BEIJING – Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Sunday called for faster military development and announced no change in policies that have strained relations 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 opened a congress that was closely watched by companies, governments and the public for signs of official direction. It comes amid a painful slump in the world's second-largest economy and tension with Washington and Asian neighbors over trade, technology and security.
Party plans call for creating a prosperous society by mid-century and restoring China to its historic role as a political, economic and cultural leader. Beijing has expanded its presence abroad including a multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to build ports and other infrastructure across Asia and Africa, but economists warn reversing market-style reform could hamper growth.
“The next five years will be crucial,” Xi said in a televised speech of one hour and 45 minutes to some 2,000 delegates in the cavernous Great Hall of the People. He repeatedly invoked his slogan of the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," which includes reviving the party's role as economic and social leader in a throwback to what Xi regards as a golden age after it took power in 1949.
The congress will install leaders for the next five years. Xi, 69, is expected to break with tradition and award himself a third five-year term as general secretary and promote allies who share his enthusiasm for party dominance.
The party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, needs to “safeguard China’s dignity and core interests,” Xi said, referring to a list of territorial claims and other issues over which Beijing says it is ready to go to war.
China, with the world's second-largest military budget 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 enhance the military’s strategic capabilities.”
Xi cited his government's severe “zero-COVID” strategy, which has shut down major cities and disrupted travel and business, as a success. He gave no indication of a possible change despite public frustration with its rising cost.
The congress will name a Standing Committee, the ruling inner circle of power. The lineup will indicate who is likely to succeed Premier Li Keqiang as the top economic official and take other posts when China's ceremonial legislature meets next year.
Analysts are watching whether a slump that saw economic growth fall to below half of the official 5.5% annual target might force Xi to compromise and include supporters of market-style reform and entrepreneurs who generate wealth and jobs.
Xi gave no indication when he might step down.
During his decade in power, Xi's government has pursued an increasingly assertive foreign policy while tightening control at home on information and dissent.
Beijing is feuding with Japan, India and Southeast Asian governments over conflicting claims to the South China and East China Seas and a section of the Himalayas. The United States, Japan, Australia and India have formed a strategic group dubbed the Quad in response.
The party has increased the dominance of state-owned industry and poured money into strategic initiatives aimed at nurturing Chinese creators of renewable energy, electric car, computer chip, aerospace and other technologies.
Its tactics have prompted complaints that Beijing improperly protects and subsidizes its fledgling creators and led then-President Donald Trump to hike tariffs on Chinese imports in 2019, setting off a trade war that jolted the global economy. Trump's successor, Joe Biden, has kept those penalties in place and this month increased restrictions on Chinese access to U.S. 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 are diverting billions of dollars into chip development and other party initiatives. Their share prices on foreign exchanges have plunged due to uncertainty about their future.
The party has stepped up censorship of media and the internet, increased public surveillance and tightened control over private life through its “social credit” initiative that tracks individuals and punishes infractions ranging from fraud to littering.
Last week, banners criticizing Xi and “zero COVID” were hung from an elevated roadway over a major Beijing thoroughfare in a rare protest. Photos of the event were deleted from social media, and the popular WeChat messaging app shut down accounts that forwarded them.
Xi said the party would build “self-reliance and strength” in technology by improving China’s education system and attracting foreign experts.
The president appeared to double down on technology self-reliance and “zero COVID” at a time when other countries are easing travel restrictions and rely on more free-flowing supply chains, said Willy Lam, a politics 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 sponsored Xi's early career. There was no sign of 96-year-old former President Jiang Zemin, who was party leader until 2002.
The presence of previous leaders shows Xi faces no serious opposition, said Lam.
“Xi is making it very clear he intends to hold onto power for as long as his health allows him to,” he said.
Xi made no mention of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Beijing refuses to criticize. He defended a crackdown on a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, saying the party helped the former British colony “enter a new stage in which it has restored order and is set to thrive.”
Xi's government also faces criticism over mass detentions and other abuses against mostly Muslim ethnic groups and the jailing of government critics.
Amnesty International warned that extending Xi’s time in power will be a “disaster for human rights.” In addition to conditions within China, it pointed to Beijing’s efforts to “redefine the very meaning of human rights” at the United Nations.
Xi said Beijing refuses to renounce the possible use of force against Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy 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 toward the island. That campaign intensified further after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August became the highest-ranked U.S. official to visit Taiwan in a quarter-century.
“We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification,” Xi said. “But we will never promise to renounce the use of force. And we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”
Taiwan's government responded that its 23 million people had the right to determine their own future and would not accept Beijing’s demands. A government statement called on China to “abandon the imposition of a political framework and the use of military force and coercion.”
The Communist Party leadership agreed in the 1990s to limit the general secretary to two five-year terms in an effort to prevent a repeat of power struggles from earlier decades. That 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 had a two-term limit on the presidency removed from China’s Constitution. Officials said that allowed Xi to stay if needed to carry out reforms.
The party is expected to amend its charter this week to raise Xi's status as leader after adding his personal ideology, Xi Jinping Thought, at the previous congress in 2017.
The spokesperson for the congress, Sun Yeli, said Saturday the changes would “meet new requirements for advancing the party’s development" but gave no details.