media this week hammered home the notion that “lying flat” in the face of the virus would be “irresponsible”, zero-Covid has caused widespread hardship and pulled the handbrake on China’s economy.

“It’s quite a paradox,” said Valarie Tan, an analyst from the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “Xi is going to come out of the Congress really very powerful but the country that he is in charge of is in trouble.”

The country’s near-closure to the rest of the world and repeated lockdowns have stifled the economic growth rate, which this year is set to be China’s weakest in four decades, excluding 2020 when the global economy was hammered by the emergence of the coronavirus.

“You do see fatigue after close to three years of zero-Covid,” Tan said, added, pointing to discontent that is “percolating to the surface” on social media.

In the lead up to the Congess, China’s internet censors removed virtually all references to reports of a rare protest in Beijing that involved banners denouncing Xi and the country’s Covid policies.

Video footage and photos shared on social media on Thursday appeared to show a protester draping two hand-painted banners on the side of a bridge with slogans criticising the Communist Party’s policies.

- Virus bubble -

Portraits of (L to R) late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong, former leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and current President Xi Jinping decorate Yan'an Revolutionary Memorial Hall in Yan'an city ahead of the 20th Communist Party Congress

The Congress will be held under a strict zero-Covid policy, which sealed organisers and journalists in a virus-secure bubble two days in advance.

Participants have been ordered to take daily Covid tests to attend events, some of which are being held remotely by video link instead of in person.

At a hotel in western Beijing, organisers have set up a press centre crammed with exhibitions extolling Xi, festooned in the Communist Party’s signature red and gold.

Scattered around the venue were tables piled with books on Xi’s philosophy and China’s development.