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Politics

Xi marks 69th birthday as media praise grows

Economic woes also thrust Li into the spotlight ahead of Communist Party congress

A screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping delivering a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia via video link on April 21.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- China's official media outlets are heaping accolades on President Xi Jinping, who turns 69 on Wednesday, as he inches closer toward securing a rare third term leading the Communist Party at its twice-a-decade congress this fall.

Since late May, the state-run Xinhua News Agency has published multiple pieces covering key moments in Xi's life -- including how he adapted to a humble, rural life during his youth amid the chaos of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

The party-affiliated People's Daily published a front-page story on June 2 lauding Xi's tenure as party chief since 2012, including his responses to the coronavirus pandemic and political unrest in Hong Kong.

The glowing coverage by official outlets is likely intended to highlight Xi's triumphs ahead of the upcoming congress, but it also reflects a degree of concern within the Communist Party's leadership. The party recently came under fire over the monthslong COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai, including for its harsh enforcement strategies and corruption involving critical supplies.

Most ordinary Chinese do not appear overly interested in the media-driven narrative around Xi. Health is also a factor, as Xi is older than leaders of most leading countries, including the U.K., Germany, France and Japan, even though he is younger than 79-year-old U.S. President Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has become increasingly visible as he pushes to re-energize the economy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Premier Li Keqiang attend the National People's Congress on March 5.   © Reuters

Li has been signaling an easing of the crackdown on the tech sector as well as other policies championed by Xi. He urged regional officials and other government cadres -- 100,000 of them, according to some reports -- to bolster China's rapidly slowing economy at an online meeting in May hosted by the State Council.

When Xi first became party leader and was still not as secure in his position, he had been wary of Li's connection to the influential Communist Party Youth League.

Xi may be warning Li not to amass further clout as he spends more time in the spotlight, some within the Communist Party say. Ancient Chinese chancellors Li Si and Li Linfu doomed the Qin and Tang dynasties, respectively, through their greed, argued a piece in a June publication by the Communist Party's anti-corruption watchdog. The tale of the two Lis was seen by some as a message to the modern-day premier.

An economic slowdown before the party congress would deal a political blow to Xi. There is speculation that the president is protecting himself by making Li Keqiang the face of the issue. The Xi leadership would still benefit if the economy picks back up.

Under the Chinese constitution, Li will be stepping down as premier in March 2023. Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper reported on May 19 that Li may become chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee afterward, and wield influence over the selection of his successor.

Li is said to be close to Vice Premier Hu Chunhua and other leaders who came up through the ranks of the Communist Youth League. The tug-of-war between Xi and Li on China's next premier is expected to intensify ahead of this fall's congress.

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