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Beijing, China -- Rapturous applause greeted Chinese President Xi Jinping as he took the stage Sunday at the start of a carefully choreographed Communist Party Congress expected to confirm him as the country's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
Around 2,300 delegates gathered in Beijing's imposing Great Hall of the People, bedecked in the party's signature red and gold with banners bearing slogans hailing the "great, glorious and correct Chinese Communist Party".
Xi's opening speech came after a minute's silence for deceased party heroes, such as Mao and his successor Deng Xiaoping, and a live military band's rendition of the national anthem.
Beneath a giant hammer-and-sickle emblem, he spoke for around an hour and a half, presenting his scorecard of the government's work under his tenure and setting out his vision for his precedent-breaking third term.
Attendees diligently scribbled notes, with the occasional flash of colour from those in military attire or the traditional dress of one of China's ethnic minority groups punctuating a sea of monochrome suits.
Among more unusual delegates were the first Chinese woman to spacewalk, astronaut Wang Yaping, and Olympic hero speed skater Wu Dajing, wearing his national tracksuit.
In line with strict health protocols, all those attending were masked, apart from the front row of top-ranked guests.
These included Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao, grey-haired and looking frail, though Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin did not appear to be in attendance.
Also present was Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier accused by tennis star Peng Shuai of "forcing" her into sex, before she retracted her allegations after disappearing from public view for three weeks.
- 'He is the core' -
The Congress is a display of party unity and strength, with carefully vetted delegates drawn from all of China's provinces.
It is also a show of loyalty to Xi personally, with the 69-year-old expected to secure a third term as Communist Party general secretary, throwing out leader succession norms that have prevailed since the 1990s.
Guangxi delegate He Xiangyin told AFP she fully supported that move.
"As long as he (works) for the happiness of the people, and continues to improve our quality of life, we will all support him," she said. "He's the core of what we do."
Asked whether there were worries that there would be no one suitable to take over after Xi, Jiangsu delegate Li Yinjiang was dismissive.
"Our party will surely train someone properly for the role. Each generation passes the torch to the next," he said.
During the speech, thunderous clapping greeted Xi's mention of perceived successes, ranging from stamping out Covid-19 outbreaks to quelling unrest in Hong Kong.
The longest and loudest applause came for his comments on Taiwan, as he stated: "Reunification of the motherland must be achieved and will be achieved."
Xi made no direct mention of the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where Western countries have accused China of widespread human rights abuses against the country's Muslim minorities, primarily the Uyghurs.
"We in Xinjiang live such happy lives, because our great party is leading us... As a Uyghur person, I am extremely thankful that I can live here in China," Rehema Awuqi, from the party's Xinjiang delegation, told AFP after the speech.
In the week leading up to the event, Beijing has been spruced up with banners, exhibitions and flower arrangements extolling the party's virtues and Xi's political philosophy, and urging onlookers to "delightedly welcome" the Congress.
A heavy security presence was in place in the capital, with police standing sentry at major intersections and an increased number of personnel deployed on pedestrian bridges around the city.
The mostly closed-door conclave is taking place under China's strict zero-Covid policy, with journalists and other attendees holed up from Friday in a virus-secure bubble with mandatory mask-wearing and daily PCR tests.
© Agence France-Presse