Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged on Sunday to guide China through serious challenges toward national rejuvenation, advancing a nationalist vision that has put it on a collision course with the West.
Speaking at the opening of the 20th Party Congress, where he is set to secure an unprecedented third term in office, Xi struck a confident tone, highlighting China’s growing strength and growing influence. during his first decade in power.
But he also repeatedly highlighted the risks and challenges facing the country.
Describing the past five years as “very unusual and extraordinary”, Xi said the ruling Communist Party had led China through “a bleak and complex international situation” and “a succession of enormous risks and challenges”.
The very first challenges Xi listed were the Covid-19 pandemic, Hong Kong and Taiwan – all of which he claimed China had emerged from victory.
The Chinese government, Xi said, had ‘protected people’s lives and health’ from Covid, moved Hong Kong from ‘chaos to governance’ and waged ‘major struggles’ against ‘independence forces’ on the island. of Taiwan, a self-governing island. democracy that Beijing claims as its own territory although it has never controlled it.
Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program, said Xi’s decision to flag the Taiwan issue early in his speech was a departure from previous speeches and reflected a “newfound urgency to make progress on the Taiwan question”. ”
Xi won the loudest and longest applause of the roughly 2,300 hand-picked delegates inside the Great Hall of the People when he spoke about Taiwan again later in the speech.
He said China would ‘strive for peaceful reunification’ – but then issued a stark warning, saying ‘we will never promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the right to take all necessary measures”.
“The wheels of history are turning towards the reunification of China and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The complete reunification of our country must be achieved,” Xi said to thunderous applause.
Xi also pointed to the “rapid changes in the international situation” – a thinly veiled reference to the frayed ties between China and the West, which were further strained by Beijing’s tacit support for Moscow following the invasion of China. Ukraine by Russia.
He said China had “taken a clear stance against hegemonism and power politics” and “never wavered” against unilateralism and “bullying” – in an apparent swipe at what Beijing considers as a US-led world order that must be dismantled.
Outlining major directions for the next five years, Xi said China would focus on “high-quality education” and innovation to “renew growth” in the struggling country’s economy. China will “accelerate its efforts to achieve greater autonomy in science and technology,” he said, in comments that come just months after its damaging crackdown on the private sector and big corporations. technology companies in the country.
Xi also pledged to accelerate efforts to build the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a “world-class army,” pledging to improve the PLA’s ability to safeguard national sovereignty and strengthen the strategic deterrence. He also urged the Premier League to strengthen their training and improve their “ability to win”.
Xi’s speech was peppered with the Chinese term for “security” – which was mentioned about 50 times. He called national security “the foundation of China’s national rejuvenation” and urged strengthening military, economic and “all aspects” security both at home and abroad.
Another point of interest was Marxism and ideology. “I don’t think there will be a loosening of the ideological atmosphere in the next five years,” said Victor Shih, an elite China politics expert at the University of California.
Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said the directions set out in Xi’s opening speech were a continuation of his previous policies. By emphasizing challenges and struggles, he said, it justifies “the need for a strong party and a great leader”.
Here is Xi Jinping’s vision for making China great again
The week-long congress kicked off on Sunday morning amid heightened security, escalating zero-Covid restrictions and a propaganda and censorship frenzy.
The most important Communist Party meeting in decades, the congress is expected to cement Xi’s status as China’s most powerful leader since the late Chairman Mao Zedong, who reigned until his death at the age of 82 years old. It will also have a profound impact on the world, as Xi doubles down on an assertive foreign policy to bolster China’s international clout and rewrite the US-led global order.
Meetings will mostly be held behind closed doors throughout the week. When delegates reappear at the end of the congress next Saturday, they will take a ceremonial vote to approve Xi’s work report and approve changes to the party’s constitution – which could bestow Xi new titles to further bolster his position. power.
Delegates will also select the party’s new Central Committee, which will hold its first meeting the next day to appoint the party’s top leadership – the Politburo and its Standing Committee, following decisions already made behind the scenes by party leaders ahead of the congress. .
The congress will be a great moment of political triumph for Xi, but it also comes at a time of potential crisis. Xi’s insistence on an uncompromising zero-Covid policy has fueled growing public frustration and crippled economic growth. Meanwhile, diplomatically, his “unlimited” friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has further strained Beijing’s ties with the West following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Here’s why Xi’s subtle gestures during his speech have people worried
Looking ahead to the congress, officials across China have dramatically tightened restrictions to prevent even minor Covid outbreaks, imposing sweeping lockdowns and increasingly frequent mass Covid testing on a handful of cases. Yet infections caused by the highly transmissible variant of Omicron continued to flare up. On Saturday, China reported nearly 1,200 infections, including 14 in Beijing.
Public anger at zero-Covid was on display Thursday in an exceptionally rare protest against Xi in Beijing. Photos online show two banners were unfurled on a busy overpass denouncing Xi and his policies, before being pulled down by police.
“Say no to the Covid test, yes to the food. No to confinement, yes to freedom. No to lies, yes to dignity. No to cultural revolution, yes to reform. No to the great leader, yes to the vote. Don’t be a slave, be a citizen,” one banner read.
“Go on strike, depose dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping,” reads the other.
The Chinese public has paid little attention to party conventions in the past – they have no say in reshuffling the country’s leadership or shaping major policies. But this year, many have pinned their hopes on the congress as a turning point for China to ease its Covid policy.
A string of recent articles in the party spokesperson, however, suggest that this could be wishful thinking. The People’s Daily hailed zero-Covid as the “best choice” for the country, insisting that it is “sustainable and must be followed”.
On Sunday, Xi defended his highly controversial and economically damaging zero Covid policy.
“In responding to the sudden outbreak of Covid-19, we prioritized people and their lives above all else, and tenaciously pursued a dynamic zero Covid policy by launching an all-out people’s war against the virus,” he said. he declared.
Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said Xi’s words signaled that it was “impossible for China to change the zero-Covid strategy in the near future. “.