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News brief: China's priorities, Senate candidates debate, student debt relief


China is the second-largest economy in the world. So when the ruling Communist Party gets together to decide its priorities for the next five years, the world pays attention.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China now officially begins.



The 20th Party Congress is happening this week. And it's going to set the tone for policy for the coming years, reshuffle senior officials and very likely give leader Xi Jinping another five years at the helm.

MARTIN: NPR's John Ruwitch joins us now from Beijing. Good morning, John.


MARTIN: What's this gathering all about? Put it in context for us.

RUWITCH: Well, the party holds congresses like this once every five years. So for this one, there's about 2,300 delegates picked from around the country who've come into town. And they're here for a week of meetings and speeches and votes, most of which will take place behind closed doors. These congresses are seen by outsiders as kind of ceremonial, something like political theater, because the major outcomes are negotiated in secret and in advance by party's powerbrokers. The big thing that people watch at party congresses like this are the personnel moves.

And at this one, as you said, you know, the big one is that Xi Jinping seems likely to get another term as general secretary of the party. That's the most powerful political position in China. And this will be his third term in that role. He's already served 10 years. It's a reversal of recent precedent for just two terms, so that might be a big deal. Beyond that, you know, it'll be key to watch who among the other top leaders retires and who gets promoted. Those will potentially be signals about how much power Xi actually has as he embarks on his second decade as China's top leader.

MARTIN: He's had a tough go of it, though, as of late, right? I mean, his zero-COVID policy has weakened the Chinese economy. Relations with the U.S. are strained, to say the least. Is that going to have - are those things going to have any bearing on the meeting and his future?

RUWITCH: Yeah, right. Well, also, remember, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, you know, met and declared that the China-Russia relationship has no limits right before the invasion of Ukraine, which is arguably a risky look for China on the global stage.

MARTIN: Right.

RUWITCH: Look; these things, you know, are perhaps vulnerabilities for Xi on some level. But, you know, in the past decade, he's shown that he's not one to back down in the face of challenges. He's amassed also so much power and control within the party that it may not matter much. I mean, take COVID policy, for instance. It's hurting the economy. I've talked with countless people here who are sick of it. But in a speech yesterday, Xi defended it. I asked Joseph Torigian about all this ahead of the congress. He's an expert on Chinese politics at American University. And he says it's very likely that within sort of the top ranks of the Chinese leadership, people agree with Xi on things like the idea that the Western powers are bent on preventing China's rise or that the COVID policy is working.

JOSEPH TORIGIAN: But even if there were lots of people who did subscribe to the narrative that Xi Jinping is a failure, the Chinese Communist Party is not a popularity contest.

RUWITCH: In other words, it's a top-down, leader-friendly system. Even if there are people out there who are quietly critical of Xi, it doesn't amount to much. Top officials don't usually get voted out.

MARTIN: So Xi is likely to get another term. Is he going to be emboldened to make big changes of any kind?

RUWITCH: He may be emboldened. I mean, analysts expect that we will see more of the same in terms of policy. His speech yesterday at the start of the congress talked about all the great things that happened during the past 10 years, which is a time when he, of course, was in charge, all the challenges that the party overcame. And that suggests that there'll be a continuation of his strongman approach. I mean, in terms of sort of next steps here, at the end of the Congress, there will be a new central committee. That's the Top 200 or so officials in the country. And then next Sunday, the leaders at the very top, a group called the Politburo Standing Committee, which is now seven men, will walk out from behind a screen, onto a stage. And that's when we'll know if Xi Jinping is the new boss - or is the boss again and who's around him to help him lead the country.

MARTIN: NPR's John Ruwitch from Beijing. Thank you.

RUWITCH: You bet, Rachel.


MARTIN: OK. Tonight in Ohio, Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan will face off against author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance in their second and final Senate debate.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. It's the latest installment in a Senate debate season that has been contentious, even when the debates don't happen.

MARTIN: For more, we've got NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Hey, Danielle.


MARTIN: It wasn't always a given, as A nodded to, that a lot of these Senate debates were even going to happen, right? Explain what was going on.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. As of earlier this fall, there were a lot of candidates on both sides of the aisle for a lot of offices who just weren't agreeing to debate each other. And now that a lot of these Senate candidates have agreed to have if only one debate, that's - there's only, yeah, about one debate happening in some of these races. But in Nevada, it appears that a debate just flat out won't happen.

MARTIN: Why, Danielle? I mean, why are candidates choosing not to stand up and defend their positions, make their case to voters on the stage?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, there are a lot of reasons that a candidate might want to at least limit debates. One is that they think there's a lot more to lose than gain, because given that so many people will only consume the debates as clips on social media, it can be easy for a gaffe to just be super costly. And meanwhile, you have a lot of just really entrenched voters out there. So candidates may perceive that there's not much gain, that they won't persuade many people. But like I said, some of these candidates have ultimately decided to come out and debate if only once, because if they don't, their opponent can call them scared or evasive.


KURTZLEBEN: And furthermore, if your race is really tight, like a lot of these are, you might just hope a debate could push you to a win just by a smidge.

