China’s 13th NPC and Xi Jinping’s Ambitions
Photo Credit: EPA-EFE
By Tai Wei Lim

China’s 13th NPC and Xi Jinping’s Ambitions

Mar. 28, 2018  |     |  0 comments


The 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) closed on March 20, 2018 with a speech given by Chinese President Xi Jinping in the morning and a press conference by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at noontime. Many interesting elements were spotted at this meeting, including items related to new leadership teams and various promotions.

 

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s closing speech could be dissected into three main sections. In the first section, he appealed to Chinese history, traditions, and cultures to mobilize the Chinese people, and dedicated his continued term in office (possibly for life) to the trust placed in him by the Chinese people. He appealed to the mighty contributions of the Chinese people in overcoming natural disasters, conquering vast lands, and producing literary classics, Sung pottery, and other art forms. Peppered throughout the speech were references to the greatness of the Chinese people.

 

In some ways, it resembled the mandate of the people that was given to him for continued rule. He appeared thankful and grateful for this opportunity. This was clearly laid out in the first section of the speech. It was eloquent in the literary sense and designed to indicate his gratefulness to the people who placed trust in him. This was also a direct appeal to the people to support his rule, especially since he is now theoretically able to rule for perpetuity as the “President for Life,” a privilege extended to his Vice President Wang Qishan as well.

 

The process to do away with term limits for the president and vice president posts were initiated at the recent plenum. Both President Xi and Vice President Wang have been instrumental in executing an anti-corruption campaign which has been rooting out corruption from all levels — from “flies” (low officials) to “tigers” (highest echelons) — of the party leadership, including elite Chinese Communist Party figures like Bo Xilai and Sun Zhengcai who were former party secretaries of Chongqing, and Zhou Yongkang, the former Chinese security tsar. In fact, Wang was nicknamed the anti-corruption tsar and was the top right-hand man or lieutenant of Xi throughout the process. With the potential to rule for life, Xi has become the most powerful leader since Mao and is officially referred to as the “core leader.”


Xi also invoked the birth and emergence in Chinese pre-modern history of great philosophers like Confucius and Mencius, and painted a poetic picture of the geographical features of Chinese rolling mountains. The whole narrative was designed to celebrate the moment as one of great achievements made by the Chinese people and his rule was given the mandate by the very same Chinese people. Appealing to the vast lands and other geographical features added to the rich narrative that colored the first section of Xi’s closing speech to the 13th NPC.


Appealing to the people is an important political methodology to mobilize their support for tackling the tremendous challenges lying ahead of China as were laid out in the 13th NPC. Premier Li himself touched on the issue of employment for the large number of students graduating from universities. He also touched on the large numbers of rural workers who have become economic migrants seeking job opportunities. He acknowledged the contributions made by these workers to Chinese nation-building. It was clear from the narrative that there were many tasks ahead. Perhaps from the worldview of the Party, centralization of power was the way to go to resolve these issues.



Economically, Li stressed that China had been a beneficiary of an open neoliberal economy and would open up even further in the coming years.



With such challenges ahead, Xi appeared to have made loyalty a premium for his choice of Chinese leaders. Many of the promotions (the four vice premiers Han/Sun/Hu/Liu, state councillor Wang Yi and vice president Wang Qishan, etc.) were based on merit as well as some form of association with Xi. Many of the younger leaders promoted had worked with Xi when he was a senior party official at Zhejiang and Fujian, or had at least interacted with him in some way or other. This led the international media to coin them collectively as the Zhejiang and Fujian pai (factions). This level of familiarity allows him to forge a strong team of followers who share his vision and are willing to execute the board contours of his policies, including the externally projected Belt and Road Initiative.


The second part of Xi’s 13th NPC closing speech touched on the vital domestic issues that Chinese people are most concerned about, including bread and butter issues like poverty alleviation, environmental issues, and the unfinished work of building the nation, while the third part touched on China’s relations with other countries. Premier Li Keqiang’s press conference at the end of the NPC made the same points. In this sense, there was convergence between the top two leaders. Domestically, the issue that attracted the most applause was when Xi touched on the need to combat splittist forces that wish to break Taiwan away from mainland China. He was adamant that history would punish those who carry out such acts. This was perhaps the most nationalistic moment of Xi’s speech.


Many questions were posed to Premier Li during the post-NPC press conference when he introduced the four new vice premiers. Some of the questions were asked by foreign correspondents, including Japanese and Russian reporters who asked about bilateral relations with China. In response, Premier Li hoped that both sides could work on the remaining thaw issues with Japan before the leadership summit and trilateral. In the area of Sino-Russian relations, Li cited technicalities for the short dip in bilateral trade but mentioned that it was back on track for both countries.


Both President Xi and Premier Li insisted that China would not seek to dominate the region as a hegemon. Li further stressed that this would not happen even if China became a strong power. He did emphasize that China would not yield a single inch of its territory. Economically, Li stressed that China had been a beneficiary of an open neoliberal economy and would open up even further in the coming years. In terms of tariffs, Li noted that China lies in the intermediary category and can open up sectors much further. This appeared to be a reassurance to the region and the international community of China’s commitment to increasing trade and openness with more countries.


This is in line with Xi’s narrative at Davos where China effectively self-styled itself as the defender of the global neoliberal free trade regime in a world that is showing signs of anti-globalization trends, for example, Brexit and tougher positions on immigration. It appears the 13th NPC is keen to support China’s stance on promoting free trade. The world is watching with great interest how the world’s second largest economy will steer towards openness as the developed world faces increasing political pressures for more pushback on the excesses of globalization. All in all, the broad macroeconomic announcements from China and the formation of Xi’s new team were two of the most eagerly watched items from the 13th NPC.



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