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Xi Jinping addresses Taiwan, Hong Kong and the zero-covid policy at the opening of the Communist Party Congress

(CNN) — China’s leader Xi Jinping vowed on Sunday to guide the country through grave challenges toward national rejuvenation, promoting a nationalist vision that has put him on a collision course with the West.

Speaking at the opening of the 20th Party Congress, where he is poised to secure a third term in power, Xi struck a confident tone, highlighting China’s growing strength and influence in its first decade in power.

But he also repeatedly underlined the risks and challenges facing the country.

Describing the past five years as “highly unusual and extraordinary,” Xi said the ruling Communist Party has led China through “a grim and complex international situation” and “enormous risks and challenges that followed one after another.”

The first challenges Xi listed were the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong and Taiwan, from which he said China had emerged victorious.

The Chinese government, Xi said, had “protected people’s lives and health” from covid-19, turned Hong Kong from “government chaos” and carried out “major struggles” against “independence forces” in the island of Taiwan, an autonomous democracy that Beijing claims as its own territory even though it has never controlled it.

Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist with the Taiwan Studies Program at the Australian National University, said Xi’s decision to point to the Taiwan issue early in his speech was a departure from previous speeches and conveys a “new urgency to move forward on the Taiwan issue.”

Xi won the loudest and longest applause from nearly 2,300 carefully selected delegates inside the Great Hall of the People when he spoke again about Taiwan later in the speech.

He claimed that China “will fight for peaceful reunification” but then issued a grim warning, saying “we will never promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to take all necessary measures.”

“The wheels of history are moving towards the reunification of China and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The complete reunification of our country must be achieved,” Xi said to thunderous applause.

Xi also underscored the “rapid changes in the international situation,” a thinly veiled reference to fraying ties between China and the West, which have been further strained by Beijing’s tacit support for Moscow following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

He said China has “taken a clear stance against hegemonism and power politics” and “never wavered” in opposition to unilateralism and “bullying,” in an apparent blow to what Beijing sees as a US-led world order. which must be dismantled.

Laying out general directions for the next five years, Xi said China will focus on “high-quality education” and innovation to “renew growth” in the country’s crisis-hit economy. China will “accelerate efforts to achieve greater self-sufficiency in science and technology,” he said, in comments that come just months after its damaging crackdown on the country’s private sector and major tech companies.

Xi also vowed to speed up efforts to build the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a “world-class army,” vowing to enhance its ability to safeguard national sovereignty and build strategic deterrence. He also urged the PLA to strengthen its formation and improve its “ability to win.”

Xi’s speech was peppered with the Chinese term for “security,” which was mentioned some 50 times. He called national security the “basis of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and called for improving military, economic and “all-round” security at home and abroad.

Another point of focus was Marxism and ideology. “I don’t think there will be a relaxation of the ideological atmosphere in the next five years,” said Victor Shih, an expert on elite Chinese politics at the University of California.

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, comments that the instructions laid out in Xi’s opening speech were a continuation of his earlier policies. By emphasizing the challenges and struggles, he said, “the need for a strong party and its great leader” is justified.

consolidating power

The week-long congress began this Sunday morning amid heightened security, an escalation of zero-Covid restrictions and a frenzy of propaganda and censorship.

The most momentous gathering of the Communist Party in decades, the congress is set to cement Xi’s status as China’s most powerful leader since the late Chairman Mao Zedong, who ruled until his death at age 82. He, too, will have a profound impact on the world, as Xi doubles down on an assertive foreign policy to boost China’s international influence and rewrite the US-led global order.

Most meetings will be held behind closed doors during the week. When delegates resurface at the end of the congress next Saturday, they will hold a ceremonial vote to approve Xi’s work report and approve changes made to the party’s constitution, which could give Xi new titles to further strengthen his power.

The delegates will also select the new Central Committee of the party, which will hold its first meeting the following day to appoint the highest leadership of the party: the Politburo and its Standing Committee, following the decisions already discussed behind the scenes by the party leaders before the congress. .

The congress will be an important moment of political triumph for Xi, but it also comes during a period of potential crisis. Xi’s insistence on an uncompromising zero-Covid policy has fueled growing public frustration and stalled economic growth. Diplomatically, meanwhile, his “boundless” friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has further strained Beijing’s ties with the West following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, two strong leaders with a special relationship 2:41

zero covid policy

In the run-up to the congress, officials across China have dramatically increased restrictions to prevent even minor Covid outbreaks, imposing sweeping lockdowns and increasingly frequent mass Covid testing in a handful of cases. However, infections caused by the highly transmissible omicron variant have continued to increase. This Saturday, China reported nearly 1,200 infections, including 14 in Beijing.

Public anger at the zero covid policy came to the fore on Thursday in an exceptionally rare anti-Xi protest in Beijing. Online photos showed two banners unfurled on a busy overpass denouncing Xi and his policies, before they were removed by police.

“Say no to covid testing, yes to food. No to confinement, yes to freedom. No to lies, yes to dignity. No to cultural revolution, yes to reform. No to the great leader, yes to the vote. Don’t be a slave, be a citizen,” says one banner.

“Go on strike, eliminate the dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping,” said the other.

The Chinese public has paid little attention to party congresses in the past: they have no say in reshuffling the country’s leadership or making major policies. But this year, many have pinned their hopes that the congress will be a turning point for China to relax its covid policy.

However, a series of recent articles in the party’s mouthpiece suggest that may be wishful thinking. The People’s Daily praised zero-covid as the “best option” for the country, insisting that it is “sustainable and must be followed.”

On Sunday, Xi defended his highly controversial and economically damaging zero covid policy.

“In responding to the sudden outbreak of covid-19, we prioritize people and their lives above all else, and tenaciously pursue a dynamic zero-covid policy by launching an all-out people’s war against the virus,” he noted.

Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said Xi’s words indicated that it is “impossible for China to change the zero-Covid strategy in the near future.”

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