China has once again hit the headlines as the government's controversial zero-Covid policy continues to restrict the movement of millions, sparking mass protests across the country.
The catalyst for the demonstrations was a fire that broke out in an apartment in the western province of Xinjiang, killing at least 10 people. Many say the death toll is much higher than official figures and blame the fatalities on the country's prolonged Covid measures, though the authorities deny this.
At the moment, President Xi Jinping is holding firm to the strict policy, but many experts are beginning to question whether he needs to change tack lest his grip on power weakens further, particularly as disapproval of his leadership spreads.
Since taking power in 2011, Xi has sought to consolidate his position at the top. In 2018, Beijing lawmakers approved the removal of a two-term limit, essentially paving the way for Xi to rule for life. In October this year, the Chinese President secured a third term in power.
So how likely is he to be toppled? Well, Professor Kerry Brown, an expert on China from King's College London, says that it will take more than a few Covid protests to oust Xi's ruling communist party from power.
He told Express.co.uk: "Is this going to lead to the toppling of the Communist Party in China? I think no. If this goes on for months and months and there's bedlam, then they might have a problem.
"We are looking at significant protests, but we are some way from it becoming an existential threat because the government has things they can do to placate people. While there have been people calling for the downfall of Xi Jinping, I don't think that's what is driving these protests. It's more the economic impact."
Professor Brown believes that aftermath of a full-blown revolution in China would have severe consequences globally: "The problem is there is no alternative to the Communist Party in China. So at that point you can either have them or bedlam. And you have to think what's worse. While I understand there are people in the West who look at these protests as a kind of fall of the Berlin Wall moment, this is more complicated.
"The risks and stakes are many many times higher. If it did go that route we would be looking at absolute bedlam which would then have a global impact. That's the last thing we need at the moment. I know people think 'Yay! freedom is coming to the Chinese', but that route offers as difficult a path as trying to work with what is there at the moment."
While it is clear the Communist Party is going nowhere, it still remains a mystery who will eventually succeed Xi. When the Chinese President secured his third term in power in October, he filled his top team with his closest allies, appointing Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi to the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The Washington Post reported in October that one of these men could be the future leader of China.
Yang Zhang, a sociologist at American University’s School of International Service, told the newspaper that leading politicians on the Politiburo Standing Committee are usually phased out in a “seven up, eight down” system which sees those aged 67 or below promoted while 68-year-olds and above retire. Loyalty to Xi is now believed to be the most important currency, as Mr Zhang continued: “It’s in everyone’s interests not to mention the issue of succession. Even if politicians born in the Sixties make it to the Politburo Standing Committee, they will merely be Xi’s technocrats.”
While no one is currently willing to challenge Xi, one of these men on the Politiburo Standing Committee could one day lead China. Ding Xuexiang, 60, has worked closely with Xi in a way few can match, and has essentially worked as the Chinese President's chief of staff.
Mr Xuexiang also previously worked on the Communist Party's Central Secretariat, a job which saw him become pivotal in enforcing Xi's political agenda. Li Qiang is another influential Communist Party figure. He was the Party's secretary in Shanghai, and was met with anger when he promised earlier this year that the city would not go into lockdown, before u-turning on the issue. Li is another key ally of Xi's having backed his tough Covid lockdown rules.
Meanwhile, Cai Qi, the former mayor of Beijing, was also promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee. He is another Xi loyalist and has worked with the president for over 20 years, but his appointment was not expected. Zhao Leji, 65, helped Xi remove corrupt and disloyal officials from the party, and Wang Huning, 67, has been a pivotal figure in helping the Chinese president form big policies. Finally, 66-year-old Li Xi is described by Reuters as a "revolutionary fighter" and is close to Xi's father.
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