China’s regime faces difficult questions post-COVID as Xi Jinping tightens grip

Beijing’s Great Hall of the People is magnificent.

Based, as it is, in such a politically sensitive location looking out over Tiananmen Square, it’s normally impossible to film here – even taking your phone out can elicit close attention from the police.

But not this weekend.

Those accredited to pass beyond the closed roads were allowed to see and film and take selfies to their heart’s content.

And that’s exactly what the 3,000 or so delegates from across the country did.

There was a celebratory atmosphere, a sense they were excited to be here.

Most were men in suits, but there were a handful in the traditional dress of ethnic minorities – an important display of diversity given China’s history of repressing these groups.

They had gathered for China’s equivalent of the opening of Parliament, an annual event in the political calendar but with extra significance this year.

This “Two Sessions” or “Liang Hui” in Chinese, sees Xi Jinping confirmed as the country’s president for a precedent-busting third term.

He could, in theory, now remain leader for life.

The whole event was as controlled as it was closely guarded.

To access it we had to quarantine for 24 hours in a “closed loop” hotel and have a COVID test.

Ascending the grand steps to enter the building, facial recognition technology pulled up each of our pictures in turn.

Hundreds of masked security men watched us closely.

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All about Xi

In theory, the delegates here vote on legislation, key positions and changes to the constitution.

This year that included a minor increase to the defence budget, but it has all been previously decided in a series of closed-door meetings.

In the Great Hall itself, the delegates clapped in perfect unison as the president and his top team entered.

Mr Xi didn’t take the lectern himself, but the weekend was, in a way, all about him.

His top team reshuffle, a cabinet now stuffed with his allies, was confirmed – his agenda for China firmly at the fore.

But this government does have questions to answer, not least how to rebuild an economy battered by the excesses of a harsh and prolonged zero-COVID policy.

Indeed, the economic forecasts announced were timid compared to usual predictions, with growth having drastically slowed.

Public opinion on this does matter and is damaged.

Many Chinese people suffered enormously under severe lockdowns only for the policy to be dropped dramatically overnight.

But there weren’t many answers here.

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A press conference was filled mainly with state media and a large number of journalism trainees.

The questions, it seemed, had been preselected, and the answers meticulously prepared.

There is a sense that this is the start of a new chapter of sorts for China, a post-COVID era – a time of heightened tensions with the West, under a man who could now be leader for life.

Mr Xi’s China is richer and stronger than it was, but beneath the carefully controlled aesthetic, it still faces complicated questions.