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Chinese president urges stronger stand against 'grim' challenges

Chinese president Xi Jinping has urged a reinvigorated Communist Party to take on a more forceful role in society and economic development, to better address "grim" challenges facing the country, as he opened a twice-a-decade national congress.

Speaking in the massive Great Hall of the People near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Xi laid out his vision of a ruling party that serves as the vanguard on everything from defending national security to providing moral guidance to ordinary Chinese.

He struck a nationalistic line throughout his speech, calling for the party not only to safeguard China's sovereignty but also to revitalise Chinese culture, oppose "erroneous" ideology and promote religion that is "Chinese in orientation".

"The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is no walk in the park or mere drum-beating and gong-clanging.

"The whole party must be prepared to make ever more difficult and harder efforts," Mr Xi told hundreds of delegates, mostly men in dark suits who applauded regularly as they read copies of his prepared remarks.

"To achieve great dreams there must be a great struggle."

Hailing the start of a "new era," Mr Xi outlined a vision in which the party would lead China on the road to becoming a "great modern socialist country" by the middle of the century.

"This means he has already distinguished himself from the past and from previous leaders, but also that he is leading China into territory in which China is very close to achieving modest prosperity," said Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.

According to Mr Xi's vision, "China would not only be a modern, socialist country but one that stands tall among the nations," Mr Yang said. "This message he delivered with vigour."

Mr Xi wields undisputed power and is expected to get a second five-year term as party leader at the gathering.

Analysts say he has consolidated his power by sidelining his competitors in other intra-party cliques, including those surrounding his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao and former leader Jiang Zemin.

The Communist Party meetings will largely be behind closed doors and are accompanied by extraordinary security measures, such as restrictions on knife sales and greater monitoring of dissidents.

But the congress will see powerful players emerge in new roles and is a chance for Mr Xi to publicly lay out his political and economic vision over the next five years.

Mr Xi, in his three-and-a-half-hour address, said China's "prospects are bright but the challenges are grim", a rare acknowledgement of severe economic issues.

He added that the party would have to take big risks and overcome "major resistance".

Other Chinese leaders have regularly warned since the 2008 financial crisis that China's economic growth faces "downward pressure" due to weak global demand that threatens export industries in the world's second-largest economy.

But Mr Xi's comments were unusual in a keynote speech meant to highlight the party's confidence and long-range vision.

Among the grave issues Mr Xi said were insufficiently addressed are a widening income gap and problems in employment, education, medical care and other areas.

He pledged to make high school universally available and promised to extend land-use contracts for farmers for another 30 years after expiration, among other policy measures.

Mr Xi hailed China's island-building efforts in the disputed South China Sea as well as his signature foreign-policy initiative, the "One Belt, One Road" infrastructure investment project aimed at improving connections between China, Europe and Africa.

He also praised the party's tightened grip over domestic security, saying that social stability had been maintained and national security strengthened.

Mr Xi pledged that the party would have "zero tolerance" for corruption and said it would "continue to purify, improve and reform itself" - an indication that it would not allow outside checks.

Observers will be watching the congress for signs of whether Mr Xi, 64, may be looking to appoint a successor.

While the nation's presidency is limited to two five-year terms, the tenure of the party's leader is bound only by tradition.

Mr Xi exhorted party members to resist "pleasure seeking, inaction, sloth and problem avoidance".

He drew a hard line on sovereignty, saying that the party must "staunchly oppose all efforts to split China" or to undermine ethnic relations.

Mr Xi announced no new initiatives but emphasised Beijing "must develop the public sector", a goal that reform advocates complain wastes public money and further slows economic growth.

Xi affirmed official pledges to make the banking industry more market-oriented and to shrink bloated state-owned steel and coal industries.

Excess industrial capacity has strained trade relations with Washington and Europe, which complain that a flood of low-cost Chinese exports is depressing global prices for steel, aluminium and other goods and threatening jobs abroad.

AP

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