Home / Articles / China’s National People’s Congress Reveals New Initiatives and Ominous Warnings
During the National People’s Congress, Xi Jinping appears to have chosen his new leadership team primarily because of their past loyalty to him. It’s unclear whether they are as competent as their predecessors.
According to the Chinese government, the country’s economy is planned to grow by 5 percent. However, economists believe that even a 2.5 percent growth rate may be optimistic.
China’s military spending is set to increase 7.2 percent this year, exceeding projected economic growth. Coupled with assertive statements made by Xi and the country’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, Beijing’s growing military profile has ominous implications for countries that have disputes with China.
The National People’s Congress acknowledged problems with corruption, unemployment, income distribution, and population decline.
Barely a week into March, nearly 3,000 delegates gathered at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for the opening of the Fourteenth National People’s Congress and, separately the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Though the National People’s Congress is, according to China’s constitution, the highest legislative organ in the land, it is actually the Chinese Communist Party’s views that determine policy. Official sources bridle at foreign press descriptions of the National People’s Congress as a rubber stamp parliament, insisting that the body simply represents the will of the Chinese people, who are the ultimate decision-makers. While the government cherry-picks certain statistics to bolster the democratic credentials of the National People’s Congress (e.g., ethnic minorities are overrepresented in the congress relative to the overall population and each of the country’s fifty-five nationalities are represented), it ignores others that undermine its case (e.g., women only account for 25 percent of congress delegates, and farmers and front-line workers represented a mere 16 percent of delegates).
Ultimately, claims that the National People’s Congress reflects the voice of the Chinese people ring hollow. Neither delegates to the National People’s Congress nor ordinary Chinese citizens enjoy political freedom or the fundamental freedom of speech. Seeing the photos of the delegates arrayed in neat rows in front of the podium and, except for a flash of color from the rare female delegate or an ethnic minority in traditional dress, identically clad in navy blue suits with identical teacups at hand hardly conveyed the image of people who express their will. The delegates listened rather than spoke, sitting quietly except for subdued applause at appropriate points. They cast identical votes as well, unanimously according to General Secretary Xi Jinping a third term as president of China and chairmanship of the state Central Military Commission. On being informed of the vote, Xi bowed modestly and pledged loyalty to the constitution, with Renmin Ribao, the communist party’s official newspaper, declaring that his election “reflects the common will shared by the whole Party, the entire military, and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups,” and that it showed the “trinity” leadership of party, state, and the People’s Liberation Army. Given that the party has always claimed that the military is under its control and the role of the state vis-à-vis the party has been shrinking in recent years, this configuration looks less like a trinity than a lopsided isosceles triangle.
A New Team Takes Over
After Xi’s long-expected anointment as president and head of the state Central Military Commission (there is also a party Central Military Commission, with identical membership) attention turned to the new men—and they are all male—Xi chose to assist him. All of the top leaders are new. Most of their predecessors had reached mandatory retirement age. Li Keqiang, China’s former premier, was not eligible for retirement, but was replaced by Xi because Li was associated with a rival political faction. New premier Li Qiang, formerly party boss in Shanghai, had proved his loyalty to Xi by rigidly imposing anti-COVID measures that infuriated many residents of the municipality’s famously assertive citizenry. Before being named to the Shanghai post, Li served in several other affluent areas, a credential indicating sufficient experience in handling economic matters. However, he has no experience in Beijing, which may cause him problems.
Li will be assisted by Vice-Premier He Lifeng, a friend of Xi since childhood. He is an economist who previously served in Fujian and Tianjin. He has also supervised the drafting of five-year plans and investment projects, but lacks overseas exposure. Ding Xuexiang, who has the title of executive vice-premier, is expected to have primary responsibility for domestic economic policy. Ding’s previous career was as a technocrat and, unusually in recent years, he has never headed a province. Zhao Leji will take over as head of the National People’s Congress, having formerly chaired the party’s powerful Central Discipline Inspection Commission. Among the commission’s duties are administering Xi’s signature campaign against corruption and, incidentally, targeting disloyalty to Xi himself. Finally, Wang Huning, will take over as head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a largely ceremonial body that has been imperfectly compared to Great Britain’s House of Lords. Wang’s reputation has been as the party’s leading ideologist, meaning that he supervised propaganda and speechwriting. Wang has also been credited with having shaped Xi’s “China Dream for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Notable exceptions to the large-scale overhaul, believed to have been motivated to reassure nervous markets, were the retention of the People’s Bank of China governor Yi Gang and the finance and commerce ministers.
