Xi Jinping vows to turn Chinese Army into ‘great wall of steel’

Here are the main takeaways from the National People’s Congress, where the president highlighted the importance of reunification, and took a softer tone on the technological race with the US

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the National People's Congress in Beijing on Monday.
Chinese President Xi Jinping at the National People's Congress in Beijing on Monday.NOEL CELIS (pool via REUTERS)
Guillermo Abril

The current turbulent times – marked by rising military tension, technological competition and mutual mistrust between China and the United States – appear to have paved the way for a new security and defense paradigm from Beijing. On Monday, during his closing speech of the National People’s Congress (NPC), Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that he intends to modernize the People’s Liberation Army and turn it into “a great wall of steel” capable of guaranteeing China’s national sovereignty and development.

In Xi’s speech – which is the first he has given since making history by securing a third term as president – he reiterated the argument that China will not be complete until Taiwan is reunified with the mainland. While he claimed to “actively promote peaceful development of cross-strait relations,” he added that he will “firmly oppose interference of external forces and Taiwan’s separatist activities.” This message received the longest applause from the almost 3,000 delegates sitting in the Great Hall of the People, in Tiananmen Square.

Tensions in Taiwan have been at boiling point since last summer, when then-speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, made a surprise visit to the democratic island. The incident was a blow to the already tattered diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing, which sunk to a new low last month, when the US shot down a Chinese balloon that was flying through US territory without permission.

In Monday’s speech, Xi also spoke about the technological race, which is another critical issue affecting US-China relations. The president said that the country must seek “high-quality growth,” back “development guided by innovation” and pursue “scientific and technological self-sufficiency.”

The message marked a shift from the president’s fierce criticism of the growing US pressure on the Chinese economy. Last week, Xi – who rarely makes direct accusations – criticized Washington’s efforts to stop China’s rise, be it via trade sanctions or restrictions on selling advanced chip technology to China. “The Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, containment and suppression on our country, bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our development,” he said.

But on Monday, Xi vowed that development and security will go hand in hand in his third term as president. “Security is the bedrock of development, while stability is a prerequisite for prosperity,” he said.

Ahead of the speech, Xi – who is the most powerful leader since the days of Mao Zedong – was also unanimously elected chairman of the Central Military Commission, the highest military body in the country. The vote took place at the first session of the NPC, which was presided by the State Council’s new members, who are all close allies of Xi. In this way, Xi has consolidated control over the three key branches of power in China: the Communist Party, the government and the army.

In the past week, the State Council – which has little oversight power and is controlled by the Communist Party – overwhelmingly ratified the new appointments, as well as the 2023 budget, which includes a 7.2% rise in defense spending, the biggest hike in four years. The body approved the annual Government Work Report, which sets a target of around 5% economic growth, and also gave the green light to various reforms aimed at guaranteeing Communist Party control over critical sectors such as technology and finance, which has been beset by doubts and setbacks due to the ailing Chinese real estate sector.

China is also facing a number of social challenges, such as high youth unemployment, a falling birth rate and a rapidly aging population. Premier Li Qiang, however, was optimistic about the outlook. “Against all odds, China is moving forward towards a better future,” said Li on Monday in his first public appearance as premier.

Li, who has spent his career in the nation’s main economic sectors, used his speech to try to calm nerves in the private sector, which has been rocked in recent years by the Communist Party’s growing scrutiny and heavy regulatory pressure. Although Li pledged that the government will offer equal treatment to all types of companies, his well-known loyalty to Xi Jinping has raised doubts about whether he really will act as a counterweight to the party.

With respect to the 5% growth target, Li said that reaching the goal “would require redoubled efforts.” But he added: “The Chinese people have always managed to pull through difficult times and achieve new progress and create new miracles.”

“China’s economic development is supported by quite a number of advantages. For example, we have a super-size market that is irreplaceable. We have a well-functioning industrial system. We have a rich supply of human resources. We have a strong development foundation. But most importantly, we have notable institutional strength,” he said.

Li also struck a more conciliatory tone on the question of US competition, stating: “China and the United States are closely intertwined economically. We have both benefited from the other side’s development.”

China to reopen to tourists, resume all visas Wednesday


China will reopen its borders to tourists and resume issuing all visas Wednesday after a three-year halt during the pandemic as it sought to boost its tourism and economy.

China is one of the last major countries to reopen its borders to tourists. The announcement Tuesday came after it declared a “decisive victory” over Covid-19 in February.

All types of visas will resume from Wednesday. Visa-free entry also will resume at destinations such as Hainan Island as well as for cruise ships entering Shanghai that had no visa requirement before Covid-19.

Visa-free entry will resume for foreigners from Hong Kong and Macao to enter Guangdong in southern China, and foreigners holding visas issued before March 28, 2020, that are still valid will be allowed to enter China. The notice didn't specify whether vaccination certificates or negative Covid-19 tests would be required.

The move would “further facilitate the exchange of Chinese and foreign personnel,” according to the notice posted on the websites of numerous Chinese missions and embassies.

China had stuck to a harsh “zero-Covid” strategy involving sudden lockdowns and daily Covid-19 testing to try to stop the virus before abandoning most aspects of the policy in December amid growing opposition.

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