A lot has been said about the stakes involved in the Communist Party’s national congress, which gets under way on Sunday and is expected to secure President Xi Jinping a norm-breaking third term in office . With less than a week to go before the five-yearly conclave opens, mainlanders would normally be speculating about China’s new leadership line-up and contributing to debates over future policy choices and the fate of the country. But this year seems a bit different, with many people struggling to cope with China’s unrelenting zero-Covid curbs and tightened restrictions on freedom of speech. A viral message circulating on Chinese social media this week claims that of the country’s 600-odd cities, people travelling from 563 of them are effectively barred from entering the capital in the name of Covid-19 health controls. While it is hard to verify the message given the secrecy surrounding coronavirus-related statistics, it gives some idea of how hypersensitive mainland authorities have become ahead of the leadership reshuffle. Even for those who have grown used to Beijing’s Orwellian-style social controls in the months leading to the party gathering, this is shocking considering the scale of the people affected and the extent of its implications. Is the pandemic over? Experts say no, but China still needs zero-Covid exit plan In a bid to discourage the flow of holidaymakers during the week-long National Day break, local governments across the country also doubled down on the notorious zero-Covid curbs , imposing pre-emptive lockdowns, blanket travel bans, mass testing and isolation. Many people, including some of my friends and former colleagues, have complained on social media sites about getting pop-up notifications on health-code apps that prevent them from going to Beijing or elsewhere due to coronavirus flare-ups. While such extreme curbs would no doubt add to the immeasurable cost of the seemingly endless zero-tolerance policy to the country’s economy, people’s livelihoods and China’s reputation, it has served as a temporary but useful distraction for the leadership in Beijing. For them, Xi’s controversial plan to extend his rule that could put him on track to become leader for life is apparently of paramount importance, at least for now. Other headaches, such as severe economic fallout from zero-Covid, surging grievances at home and the gathering storm of China’s feud with the West over Taiwan and Beijing’s pivot to warmongering Russian President Vladimir Putin, just have to wait. While this line of thinking is obviously problematic given the cost and unsustainability of zero-Covid when the outside world is back to normal, extended pandemic controls have proved useful in giving Beijing a sense of the stability and security it craves at the moment. But just as former premier Wen Jiabao warned a decade ago, long overdue political reforms, which have become a taboo in China, cannot be stalled forever. Without “urgent” political reform, Wen said the country would still be at risk of seeing a repeat of historical tragedies like the Cultural Revolution.