MARTIN: OK. So just to talk about some of the higher profile ones, there was a debate Friday in Georgia. There are some still to come not only tonight in Ohio, as we mentioned, but also in Florida, Colorado. All these races are obviously different. They've got different dynamics at play. Are there common threads in the debates that we've seen so far?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, there are a lot. In general, you're seeing a lot of similar arguments from each side of the aisle. For example, on the Democratic side, candidates are talking a lot about abortion, casting their GOP opponents as just way too extreme on the topic. One other interesting thing is that Democrats, in many cases, seem to feel very comfortable distancing themselves from President Biden and even criticizing him. Here's Democratic Senator Mark Kelly in an Arizona debate.


MARK KELLY: I've been strong on border security. And I've stood up to Democrats when they're wrong on this issue...

TED SIMONS: It sounds like you're...

KELLY: Including, by the way...


KELLY: Including the president. You know, when the president decided he was going to do something dumb on this and change the rules, you know, that would create a bigger crisis, you know, I told him he was wrong.

KURTZLEBEN: And now, relatedly, Republicans are working to tie Democrats to Biden, who isn't very popular, particularly in some of these close states.

MARTIN: Right.

KURTZLEBEN: Republicans are also trying to attack Democrats on inflation and cast Democrats as soft on crime and illegal immigration. Now, the fact that all of these debates are so similar, it's a sign - it's really a sign of how the two parties are just fundamentally different in terms of their identities, that this all transcends geography. And they see each other as - they see defeating each other as just existential for the country. And by the way, getting people to vote based on fear is an effective strategy.

MARTIN: So let's talk about some of the distinctions, which (laughter) have really come in the form of personal attacks. I mean, that - the previous debate between Tim Ryan and J.D. Vance was a thing to see.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. I mean, you're also seeing a lot of state angles on national issues. For example, in Wisconsin, Republican Senator Ron Johnson and Democrat Mandela Barnes were asked about abortion in terms of the state's 19th century-era abortion ban. Johnson responded by saying he wants a referendum.


RON JOHNSON: We all agree that society has a responsibility to protect life. But at what point does society have the responsibility to protect life in the womb? I want we, the people, to decide that. I would have one vote like every other Wisconsin citizen.

MARTIN: OK. So we will keep a close eye on the remaining debates. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.


MARTIN: OK. Say someone promises you something, something that will change your life in a really powerful and positive way. You make plans around that promise. Start to dream about the changes. And then it turns out the promise doesn't apply to you.

MARTÍNEZ: That sounds terrible. We're talking about President Biden's promise to forgive up to $20,000 of student loan debt for borrowers. Over the weekend, the U.S. Department of Education began accepting applications for the relief program. But after recent legal challenges, hundreds of thousands of borrowers have suddenly been told their loans no longer qualify for relief.

MARTIN: NPR's education correspondent Cory Turner is with us. Hey, Cory.


MARTIN: So let's begin with the easy stuff first. The rollout of this application to get the loan forgiveness, what can you tell us about that process?

TURNER: Yeah. So anybody who wants to qualify for relief has to fill this thing out. It is quite short, just a few basic questions. Honestly, it shouldn't take more than 5 minutes. Seeing it drop this weekend was a bit of a surprise, which I think was also the point because it was a beta test. And the Ed. Department wants to work out any bugs in the system before the official launch and, you know, 40 million borrowers apply all at once.

MARTIN: So speaking of bugs or unexpected hurdles, let's jump to the crux of this conversation, really, these borrowers who have now discovered that they are not eligible for this debt relief. What happened?

TURNER: Yeah. So the problem is they have an old kind of student loan known as a federal family education loan - or FFEL. Back in August, President Biden told them they can qualify for debt relief. And Dominique Baker, a professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, told me these fellow borrowers are precisely the type of borrowers his plan was meant to help.

DOMINIQUE BAKER: These borrowers were more likely to attend community colleges, for-profits, HBCUs. And this is fairly old debt.

TURNER: The problem is, a few weeks ago, several Republican state attorneys general sued Biden. See; these loans were guaranteed by the federal government. But they were issued and managed by banks and state-based lenders. And the Republicans are arguing, erasing them would hurt those lenders financially. And the day that suit was filed, the Ed. Department quietly changed the rules on its website to exclude FFEL borrowers. So I've spent the past couple of weeks listening to their stories.

CHRIS TASICH: When I looked at that, my just stomach dropped.

JENNIFER NEWELL DAVIES: Honestly, I cried a bit when I found out that it might not be forgiven. And that's when I started the petition.

TURNER: That was Jennifer Newell Davies and Chris Tasich. Davies is gathering signatures to make clear this reversal would hurt a lot of people.

MARTIN: A lot of people - do we know how many?

TURNER: Yeah. The White House insists it's a small group, just 2% of the 40 million who could benefit. Here's White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.


KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: The number of borrowers impacted in this change is much smaller. I know there was a number of millions, but it's actually much smaller.

TURNER: It is still enough borrowers to fill Yankee Stadium 14 times. That's just under 800,000. Again, here's borrower Chris Tasich.

TASICH: It makes me so angry. They just continue to say that it's a small group. It's a small group. It's a small group. But it's a vulnerable group. They've held debt longer than most. And they've consistently been marginalized.

TURNER: I will say, the White House is in a tough spot here.



TURNER: New court documents make clear it cut these borrowers out, hoping to short circuit these lawsuits...


TURNER: ...And legally protect relief for everyone else. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.