Xi: China’s prospects are bright but challenges severe

Chinese President Xi Jinping trumpeted his nation’s prospects as bright but made a rare acknowledgement of severe economic challenges as he opened the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade national congress on Wednesday.

Other Chinese leaders have regularly warned since the 2008 financial crisis that China’s economic growth faces “downward pressure” due to weak global demand that threatens export industries in the world’s second-largest economy. But Xi’s comments were unusual in a keynote speech meant to highlight the party’s confidence and long-range vision.

Among the grave issues Xi said were insufficiently addressed are a widening income gap and problems in employment, education, medical care and other areas.

Xi has been consolidating his already considerable power and is expected to get a second five-year term as party leader at the gathering.

In his speech, he also hailed China’s island-building efforts in the disputed South China Sea as well as his signature foreign policy initiative, the “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure investment project aimed at improving connections between China, Europe and Africa.

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He praised the party’s tightened grip over domestic security, saying that social stability had been maintained and national security strengthened.

Observers will be watching the congress meeting this week for signs of whether Xi may be looking to appoint a successor to take over after his traditional second five-year term in office. While he is limited to two five-year terms as president, the office of general secretary is bound by no such restrictions. Xi, 64, could also step aside for a younger leader while maintaining ultimate control from behind the scenes.

Whatever the outcome, most analysts say Xi has largely completed the task of sidelining his competitors in other cliques, including those surrounding his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao and former leader Jiang Zemin.