Xi seals his political supremacy, focusing on economy, U.S. rivalry
March 10, 2023 Updated Fri., March 10, 2023 at 4:44 p.m.
Xi Jinping solidified his status as China’s most powerful leader in decades by sweeping into a new term as president Friday as he steels the country for an era of superpower rivalry and seeks to revive a battered economy.
The unanimous vote on the presidency by the Communist Party-controlled legislature formalized Xi’s continued dominance of Chinese politics after he had already claimed a fresh term as party leader in October. He will keep holding the three main crowns of power in China — party, military and state — with no rivals or potential successors vying for attention.
With his personal power secure, Xi, 69, is now casting himself as the strong leader that China needs in a hostile world, dismissive of the criticisms that his autocratic style is adding to the country’s dangers.
The party’s heavy-handed pursuit of “zero COVID” dragged on the economy; set off rare, widespread protests; and added to investor worries about the country’s long-term growth prospects. Under Xi, China’s relations with the West have become increasingly strained, especially over Beijing’s rising pressure on Taiwan and Chinese closeness to Russia throughout the war in Ukraine.
The Communist Party has used a meeting of the National People’s Congress, the legislature, in Beijing to urge the nation to rally behind Xi. At a meeting with business leaders this week, Xi suggested that Western animosity was to blame for some of China’s economic troubles and took the rare step of openly accusing the United States of “all-around containment, encirclement and suppression.”
“In the coming period, the risks and challenges that we’re facing will only become more and more numerous and grim,” Xi told the business leaders, members of an advisory council. He urged officials to remain “calm and focused” while also braced for “struggle.”
Xi is poised to install his trusted officials to a new government lineup that will carry out his agenda of reviving growth and guarding China against threats at home and abroad. He has sought to assure jittery private businesses that the party embraces them. He initiated a government reorganization intended to better control financial risks and encourage more homegrown scientific innovation.
But Xi’s messages can be mixed, if not contradictory.
Even as he extended a friendly hand to private businesses, describing them as “one of us,” he has reminded them that they must serve the party’s priorities, including in national security and rural development. Xi’s warnings against the West may help to solidify support at home, but a more pugnacious stance risks escalating tensions with Washington and undercutting China’s economic recovery.
“This period is going to be an important one for seeing whether Xi is repentant or unbowed. I wouldn’t expect him to change a lot of the essentials,” Christopher Johnson, a former CIA analyst who is a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center for China Analysis, said in an interview. “Xi is not on a ‘charm offensive’ where he is looking to correct the error of his ways.”
For now, at least, Xi has signaled that he is prepared to push back against the United States over its sanctions and restrictions on Chinese firms and its expanding military deployments around Asia. The National People’s Congress is set to approve an increase of 7.2% to China’s military spending this year, enhancing the potential of the People’s Liberation Army to project power far from Chinese shores.
Xi and President Joe Biden had been moving to rein in tensions, but their efforts have been overtaken by disputes over a Chinese surveillance balloon and the Biden administration’s accusation that Beijing was considering sending lethal support for Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. The Chinese foreign minister, Qin Gang, said this week that Beijing “has not provided weapons to either side of the conflict.”
To minimize China’s external vulnerabilities, Xi has emphasized reducing reliance on Western-held technologies and expertise, and fortifying the country against threats to food and energy security.
Xi still seems to hope to restart talks with Washington to manage tensions. But his unusually blunt warning against U.S. intentions will also ripple through the Chinese political system, said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was director for China at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama.
“President Xi’s public expression of frustration toward Washington will give license to other actors in China’s system to take a sharper public line against the United States,” Hass said in an email. “I expect President Biden and Xi to speak again in the coming couple of months,” he added. “Until the relationship finds areas of common purpose, though, it will remain defined by mutual enmity and grievance.”
The congress in Beijing has been stage-managed to show support for Xi’s domestic and foreign policies. The 2,952 congress delegates — selected for their loyalty to the party — stood to applaud Xi after they had all voted to keep him as president. As the voting progressed, Xi sat on the podium chatting at length with his No. 2, the incoming Chinese premier, Li Qiang, who is expected to focus on growth.
Xi opened the way for his third term as president by engineering a constitutional change in 2018 that abolished what had been a two-term limit on that office. On that occasion, three legislative delegates abstained, while two dared vote against the change.
Economic growth slowed to 3% last year, lower than expected, as businesses and supply chains bore the brunt of COVID lockdowns and mass quarantines across the country. Unemployment among urban youth rose to nearly 20% in the worst months of 2022.
“I’m optimistic that as soon as the National People’s Congress is over, and Li Qiang has fully taken over, then China is going to roll out measures to boost the confidence of the private sector,” said Wang Xiangwei, a former chief editor of the South China Morning Post, a newspaper in Hong Kong.
“If you want to revive the Chinese economy, you have to rely on the private sector,” Wang, who now writes a newsletter on Chinese politics, said in an interview. “However, the private sector has been hit so hard that mere words to soothe their concerns is not enough.”
Xi and his top lieutenants have not yet offered specific responses to the deep unease in China’s private business community about the increasingly intrusive role of the government and restrictions on private investment. Beijing has been requiring companies to transfer a small stake and a seat on the board to the government and ordering companies to consult with Communist Party cells installed in their firms. Even as China tries to restore investor confidence, many of those policies may stay.
“Because they’re now facing what they take to be an insecure environment at home and abroad, they’re really taking steps to concentrate power, not to let go of it,” Kou Chien-Wen, a professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan, who specializes in Chinese politics, said of China’s leaders.
State media reports of Xi’s meetings with businesspeople during the annual legislative session sought to emphasize the party’s expectation that entrepreneurs serve its party’s priorities, in return for its support. The reports highlighted a rural entrepreneur who was quoted as saying that companies should invest in farming. They also featured Robin Zeng, the founder of CATL, a top maker of batteries for electric cars that has given China a commanding lead in a core technology. China views achieving independence in electric cars and other major industries of the future as a top priority.
In the meeting with Xi, the reports said, Zeng discussed China’s dependence on foreign countries for strategic minerals. He said China should do more to ensure access to such “upstream” resources that supply manufacturers with the raw materials. Again, Xi used the chance to warn of threats to China’s security.
“Some of those who want to choke our throats really do want to start from upstream,” Xi replied, according to the official account of the meeting. “When they’re playing a zero-sum game with us, we need to leave ourselves a way out.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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