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China’s leader strikes a defiant note, warning of ‘stormy seas’


President Xi Jinping of China on Sunday at the opening ceremony of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

By Chris Buckley, Keith Bradsher, Vivian Wang and Austin Ramzy


President Xi Jinping of China defended his hard-line reign Sunday, presenting himself to a congress of China’s ruling elite as the leader whose tough policies had saved the nation from the ravages of the pandemic and was now focused on securing China’s rise amid multiplying global threats.


Xi, who is poised to claim a groundbreaking third term as leader at the end of the weeklong Communist Party congress, used his opening report to argue that his decade in power had brought historic gains. He pointed to the party’s campaign against corrupt officials, its cleanup of the environment and its crackdown on anti-government protesters in Hong Kong as key victories. He described Chinese foreign policy as a series of successes in fending off Western “bullying” and protectionism, apparently referring to disputes over human rights, technology and Beijing’s claim on Taiwan.


But his praise was coupled with a somber warning that the nation must stand united behind the party to cope with a world he depicted as increasingly turbulent — and hostile. And although he did not mention the United States by name, his distrust of the world’s other great power was an unmistakable backdrop to that exhortation.


“Be mindful of dangers in the midst of peace,” Xi said. “Get the house in good repair before rain comes, and prepare to undergo the major tests of high winds and waves, and even perilous, stormy seas.”


Speaking to a hall filled with delegates in face masks, he made no concessions to critics who have argued that his relentless “zero-COVID” policies of lockdowns, mass testing and intrusive surveillance have pushed China into a cul-de-sac of unsustainable restrictions and economic damage. He argued instead that such tough policies, and the party’s dominance in nearly all aspects of everyday life, was what was needed to protect China’s 1.4 billion people.


He outlined a vision of the Communist Party leading China toward superpower status, saying that sweeping mobilization by the state was needed to ward off international threats circling around China. He told the congress that he would push for faster homegrown technological innovation and would upgrade China’s already formidable domestic security apparatus.


He called for China to exert further influence on world affairs directly and through institutions like the United Nations, while at the same time cautioning that the coming years would pose new challenges for his country.


Xi gave his keynote report less than a week after President Joe Biden issued a long-awaited national security strategy, which identified China as a threat to U.S. security and global primacy. But as is usual for party leaders’ big speeches to congress, Xi did not mention the United States nor did he say anything about Russia’s floundering invasion of Ukraine. Still, Chinese officials were expected to draw from Xi’s speech a warning to stand up to Washington over issues like recent U.S. restrictions on the export of semiconductor technology to China and American support for Taiwan.


“His stance this morning showed that U.S.-China confrontation will continue,” said Willy Lam, a longtime analyst of Chinese politics in Hong Kong who is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. “Every time Xi Jinping speaks, he emphasizes the increasingly complicated and harsh international climate, and the implication is clear.”


In a sign of Xi’s singular focus on stifling perceived threats to China and party rule, Xi’s full report mentioned “national security” 26 times, more even than the 18 times in his longer report to the 2017 congress. In a congress report given by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, a decade ago, “national security” got four mentions.


The message behind Xi’s rhetoric was that China must “continue to circle the wagons — that a strong party leadership is necessary to fend off these increasing external threats,” said William Klein, a former U.S. diplomat with long experience with China who now works for FGS Global. “There’s a broad, stable, near-consensus majority in China now that truly believes the United States has the intention to disrupt China’s modernization drive.”


Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has built a powerful security apparatus that employs extensive networks of cameras and other surveillance equipment, backed by artificial intelligence, to monitor dissent online and on the streets. Threats, in Xi’s view, exist everywhere — not just enemies at the border, but in subversive ideas in classrooms and museums.


“The systems for safeguarding national security were inadequate,” Xi said in describing the situation when he took power. “National security is the foundation of national rejuvenation.”


Xi also repeated China’s long-standing demand that Taiwan, the self-governed island democracy of 24 million people, accept unification under Beijing. He reiterated that China wanted to gain Taiwan peacefully but would never rule out force, which he said could be needed against external intervention — a clear reference to the United States and its allies. Tensions over Taiwan rose significantly in August when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island and China launched intimidating military exercises.


“‘America’ was not mentioned from the beginning to the end, but almost everything points to America,” said Wang Hsin-hsien, a professor who specializes in Chinese politics at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, of Xi’s comments.


The policy implications of Xi’s report will take time to become clearer, as his broad rhetoric is converted into policy proposals and legislation. But some of the most immediate consequences may be in China’s tech sector, which Xi said must step up efforts to master key technologies crucial for economic and military competition. Xi’s comments suggested that the state, not private industry, would guide key initiatives.


“He is doubling down on state-led innovation and trying to throw a bone to the country’s innovative tech elite to assure them that they still matter, but the new incentives are not clear,” said Paul Triolo, a China and tech policy expert at Albright Stonebridge Group.


When Xi turned his attention to China’s domestic economy, struggling with a painful slowdown and job losses this year, his proposals were more cautiously and vaguely worded, suggesting some desire to avoid alarming domestic and foreign investors.


Even as Xi was doubling down on policies that critics have said are hurting China’s global and economic stature, the effects of those policies were playing out in real time.


As Xi described the country’s zero-COVID policy as a successful “all-out people’s war,” making clear that the government had no plans to shift from it soon, tens of millions of people across China were under some form of movement restriction.


Many districts of Shanghai, which emerged from a bruising citywide lockdown only in June, have shuttered entertainment venues as cases resurge there. In Beijing, where cases are also spreading despite the government’s determination to insulate the capital, authorities have ramped up checks on mandatory regular coronavirus tests. Traffic was thin Sunday morning in the city center, and normally bustling malls quiet.


Authorities’ strict controls on the internet, which Xi hailed Sunday as successfully bringing about “fundamental transformation in the ideological sphere,” have dissuaded many Chinese from speaking about politics, online or offline. Despite ample propaganda about the party congress in the capital, residents seemed determined to avoid weighing in on the proceedings.


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