By Hwang Chun-mei, Chen Zifei, Gu Ting, Rita Cheng and Cheryl Tung
Ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping touted his record in fighting COVID-19 and suppressing political protests in Hong Kong on Sunday, as he launched the CCP’s 20th National Congress amid a heavy focus on security and a renewed threat of military force against democratic Taiwan.
Xi, 69, is widely expected to be endorsed by congress delegates for a third term in office, breaking recent party norms and becoming China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong.
Xi told delegates to “prepare to stand the major test of turbulent, even stormy waves,” warning the nearly 2,300 delegates inside the Great Hall of the People that the next five years would be critical to his attempts to build a “self-confident” China that could hold its own on the world stage.
“Faced with rapid changes in the international situation, particularly external blackmail, containment, blockades, and extreme pressure, we continued to make our national interests and domestic politics the priority,” Xi said. “We will maintain strategic focus, carry forward the spirit of struggle, and … safeguard this country’s dignity and core interests.”
Xi gave no indication that the centralization of power in the hands of the party leadership would ease any time soon.
“We must uphold and strengthen party leadership in all things,” Xi said. “We must take political security as the foundation, economic security as the foundation, and military, technological, cultural and social security as the guarantee,” he said.
Xi hailed as successes Chinese policies that have caused friction with the United States and other Western countries, such as the crushing of Hong Kong’s democracy movement after 2019 protests in the city, and the intensification of military threats to underscore Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan.
He appeared to signal that the authorities would continue to rein in political expression in Hong Kong, saying the Beijing-backed political system installed by the CCP in the now tightly controlled city is still “incomplete,” and to insist to the 23 million inhabitants of democratic Taiwan that “unification” under the CCP was the only option.
‘Wheels of history’
The Chinese government had turned Hong Kong from “chaos to governance,” and carried out “major struggles” against “independence forces” in Taiwan, Xi said.
Meanwhile, there was more work to do to ensure everyone accepted Xi’s personal brand of ideology, he said.
“Some deep-seated systemic … problems have become apparent; some people lack self-confidence in the socialist political system with Chinese characteristics,” Xi told delegates.
“There are many people within party ranks who still have a hazy conception of party leadership … leading to weak … implementation,” he said.
“Party leadership is the highest political principle,” he said, saying the CCP must ensure “unity” among its 96 million members.
He said China would “strive for peaceful reunification” — but repeated a longstanding threat to the democratic island.
“We will never promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”
“The wheels of history are rolling on towards the unification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Complete unification of our country must be realized,” Xi said to long, loud applause from the delegates.
A spokesman for Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen said the island, which has never been ruled by the CCP, nor formed part of the People’s Republic of China, is a “sovereign and democratic country.”
‘Lack of new thinking’
Tsai’s national security team is closely monitoring the congress, and that the island’s 23 million citizens had rejected China’s proposed “one country, two systems” model for ruling Taiwan.
“The consensus of the Taiwanese public is that territorial sovereignty, independence and democracy cannot be compromised and that military conflict is not an option for the two sides of the Taiwan Strait,” Xavier Chang said in response to Xi’s speech, repeating Taiwan’s offer of peace talks amid growing military tension. Beijing is unlikely to respond, as it insists on treating Taiwan as a “regional government” rather than agreeing to government-to-government negotiations.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) lamented a “lack of new thinking and proper judgment” in Beijing’s Taiwan policy.
“The Taiwanese people alone have the right to determine their future, and they will never accept China’s proposals … as outcomes,” the MAC said.
Xi used the terms “security” or “safety” 89 times during Sunday’s report, up from 55 times in 2017, while his use of the word “reform” declined to 48 from 68 mentions five years ago, Reuters news agency reported.
Analysts told RFA that Xi’s keynote speech effectively pointed to a reversal of previous policies and toward harsher political controls.
“This report has only talked about reform and opening up a few times–indeed very few. It mainly replaces reform and opening up with the words of self-confidence and self-improvement,” said independent scholar Wen Zhigang.
“Struggle and security are included in this so-called self-confidence and self-improvement,” he said Wen. “Struggle seems to have replaced reform, and security has replaced openness.”
The congress is widely expected to reconfirm Xi as party general secretary, China’s most powerful post, as well as chairman of the Central Military Commission, as well as ushering a new generation of leaders into the 25-member Politburo and its all-powerful standing committee.
Xi’s position as president would then be renewed at the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), in March 2023.
Commentator Hong Lin said Xi’s report stressed three dimensions of security.
“The first is political security, the second is the state-owned economy, and the third is military-first politics,” said Hong.
The content is stark contrast to previous reports, which were typically dominated by economic development, he said.
“How to ensure that their ruling status is not threatened: This is his only direction and the only consensus within the party,” added Hong.
Feng Chongyi, associate professor in China Studies at Sydney’s University of Technology, agreed.
“The point of all of this talk and propaganda is to get him another term and lifelong tenure,” Feng told RFA. “[In reality], he has made a mess of the country’s domestic affairs and foreign affairs.”
“He is asking the party to give him a chance to do what others couldn’t, namely, to bring Taiwan [under Chinese control],” Feng said.
“That’s why he insists on taking military risks and making China stronger in the face of opposition from the rest of the world.”
Chao Chun-shan, China expert at Tamkang University, said China will always deploy both hard and soft tactics against Taiwan.
“The hardline part is the part about battling so-called Taiwan separatists and external forces [who aid them],” Chao said. “The soft power part is aimed at the people of Taiwan, and consists of economic and cultural exchanges, to win hearts and minds, and offer material incentives.”
Chao said there is little in Xi’s report to suggest Beijing has decided on a timeframe for a military operation to annex Taiwan.
“He puts unification on the agenda … but doesn’t specifically propose a timetable for it … so it won’t necessarily be during his third term,” he said.
In a speech that critics said glossed over the economic damage and public anger sparked by the CCP’s “zero-COVID” policies of lockdowns and quarantines, Xi reiterated his intention to stay the course.
“We have adhered to the supremacy of the people and the supremacy of life, adhered to dynamic zero-COVID … and achieved major positive results in the overall prevention and control of the epidemic, and economic and social development,” Xi said.
Beijing saw a rare public protest against Xi’s leadership, with a man nicknamed “Bridge Man” detained after posting banners on a traffic overpass calling for his removal and protesting lockdowns and mass COVID-19 testing under the zero-COVID policy.
Photos published to Twitter by U.K.-based rights activist Wang Jianhong on Sunday showed toilet graffiti in the northern city of Xi’an calling on Xi to step down, with similar scrawls protesting the zero-COVID policy on a bus top, a bicycle recharge station and on the windows of vehicles in the city.
“Xi Jinping, your dad wants you to get off at the next stop,” one message read, in a satirical reference to Xi’s father, veteran revolutionary Xi Zhongxun.
RFA was unable to verify the existence of the graffiti, which social media comments said were inspired by the Bridge Man’s protest, independently.
U.S.-based rights activist Zhou Fengsuo, who founded the group Humanitarian China, said the Sitong Bridge protest was “inspiring.”
“The most inspiring thing about it was that this act took place, despite all of China’s digital totalitarianism and hierarchical monitoring, right at the heart of things, in Beijing, a place of huge influence and historic significance,” Zhou said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie and Paul Eckert.