The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the second of the two major party meetings, tends to repeat and expand on the party’s official policies, and receives little press coverage. The composition of the delegates varies, but in past years has included successful property developers, technocrats, and famous athletes.
The Premier’s Work Report
With Xi’s new team in place, attention focused on the work report of Li Keqiang, the outgoing premier. The document is a kind of combination report card on the past year and a blueprint for the future. As is typical, the bulk of the report concerned past achievements while the last few pages presented recommendations for the future. On the former, the report claimed that under the guidance of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” the fight against poverty had been won and that the goal of a moderately prosperous country had been reached. Gross domestic product over the past five years had risen by 5.2 percent (but unmentioned was 3 percent last year, much of the decrease due to COVID restrictions), there had been breakthroughs in core scientific and technological innovation, and China had successfully hosted the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Entrepreneurs, foreign and domestic, were to be supported, and the drive toward common prosperity would continue.
Li’s report recommended that the party should become more firmly embedded in private businesses, ministries, and by extension into society itself, to further ensure economic stability. There would be an increased emphasis on science and technology under party supervision. Part of the planned restructuring of the Ministry of Science and Technology involves the creation of a supra-ministry party committee that recalls the Mao era and reverses decades of efforts to separate the roles of state and party that began under Deng Xiaoping. The report noted that religions had “further adapted to the Chinese context.”
Fresh progress had been made in the governance of the two special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao, applying the principle that they should be administered by patriots, meaning those who would administer the communist party’s policies. Among the most salient of plans for the coming year was dealing with corruption which, Li stated, remained a serious problem—surely an uncomfortable admission a full decade after Xi Jinping had announced the campaign against it. Maintaining “employment stability” was described as “challenging.” Budgetary imbalances of local governments were described as “substantial,” and “there are many risks and hidden dangers in the real estate market.” For religious people, the statement that religions were to further adapt to the Chinese context must have had ominous overtones, while the pledge that Hong Kong and Macao would have to be ruled by patriots must had the same effect on the remaining few citizens there who harbored hopes for an easing of the restrictions imposed nearly three years go.
An Uncertain Future
Beyond the hyperbole about the glorious progress China made under the party’s guidance and the glorious achievements that were expected for the future, some signs emerged from the Party Congress indicating a degree of anxiety. The Year of the Rabbit had not opened well: a shaky exit from the draconian and highly unpopular COVID restrictions that had occasioned atypical protests against the authorities were followed by a huge increase in infections. While infections have been declining and economic indicators are on the upswing, there are increasing doubts that its economy can ever surpass that of the United States. According to Ruchir Sharma, the highly respected chairperson of Rockefeller International, the Chinese leadership is coming up on a reality check and the country will be lucky to grow by 2.5 percent in future years. A combination of shrinking population, low productivity, and stiffer foreign competition for export markets are interacting to the detriment of economic growth rates.
Internally, economic inequality remains worrisomely stubborn, and Beijing’s previous quick fixes of fiscal stimulus have led to what Sharma calls a massive hangover and trouble in the property sector. In addition, local debt has risen to dangerous levels. A report from the American Enterprise Institute points to a different kind of problem with implications for not only the economy but politics and defense policy: the communist party and government’s inattention to the family structure that its previous policies have wrought. The country needs to redirect its focus from raising children to caring for the elderly, entailing a massive shift in resources that are bound to affect economic growth rates. Also, by 2030 close to half of China’s overall pool of male military-age manpower will be only children, meaning that loss of life in conflict will mean the extinction of the lineage for many Chinese families. This is regarded as particularly catastrophic in a Confucian society that decades of party propaganda have failed to extinguish. While it is possible that extremely patriotic families might be willing to countenance the sacrifice, it is more likely that many more will not be so inclined, particularly since wars are unlikely to involve foreign powers invading China. Increasing military spending while economic growth rates are projected to decline, assuming that generous defense budgets will continue, is dangerous, and the party elite is aware that this was a crucial factor in the demise of the Soviet Union and cannot be comfortable with the parallel.
