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Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the 20th National Congress of China's ruling Communist Party in Beijing, China, Oct. 16, 2022.Yao Dawei/The Associated Press

Chinese President Xi Jinping touted the country’s achievements over his decade in power Sunday, as he opened a Communist Party Congress where he is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as leader.

Mr. Xi has repeatedly smashed political norms over the past 10 years, consolidating power in a way that no Chinese leader has since Mao Zedong. He has done this with a nationalistic vision of restoring China to greatness, building the country into a true global superpower – and in his speech he vowed to continue the march toward “national rejuvenation.”

But after rattling off a series of triumphs – eradicating poverty, cracking down on corruption and securing party rule in Hong Kong – Mr. Xi took a sterner tone, acknowledging the numerous challenges facing China, both economic and diplomatic.

“Our future is bright, but we still have a long way to go,” the 69-year-old Mr. Xi told about 2,000 delegates in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. “At home, we face many deep-seated problems regarding reform, development and stability that cannot be avoided or bypassed … External attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time.”

The economy has suffered in recent years because of COVID-19 controls and a demographic crisis looms on the horizon that could set a ceiling on future growth. Internationally, Mr. Xi’s aggressive foreign policy has caused a growing rift with the West and problems with many of China’s neighbours.

The country, he said, was already dealing with a “grim and complex international situation,” and should be “prepared to withstand high winds, choppy waters and even dangerous storms on our journey ahead.”

Wearing a dark suit and maroon tie, Mr. Xi spoke for under two hours, a marked departure from the marathon 3½-hour address he gave at the past congress in 2017. Aside from length however, there was little change in the Chinese leader’s rhetoric: He hit similar points on development, anti-corruption and the need for national security, sometimes word-for-word.

In some areas, such lack of departure was welcome. After China ramped up military activity around self-ruled Taiwan in recent months, some had feared Mr. Xi would use the congress speech as a moment to escalate further. But if anything, he did the opposite, reiterating the party’s long-standing position regarding Taiwan, over which the People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty but has never controlled.

“We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and utmost effort but we will never renounce the use of force and reserve the option to take all measures necessary,” Mr. Xi said, adding that this threat is “directed solely at interference by outside forces and a few separatists seeking Taiwan independence; it is by no means targeted at our Taiwan compatriots.”

Lev Nachman, an assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said that “if we’re hearing the exact same buzzwords as we heard in the past, that is a qualitatively good thing for Taiwan.

“Choosing not to escalate on this issue is a signal that he is probably far more focused on trying to overcome domestic challenges that the PRC is currently facing,” Prof. Nachman said.

Those challenges are significant. While Mr. Xi praised China’s GDP growth and position as the world’s second-largest economy, expansion has ground to a halt during the pandemic, largely owing to Beijing’s tough “zero COVID” policies.

Even as the rest of Asia has largely reopened, China remains closed off to the wider world, and millions are currently subject to lockdowns of varying degrees. Early in his speech, Mr. Xi dashed any hope that he would use this as an opportunity to signal a relaxing of such controls, saying “zero COVID” had stopped the spread of the virus and “protected people’s health and safety to the greatest extent possible.”

But while state media has emphasized popular support for such policies, anger is growing, with millions locked down across China at any given moment and continued disruptions to the economy causing additional hardship. Some dissent broke into the open late last week with a tiny but audacious protest in the heart of the capital calling for an end to pandemic controls.

“We don’t want COVID tests, we want to eat; we don’t want lockdowns, we want to be free,” read a banner unfurled over Sitong Bridge, in Beijing’s Haidian district. “Say no to lies, yes to dignity. No to cultural revolution, yes to reform. No to great leader, yes to vote. Don’t be a slave, be a citizen.”

Another banner urged people to “go on strike and remove the dictatorial traitor Xi Jinping.”

It is unclear how many people were involved in the protest and so far no arrests have been reported. The area was swiftly locked down by police, and photos and posts about the incident online subject to intense censorship. As images spread online, censors even briefly blocked the term “Beijing” in an attempt to suppress the story.

Last month, the World Bank forecast that China’s economic output will lag behind the rest of Asia for the first time since 1990, largely as a result of COVID-19 controls. Some analysts have warned these lost years could mean China struggles to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, as it faces structural and demographic challenges that will restrain future growth.

Speaking at a press conference Saturday, party congress spokesman Sun Yeli said growth was “no longer the only thing that matters.”

“The speed of growth is indeed an important yardstick of economic performance but not the only one,” Mr. Sun said. “Instead we focus more on fundamentally resolving the longer-term issues in the economy.”

A key part of this, according to Mr. Xi, will be reducing inequality and achieving “common prosperity.” He said unequal development was the “principle contradiction facing Chinese society” and “closing this gap should be the focus of all our initiatives.”

Speaking ahead of Mr. Xi’s speech, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong’s Baptist University, said the renewed focus on tackling such issues appears to be designed “to give some hope to everyone in China – right now we’re going through a difficult moment, but we’re moving toward common prosperity.”

“The party needs that kind of legitimacy to stay in power and consolidate support,” he said.

As well as securing a third term as leader, Mr. Xi may emerge from the week-long congress with other plaudits. Some analysts have suggested “Xi Jinping Thought” could be added to the party constitution – an amendment is on the agenda this week – and Mr. Xi may also revive the title of Chairman, last used in the 1980s and highly associated with Mao.

While such moves will nominally be voted on by delegates in Beijing, the outcome will have been decided weeks ago by Mr. Xi and other senior party figures. Just how, and with what compromises, is unclear – the black box of elite Chinese politics has become even more opaque under Mr. Xi.

Some indication as to where power lies within the party may come from the make-up of the next politburo standing committee, which will be revealed at the climax of the congress. But even this may be a red herring, according to Christopher Johnson, president of China Strategies Group and a former China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Mr. Johnson said that whoever ends up on the standing committee, or in key roles such as that of premier, “Mr. Xi will remain the major, and really only, person in charge of policy direction.”

With a file from Alexandra Li