China’s Xi Jinping sets ambitions with himself at the center

HONG KONG-Chinese leader Xi Jinping cast himself as the decisive helmsman his country needs to overcome great adversity and pledged to build a more secure, powerful and equal nation as he signaled plans to extend his decade-long rule.

In a Sunday speech, opening of the Communist Party Congress where he is set to defy recent norms and seek a third term as party chief, Mr Xi issued a stout defense of his record and shrugged off concerns over Covid-19, a sluggish economy and uneasy ties with the United States. He recalled his efforts to curb corruption, gather public support for the party and champions China’s political system as a counterweight to Western liberal democracy.

A campaign of “self-revolution”, marked by strong crackdowns on corruption and political dissent, Mr Xi said, has “ensured that the party will never change quality, change color or taste” – party parlance for threats to Communist rule in China .

In televised remarks from Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Mr Xi also claimed significant successes in fighting Covid-19, enforcing order in Hong Kong and curbing what he called separatist activism in the island democracy of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory.

He reiterated that Beijing will not renounce the use of force to unify Taiwan to deter outside interference and divisive elements. “The complete unification of the motherland must be realized and it will be realized,” he said to loud applause.

Xi directed parts of his speech to address concerns about China’s ties with the rest of the world, amid rising geopolitical tensions and Beijing’s own Covid-imposed isolation, reaffirming his support for globalization and adherence to a decades-old national policy of “reform “. and opens up.”

While Mr. Xi warned of risks, challenges and “even dangerous storms” ahead, his report to Congress largely promised a continuation of his firm rule at home and a more assertive exercise of power abroad, including by making the military combat-ready.

“The working report was unequivocally about continuity,” Joseph Torigian, a professor of Chinese politics and foreign policy at American University, said on Twitter. “Although historic, this Congress will almost certainly not signify fundamentally new policy directions.”

In setting out his economic goals, Mr Xi renewed his promise of a new era of “shared prosperity”, in which the party exercises greater control over private capital and distributes China’s wealth more evenly. Such an effort has worried entrepreneurs at home and investors from abroad afterwards sweeping regulatory crackdowns on Chinese tech giants and private companies in recent years.

President Xi addressed several topics including Taiwan, Hong Kong and the fight against Covid-19 in his speech at the celebration gathering in Beijing.


Photo:

Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

Mr. Xi also trumpeted what he called “Chinese-style modernization” and doubled down on his program of party-led economic planning and development. He reiterated calls to ensure China’s economic self-reliance, calling for more indigenous efforts to develop advanced technologies that can serve the nation’s strategic needs — a demand that comes as the United States steps up efforts to deny China access to critical components such as advanced semiconductors.

Since taking power in late 2012, Mr Xi has assumed a degree of autocratic authority not seen since the Mao Zedong era, changing recent retirement practices to allow himself to remain in office indefinitely time.

By taking a third term as party chief, the 69-year-old Mr. Xi would abandon the decades-long leadership cycle set by his predecessor and dismantle succession norms designed to prevent a return to a Mao-style dictatorship. Political analysts expect Mr Xi to promote protégés and allies into senior party roles, thereby cementing his political supremacy.

Sir. Xi devoted much of his speech to stressing how his party aligns itself with the Chinese people. “The country is the people and the people are the country,” he said. The whole party must always “share its destiny and connect heart to heart with the people.”

The party has in recent years increasingly described Mr Xi as renmin lingxiu, or “leader of the people,” a term that reflects Mao’s title of weida lingxiu, or “great leader”. Party insiders say the congress could give Mr Xi more signs of power, such as formally naming him renmin lingxiu and cementing his claim to be on par with Mao as China’s greatest statesman.

Another option would involve shortening the label for Mr. Xi’s political philosophy, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” to simply “Xi Jinping Thought.” This would directly reflect the “Mao Zedong Thought” as the party elevates as a guiding ideology second only to Marxism-Leninism.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has used propaganda to extend his rule and set the stage for a third term. The WSJ looks at three moments over his 10 years in power that trace his rise to become the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Photo illustration: Adam Adada

Mr. Xi’s speech, which lasted about 104 minutes, was about half the length of the his remarks at the 2017 Congress, where he spoke for more than 200 minutes. State broadcaster China Central Television said Mr Xi’s speech on Sunday included highlights from a full report that congress delegates will review over the coming week.

In Sunday’s speech, Mr Xi declared the party had achieved “historic victories” under his watch, citing the party’s centenary last year, its stewardship of a “new era” of Chinese socialism and his campaign to eradicate rural poverty . He also reiterated long-term goals he first laid out five years ago: to ensure that China achieves a degree of “socialist modernization” by 2035 and becomes a “modern socialist power” by the middle of the 21st century.

Some analysts have cited the 2035 target – by which Mr Xi believes China should have become a more equal and prosperous society with an innovative economy and a modernized military – as a possible timeline for his efforts as paramount leader.

The party has presented its twice-yearly congress as a triumphant moment for China, even as it faces far-reaching challenges. Mr. Xi’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19 has throttled the domestic economy with repeated shutdowns and disruptions, exacerbated by a downturn in the property market.

Tensions with the United States and other Western powers have intensified as they challenge Beijing’s push for technological supremacy, territorial claims over Taiwan and continued support for Moscow following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Xi did not mention the war in Ukraine during his speech, which was not expected to go into detail on foreign affairs.

Despite heightened security and censorship, frustrations with Mr Xi’s policies boiled over into open dissent on Thursday when a protest took place on a motorway bridge in Beijing. Dark smoke swirled above protest banners denouncing Mr Xi as a “treacherous dictator” – a rare show of defiance that was quickly debunked by local authorities.

More than 2,300 delegates were present in the Great Hall of the People, including retired party elders. Mr. Xi’s immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, took a place at the podium next to the incumbent. Among the notable absentees were Jiang Zemin, the 96-year-old former leader who served as general secretary for 13 years until 2002, as well as former premier Zhu Rongji, who turns 94 this month.

Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, where the Chinese Communist Party’s twice-yearly congress opened on Sunday.


Photo:

Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

The congress, which ends on Saturday, will vote on proposed changes to the party charter and elect a new central committee, which since 2007 has included more than 370 full and non-voting deputies, drawn from senior ranks of the party, the government, the military and state industry.

The new Central Committee meets the next day to elect the next Politburo and its elite Standing Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body. The Politburo has consisted of 25 full members since 2007, while the Politburo Standing Committee has had seven members since 2012, when it was reduced from nine.

The share of seats held by Xi allies in the next leadership would provide clues as to how much influence the Chinese leader can wield to pursue his priorities. Analysts say Mr Xi is unlikely to name any potential successors as that would undermine his own authority.

Top government posts, including the next premier and other ministerial roles, will not be finalized until China’s annual legislative session next spring.

In his Sunday remarks, Mr. Xi did not say whether he plans to stay in power to fulfill the vision he outlined. Mr. Xi would turn 74 at the end of his third term, two years younger than Mr. Jiang was when he stepped down as party chief in 2002.

Write to Chun Han Wong at chunhan.wong@wsj.com

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