How it will be possible for the party government to encourage and protect entrepreneurs while enacting measures for common prosperity, which is code for reducing the worrisome spread between the income levels of the country’s richest and its poorest, remains to be seen. China’s megawealthy, in common with many others of similar fortunate circumstances elsewhere in the world, do not seem eager to share their wealth with those who are less fortunate. The disappearance of multimillionaire Bao Fan just before the opening of the National People’s Congress surely did not send the right message to investors, particularly following the arrests of Jack Ma in 2021 and Xiao Jianhua in 2022. Ma and Xiao had their resources confiscated, and Xiao received a lengthy prison sentence. Rumors suggest that Bao was about to transfer a substantial portion of his wealth to a family-directed entity in Singapore.
Foreign Policy Challenges
China is facing headwinds internationally. A Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference spokesperson rebutted claims that the Belt and Road Initiative was a debt trap as “merely smears,” pointing to the completion and operation of a number of infrastructure projects such as the China-Laos railway and the port of Piraeus in Greece, though not mentioning the failures elsewhere. There is considerable dissatisfaction in Greece over the administration of the Port of Piraeus, for instance, and many countries are seeking to renegotiate their Belt and Road Initiative agreements. So-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy tactics in which Chinese envoys insult and belittle other states have alienated public opinion in those countries, badly denting China’s reputation.
Taiwan seems less and less likely to voluntarily agree to annexation by China, and more countries seem willing to anger Beijing by engaging bilaterally with Taiwan. When Lithuania opened a Taiwan trade office in Vilnius and China threatened to refuse to import not only Lithuanian products but pressured German companies whose products were partially produced in Lithuania, the European Commission stated that the European Union was “ready to stand up against all types of political pressure and coercive measures applied against any member state.” Xi’s public backing of Vladimir Putin and subsequent refusal to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine caused concern, particularly among those members of the European Union and NATO who are closest to Ukraine and fear that Putin has designs on them as well. Failure to speak out against the invasion was a clear violation of respect for the territorial integrity of other states, one of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence that had been a cardinal, and often-repeated, mantra of Chinese foreign policy ever since it was conceived in 1954. Countries that have heretofore been reluctant to name China as the source of cyberespionage are now less hesitant to identify it as such: the Canadian government has opened an investigation into interference in its last election, and Belgium has accused Beijing of spear phishing against a prominent member of its parliament. Sending a spy balloon over US territory, particularly just as the National People’s Congress was about to begin, seems unwise as well.
Replying to a question at a news conference the day before the National People’s Congress opened, spokesperson Wang Chao struck what he might have hoped would be a reassuring note, saying that China’s military strength was “positive for the world.” He argued that its military modernization would not be a threat to any country but actually safeguard regional security and world peace. The increase in defense spending was needed for meeting unspecified complex security challenges and for China to fulfill its responsibilities as a major country. However, statements made in the course of the conference were not reassuring. Newly appointed foreign minister Qin Gang railed against America’s so-called containment policy, comparing US actions to a runaway train that will derail and crash into conflict and confrontation. And Xi’s speech to the closing session of the congress also focused on security as he pledged to build the military into a “great wall of steel” to defend the country’s interests. The implications for the United States, Japan, and several Southeast Asian states with territorial disputes with China are concerning, given repeated strident statements on the need to defend China’s claims in the wider Pacific region. The United States is de facto guarantor of Taiwan’s right to choose its future status while Japan administers the areas in the East China Sea that China claims and is also painfully aware that a Chinese annexation of Taiwan would bring China’s territorial waters perilously close to Japan.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese state media declared that the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference were resounding successes. However, even sympathetic observers noted that it will be a “tall order” for Beijing to implement the grand vision that emerged from the important political meetings.
The two meetings have identified ambitious goals. If these goals are not achieved, they risk sullying the legacy of Xi’s three terms in office as well as the consummation of the China dream.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.