How Xi Jinping plans to boost confidence in China after COVID missteps

Shoppers in the Fuzimiao area of ​​Nanjing, China on Thursday, February 2, 2023. (Qilai Shen/The New York Times)

Shoppers in the Fuzimiao area of ​​Nanjing, China on Thursday, February 2, 2023. (Qilai Shen/The New York Times)

China’s leaders are set to use a session of the top legislature from Sunday to outline plans to restore public confidence and boost economic growth after a year of uncertainty, disruption and discontent over the government’s COVID restrictions.

The annual gathering of the largely ceremonial National People’s Congress aims to convey the confidence of the ruling Communist Party and inspire national unity. For the country’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, this year’s event will also be key to bolstering his authority after his signature “zero COVID” policy, now abandoned, drew widespread protests in November and worsened an economic slowdown.

The management will set its agenda for meeting challenges such as rising municipal debt, unemployment, housing decline, weak exports and a declining population. Delegates are expected to rubber-stamp decisions made in advance, behind closed doors, by leaders of the party who have ultimate authority.

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At the end of the nine-day gathering, Xi is all but certain to be appointed to another five-year term as president after securing a ground-breaking third term as party leader in October. He is also expected to appoint his loyalists and allies to key government positions.

Here’s what to expect from the Legislature.

The party will probably defend its handling of COVID.

The meeting will be the first since China abruptly lifted “zero COVID,” a deeply unpopular policy of shutdowns and quarantines.

In the run-up to the congress, China’s propaganda apparatus has been pushing a triumphant narrative declaring that under Xi’s leadership, the party’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was a “miracle in human history” and “absolutely correct.” It has emphasized the importance of unity behind the party’s leaders.

“As long as the party and the people always stand together, think together and work together, no storm can shake our steel will and no difficulty can stop our determined steps,” Folkets Dagblad, the party’s mouthpiece, said on Friday.

Security around the city will be heavy and traffic will probably be congested as around 3,000 delegates from across the country, handpicked by the party, descend on the capital and gather at the cavernous Great Hall of the People.

In recent years, delegates have been required to take COVID tests and wear masks during gatherings. It is unclear how many such restrictions will remain. Despite the nationwide lifting of most COVID restrictions, foreign journalists invited to cover Congress were told they would have to quarantine overnight to attend some news conferences.

China will show that it cares about growth again.

When the meeting opens, outgoing Premier Li Keqiang will deliver a government report expected to include a target of around 5% economic growth for the year.

China’s economy had its weakest performance in decades last year, dragged down by lockdowns and then widespread COVID outbreaks in December. Businesses have been rattled in recent years by crackdowns on Big Tech and other sectors, and developers ran out of cash as regulators reined in excessive debt.

In recent weeks, local officials have confronted protesters in several cities after some municipalities cut health insurance to ease a debt crisis. Youth unemployment is high and the birth rate is at a record low. In January, the country announced its first population decline in six decades.

To bolster economic growth, a key pillar of the party’s legitimacy, the party is expected to commit to increasing middle-class spending, restoring investor confidence and creating new jobs.

In a sign of concerns about the economy’s fragility, Chinese officials have adopted pro-business language, marking a shift from its emphasis on developing a more state-controlled economy. China analysts will be watching to see how the jobs report balances Xi’s statist direction with pro-growth rhetoric.

China is preparing for a world more wary of Beijing’s ambitions.

The prime minister’s report is likely to reflect Xi’s long-term vision of China’s leading role in a more multipolar world, replacing the US-led international order. Xi has declared that China’s success proved that modernization did not equal Westernization.

For Xi, this involves reducing the country’s dependence on the West for key technologies, building a world-class military, increasing the party’s control over the security apparatus, managing the economy and curbing financial risks.

China is facing scrutiny over claims by the United States that it is considering supplying arms and ammunition to Russia in its war in Ukraine. The US has imposed extensive restrictions on semiconductor exports to China. Many economies are preparing for recession, which will further dampen demand for Chinese exports.

As the dispute over a Chinese spy balloon last month showed, relations with the United States are more volatile than ever, especially as China takes a more confrontational stance toward Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its territory. Observers will be watching Congress for any legislation or subtle signs of change in Taiwan’s policy.

Xi’s allies are expected to take top positions in the government reshuffle.

The National People’s Congress also finalizes personnel decisions for the premier, deputy premiers, cabinet members and dozens of ministerial-level departments. Some of these were set at a previous party congress and others have been decided behind closed doors before the event.

Xi’s close ally, Li Qiang, currently No. 2 in the party’s top body, the Politburo Standing Committee, is set to take over as premier. As is customary for the premier, the incoming Li will hold a press conference at the end of the congress, where reporters’ questions are usually vetted in advance.

Analysts are also on the lookout for other appointments to lead China’s economy and financial sectors. They include Ding Xuexiang, who is expected to be vice premier. He Lifeng, another close ally of Xi and head of China’s powerful economic-policy planning body, is expected to become vice premier; and Zhu Hexin, a veteran banker, may be tapped to lead China’s central bank.

“They are all people who are really party people, first and foremost, and of course close associates of Xi Jinping,” said Tony Saich, a China specialist at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “It’s really a departure of the entire Western-educated, globally integrated officials, who are basically all timed out and retired.”

Female leaders have become more scarce during Xi’s tenure. For the first time in decades, the top 24 members of the party are all men. Shen Yiqin, a former party chief in the southwestern province of Guizhou, may be named a State Councilor.

The party has also signaled a major institutional shake-up that will help implement Xi’s agenda by entrenching the party deeper into prime ministerial offices and, by extension, Chinese society.

Few details have been released so far, but at a meeting of national leaders on Tuesday, Xi called for “deeper reform of the party and state institutions.” China watchers are debating changes that could bring China’s sprawling security apparatus and financial watchdogs under closer scrutiny by Xi and the party.

“Xi Jinping has a pretty significant set of goals that he wants the party-state to achieve between now and 2035,” said Jude Blanchette, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. Frustrations with a sprawling Chinese bureaucracy “are driving these heavy-handed interventions,” he said.

© 2023 The New York Times Company

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