China’s Xi talks up security, reiterates COVID stance as congress opens

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Visitors walk past a screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, China October 13, 2022. REUTERS/Florence Lo

Chinese President Xi Jinping called for accelerating the building of a world-class military while touting the fight against COVID-19 as he kicked off a Communist Party Congress by focussing heavily on security and reiterating policy priorities.

Xi, 69, is widely expected to win a third leadership term at the conclusion of the week-long congress that began on Sunday morning, cementing his place as China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong.

Roughly 2,300 delegates from around the country gathered in the vast Great Hall of the People on the west side of Tiananmen Square amid tight security and under blue skies after several smoggy days in the Chinese capital.

Xi described the five years since the last party congress as “extremely uncommon and abnormal”, during a speech that lasted less than two hours – far shorter than his nearly three-and-a-half-hour address at the 2017 congress.

“We must strengthen our sense of hardship, adhere to the bottom-line thinking, be prepared for danger in times of peace, prepare for a rainy day, and be ready to withstand major tests of high winds and high waves,” he said.

He mentioned “safety” or “security” 73 times, compared with 55 times in 2017, according to state news agency Xinhua’s transcripts, and said China will strengthen its ability to build a strategic deterrent capability.

By comparison, Xi said “reforms” 16 times in the televised speech, far fewer than the 70 mentions five years ago.

Xi called for strengthening the ability to maintain national security, ensuring food and energy supplies, securing supply chains, improving the ability to deal with disasters and protecting personal information.

The biggest applause came when Xi restated opposition to Taiwan independence.

In his decade in power, Xi has set China on an increasingly authoritarian path that has prioritised security, state control of the economy in the name of “common prosperity”, a more assertive diplomacy, a stronger military and intensifying pressure to seize democratically governed Taiwan.

Analysts generally do not expect significant change in policy direction in a third Xi term.

Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said that as China’s economy has slowed, Xi is attempting to shift the basis of legitimacy from economic growth to security.

“His narrative is – China faces many dangers, the country is in a war-like state, figuratively, and he is the saviour. With this narrative, he can get people to unite around him,” he said.

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