Chinese Communist Party congress begins with Xi Jinping’s call for military growth


Chinese guide Xi Jinping on Sunday called for faster military development and did not announce a change in policy, which has strained ties with Washington and tightened the ruling Communist Party’s control over society and the economy.

China’s most influential figure in decades spoke as the Party opens a congress closely watched by businesses, governments and the public for official directional signs. It comes amid a painful slump in the world’s second-largest economy and tensions with Washington and its Asian neighbors over trade, technology and security.

The party’s plans call for the creation of a prosperous society by mid-century and the restoration of China’s historic role as a political, economic and cultural leader. Beijing has expanded its overseas presence, including a multibillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative to build ports and other infrastructure across Asia and Africa, but economists warn a reversal of pro-market reforms could stifle growth.

“The next five years will be crucial,” Xi said in a one-hour and 45-minute televised address to around 2,000 delegates in the cavernous Great Hall of the People. He repeatedly invoked his slogan of “rejuvenating the Chinese nation,” which includes reviving the party’s role as economic and social leader in a throwback to what Xi sees as the golden age after he came to power in 1949.

APTOPIX Chinese Party Congress
Delegates applaud after a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping during the opening ceremony of the 20th National Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Sunday, October 16, 2022.

Mark Schiefbein/AP

Congress will appoint leaders for the next five years. Xi, 69, is expected to break with tradition and give himself a third five-year term as general secretary and foster allies who share his enthusiasm for party dominance.

The party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, must “uphold China’s dignity and core interests,” Xi said, referring to a list of territorial claims and other issues on which Beijing says it is ready to go to war.

China, which has the second largest military budget in the world after the United States, is trying to extend its reach by developing ballistic missiles, aircraft carriers and overseas outposts.

“We will work faster to modernize military theory, personnel and weapons,” Xi said. “We will improve the military’s strategic capabilities.”

Xi cited his government’s tough stance “Zero COVIDstrategy that has shut down major cities and disrupted travel and business, described as a success. He gave no hint of a possible change, despite public frustration at the rising costs.

Congress will appoint a Standing Committee, the ruling inner circle of power. The lineup will show who is expected to succeed Premier Li Keqiang as top economic official and hold other posts when China’s ceremonial legislature meets next year.

Analysts are watching whether a slump that caused economic growth to fall below half of the official annual target of 5.5% could force Xi to compromise and draw in supporters of market-style reforms and entrepreneurs that create wealth and jobs.

Xi gave no indication of when he might step down.

During his decade in power, Xi’s government has pursued an increasingly assertive foreign policy while tightening domestic scrutiny over information and dissent.

Beijing is at odds with the governments of Japan, India and Southeast Asia over conflicting claims to the South China and East China Seas and part of the Himalayas. The United States, Japan, Australia and India formed a strategic group called the Quad in response.

The party has increased dominance of state-owned industries and poured money into strategic initiatives aimed at boosting Chinese creators of renewable energy, electric cars, computer chips, aerospace and other technologies.

His tactics have led to complaints that Beijing is unduly protecting and subsidizing its young creators, and prompted then-President Donald Trump to increase tariffs on Chinese imports in 2019, sparking a trade war that rocked the global economy. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, has maintained those penalties and this month tightened restrictions on Chinese access to US chip technology.

The party has tightened control over private sector leaders, including e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, by launching anti-monopoly, data security and other crackdowns. Under political pressure, they pour billions of dollars into chip development and other party initiatives. Their share prices on foreign exchanges have plummeted due to uncertainty about their future.

The party has stepped up media and internet censorship, increased public surveillance and tightened scrutiny over private life through its “social credit” initiative, which prosecutes individuals and punishes violations ranging from fraud to littering.

Last week, in a rare protest, banners criticizing Xi and “zero COVID” were hung on an elevated lane above a major thoroughfare in Beijing. Photos from the event were deleted from social media, and popular messaging app WeChat shut down accounts that forwarded them.

Xi said the party will build “self-reliance and strength” in technology by improving China’s education system and attracting foreign experts.

The president appeared to be redoubling himself on technological self-sufficiency and “zero-COVID” at a time when other countries are easing travel restrictions and relying on free-flowing supply chains, said Willy Lam, a policy specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Xi was joined on stage by party leaders, including his predecessor as party leader Hu Jintao, former Premier Wen Jiabao and Song Ping, a 105-year-old party veteran who encouraged Xi’s early career. There is no trace of the 96-year-old ex-president Jiang Zemin, who was party chairman until 2002.

The presence of previous leaders shows Xi has no serious opposition, Lam said.

“Xi is making it very clear that he intends to remain in power for as long as his health allows,” he said.

Xi made no mention of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Beijing declined to criticize. Defending a crackdown on a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, he said the party has helped the former British colony “enter a new phase where it has restored order and will thrive”.

The Xi government has also been criticized for mass arrests and other abuses against predominantly Muslim ethnic groups and the imprisonment of government critics.

Amnesty International warned that extending Xi’s term in office was a “disaster for human rights”. In addition to the conditions inside China, it pointed to Beijing’s efforts to “redefine the very meaning of human rights” at the United Nations.

Xi said Beijing refuses to waive the possible use of force against Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that the Communist Party claims as its territory. The two sides split in 1949 after a civil war.

Beijing has stepped up efforts to intimidate Taiwanese by flying fighter jets and bombers to the island. This campaign was further intensified after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, becoming the highest-ranking US official in a quarter-century.

“We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification,” Xi said. “But we will never promise to refrain from the use of force. And we reserve the right to take any action necessary.”

Taiwan’s government responded that its 23 million people have the right to determine their own future and would not accept Beijing’s demands. A government statement called on China to “refrain from imposing a political framework and using military force and coercion.”

The Communist Party leadership agreed in the 1990s to limit the Secretary-General’s term to two five-year terms to prevent a repeat of the power struggles of earlier decades. This leader also becomes chairman of the commission that controls the military and holds the ceremonial title of national president.

Xi made his intentions clear in 2018 when he scrapped a two-term presidency limit from the Chinese constitution. Officials said this allows Xi to stay on to carry out reforms if necessary.

The party is expected to amend its charter this week to improve Xi’s status as a leader, after adding his personal ideology, Xi Jinping Thought, at the previous congress in 2017.

Congress spokesman Sun Yeli said Saturday the changes would “meet new requirements to spur the party’s development,” but gave no details.

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