By Yew Lun Tian and Ryan Woo
BEIJING (Reuters) -Chinese President Xi Jinping called for accelerating the building of a world-class military while touting the fight against COVID-19 as he kicked off a Communist Party Congress by focussing on security and reiterating policy priorities.
Xi, 69, is widely expected to win a third leadership term at the conclusion of the week-long congress that began on Sunday morning, cementing his place as China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong.
Roughly 2,300 delegates from around the country gathered in the vast Great Hall of the People on the west side of Tiananmen Square amid tight security and under blue skies after several smoggy days in the Chinese capital.
Xi described the five years since the last party congress as “extremely uncommon and abnormal”, during a speech that lasted less than two hours – far shorter than his nearly three-and-a-half-hour address at the 2017 congress, because he did not read out the entire work report, which he did five years ago.
The 2017 and 2022 work reports are roughly the same length.
“We must strengthen our sense of hardship, adhere to the bottom-line thinking, be prepared for danger in times of peace, prepare for a rainy day, and be ready to withstand major tests of high winds and high waves,” he said.
Xi called for strengthening the ability to maintain national security, ensuring food and energy supplies, securing supply chains, improving the ability to deal with disasters and protecting personal information.
The biggest applause came when Xi restated opposition to Taiwan independence.
In the full work report, Xi used the terms “security” or “safety” 89 times, up from 55 times in 2017, according to a Reuters count, while his use of the word “reform” declined to 48 from 68 mentions five years ago.
In his decade in power, Xi has set China on an increasingly authoritarian path that has prioritised security, state control of the economy in the name of “common prosperity”, a more assertive diplomacy, a stronger military and intensifying pressure to seize democratically governed Taiwan.
Analysts generally do not expect significant change in policy direction in a third Xi term.
Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said that as China’s economy has slowed, Xi is attempting to shift the basis of legitimacy from economic growth to security.
“His narrative is – China faces many dangers, the country is in a war-like state, figuratively, and he is the saviour. With this narrative, he can get people to unite around him,” Wu said.
In recent days, China has repeatedly emphasised its commitment to Xi’s zero-COVID strategy, dashing hopes among countless Chinese citizens as well as investors that Beijing might begin exiting anytime soon a policy that has caused widespread frustration and economic damage.
Xi said little about COVID other than to reiterate the validity of a policy that has made China a global outlier as much of the world tries to coexist with the coronavirus, which emerged in central China in late 2019.
“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.
On the economy, he restated support for the private sector and allowing markets to play a key role, even as China fine-tunes a “socialist economic system” and promotes “common prosperity”.
“We must build a high-level socialist market economic system … unswervingly consolidate and develop the public ownership system, unswervingly encourage and support the development of the private economy, give full play to the decisive role of the market in the allocation of resources, and give better play to the role of the government,” he said.
Xi’s power appears undiminished by the tumult of a year that has seen China’s economy slow dramatically, dragged down by the COVID policy’s frequent lockdowns, a crisis in the property sector and the impact of his 2021 crackdown on the once-freewheeling “platform economy”, as well as global headwinds.
China’s relations with the West have deteriorated sharply, worsened by Xi’s support of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The son of a Communist Party revolutionary, Xi has reinvigorated a party that had grown deeply corrupt and increasingly irrelevant, expanding its presence across all aspects of China, with Xi officially its “core”.
Xi did away with presidential term limits in 2018, clearing the way for him to break with the precedent of recent decades and rule for a third five-year term, or longer.
“I support the re-election of Xi Jinping to a third term with both hands,” Li Yinjiang, a delegate from Jiangsu province, told Reuters. “He can make our country strong and our people happy.”
The congress is expected to reconfirm Xi as party general secretary, China’s most powerful post, as well as chairman of the Central Military Commission. Xi’s presidency is up for renewal in March at the annual session of China’s parliament.
In the run-up to the congress, the Chinese capital stepped up security and COVID curbs, while steel mills in nearby Hebei province were instructed to cut back on operations to improve air quality, an industry source said.
The day after the congress ends on Saturday, Xi is expected to introduce his new Politburo Standing Committee, a seven-person leadership team. It will include the person who will replace Li Keqiang as premier when Li steps down from that post in March after serving the maximum two terms.
(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian, Ryan Woo, Martin Quin Pollard, Eduardo Baptista, Kevin Yao and Dominique Patton; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by William Mallard)