Xi Jinping just showed his power by making China’s elite sit through a tortuously long speech

“I’m listening.”
“I’m listening.”
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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Xi Jinping, China’s president and head of the Chinese Communist Party, delivered the most important talk of his political career today in Beijing. The speech opened the weeklong 19th National Congress, a twice-a-decade gathering involving a leadership reshuffling. In the days ahead Xi, already the most dominant Chinese leader in at least three decades, is expected to further consolidate his power.

He certainly has the power to make the nation’s political elite sit through a painfully long speech, as he demonstrated today.

Indeed when China’s former top leaders, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, followed their successor Xi to take seats at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, they probably never expected that a marathon speech of three and a half hours would follow, taking nearly the entire morning for them and the nearly 2,300 Communist Party members in attendance.

In his address—entitled “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”—Xi summarized the achievements the party has made over the past five years and set out goals in a variety of areas for the next term. He revealed for the first time a specific timetable for turning China into a fully developed nation, and rolled out his new thinking for the party’s ideological guidelines. Elsewhere in the speech he announced the establishment of a working group focused on the rule by law and the pursuit of a unified anti-corruption law.

Many of his points were no doubt lost to the audience as the talk droned on. The jargon-riddled, strictly scripted speech was the kind of talk one might expect from a Communist Party leader. It was just an inordinately long one. It took Xi three and a half hours to finish reading the report at a medium speed.

By comparison, his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao used 90 minutes to read out his work report at the 18th congress five years ago. And Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, used less than 15 minutes to highlight four bullet points of his report at the 2002 gathering, saying he saw no need to read the full text given that every attendee already had a handout. 

The 91-year-old Jiang, indeed, was seen unabashedly checking his watch many times during the talk.

A correspondent from the Telegraph tried to count how many times Jiang checked his watch, but he soon lost track:

Other journalists at the scene, or ones following along online, commented on the talk’s duration:

When Xi finally concluded his speech and returned to his seat flanked by Jiang and Hu—amid long-lasting applause, of course—Hu appeared to point to his watch to Xi. There was no comment from Jiang, at least not in front of the cameras.