Sounding very much like a man not going anywhere, Chinese President Xi Jinping kicked off a critical weeklong Communist Party Congress strongly defending his economic and COVID policies, while vowing to stamp out democratic dissent in Hong Kong and pursue the “reunification” of Taiwan, diplomatically if possible but militarily if necessary.
The formal decision on whether Mr. Xi, 69, will get a precedent-shattering third five-year term as party general secretary and head of the powerful Central Military Commission is not expected until next weekend.
But Mr. Xi, who has emerged as China’s most powerful leader since Mao, doubled down in his opening speech to the delegates on a number of key policies he has pursued since taking power a decade ago. He made no direct mention of recent Chinese economic woes or growing tensions with the U.S. and China’s neighbors across East Asia.
Taiwan’s future, he said, is “a matter that must be resolved by the Chinese,” a shot at the U.S. which has stepped up its military and political support for the island democracy after a summer of tensions with Beijing.
“We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary,” Mr. Xi said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
“This is directed solely at interference by outside forces and the few separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ and their separatist activities; it is by no means targeted at our Taiwan compatriots,” he added to loud applause from delegates.
Mr. Xi also signaled no retreat from his controversial “zero-COVID” policies which look to sharply repress the pandemic through the use of major lockdowns and intrusive testing. The policy has produced open dissent online and some protests, and outside experts say the policy has damaged the economy and is not sustainable.
China has “adhered to the dynamic zero-COVID approach … and achieved major positive results in the overall prevention and control of the epidemic, as well as economic and social development,” Mr. Xi contended, giving no signs of a policy change on the issue.
He also pledged to continue the build-up of the People’s Liberation Army, which is increasingly challenging the U.S. for military dominance in the region.
“We will work faster to modernize military theory, personnel and weapons,” Mr. Xi said. “We will enhance the military’s strategic capabilities.”
Some 2,300 delegates assembled at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing under heavy security conditions in the capital to hear Mr. Xi‘s nearly two-hour address.
Talking very much like an incumbent defending his record ahead of Election Day, Mr. Xi offered up an agenda of continuity without major shifts in either foreign or domestic policies.
Economically, he said the government would continue to support the development of a private sector, while keeping overall party control in a “socialist market economic system.”
Mr. Xi‘s hold on power is expected to be ratified after the congress concludes next weekend, when the lineup for the new seven-member Politburo Standing Committee is officially revealed.
Mr. Xi‘s current term as president technically ends in March, but his real power derives from his posts at the top of the Chinese Communist Party and as de facto head of the military.