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The crowded, glimmering metropolis of Shanghai. The jutting limestone karst hills of Guilin. The emptying villages of rural Hunan. The spacious 5,000-seat megachurch in Hangzhou. The cluttered apartment-turned-sanctuary hidden in a high-rise in Beijing.
China is many things to many people. With 1.3 billion people, 56 ethnic groups, and six cities with over 10 million in population, China is too vast to paint an accurate picture with one brushstroke. So I plan to offer a weekly snapshot of one development in China, based on personal observation, interviews, and the best of the China news found online. Please join us as we get to know the Middle Kingdom, one snapshot at a time.
19th National Congress of the Communist Party: The atmosphere in Beijing is tense before the Wednesday start of the twice-a-decade National Party Congress, with officials taking action to ensure stability in the city. Tourists need to pass through two separate checkpoints—where bags are X-rayed and IDs checked—to get near Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government shut down the Facebook-owned chat service WhatsApp, which had recently gained popularity among Christians and human rights activists for its end-to-end encryption. Thousands of extra police officers from other provinces will stand guard in Beijing to keep any potential unrest at bay.
Airbnb and domestic home-sharing sites have canceled all Beijing listings for the month of October. Officials ordered dissidents out of the capital and forbade others from speaking with foreign reporters: During a recent trip to Beijing, sources who had once eagerly met with me this time refused. Even the skies required cooperation: The government halted production at nearby steel mills and factories to ensure the skies are blue, rather than smoggy and hazy.
The 19th National Party Congress brings about 2,300 delegates from around the country to the Great Hall of the People to rubber-stamp the country’s policies and leadership for the next five years. The meeting marks the expected beginning of President Xi Jinping’s second five-year term as party leader, and China experts will watch the meeting carefully to gather clues about how much power Xi plans to grab.
When asked by CNN to name China’s top five most powerful people, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, responded: “Xi, Xi, Xi, Xi, and Xi.” Since taking power in 2012, Xi has consolidated control over the military by targeting political enemies with his anti-corruption campaign and elevating loyal military leaders. Recently two generals who had fallen out of Xi’s favor disappeared from public sight and were quietly replaced ahead of the 19th Congress.
If Xi declines to name a successor during the meeting, it could indicate he plans to stay for a third or fourth term, breaking the two-term precedent. Others believe Xi plans to enshrine his ideological statements into the party constitution, making him an equal of Mao Zedong. In addition, the meeting will reveal the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Five of the seven members have reached customary retirement age, yet some believe Xi may waive that restriction for his anti-corruption chief, Wang Qishan. (For more info, check out this roundup by The Guardian and this video from the Brookings Institution.)
In the display window of a kitschy store near Tiananmen Square, the faces of two Chinese leaders gaze from the rows of red and white commemorative plates: Mao and Xi. One the founder of the People’s Republic of China and the other working to lead China back toward a state-controlled dictatorship.
Hot topic: Regardless of the season or temperature outside, Chinese hosts will hand you a cup of scalding hot water. This article from Sixth Tone explains the history of China’s love affair with hot water.