On the eve of his likely third term as president, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, is signaling that he will take a tougher stance against what he perceives as a US effort to block China’s rise.
And he’s doing it on uncommon terms.
Xi has hailed China’s success as proof that modernization does not equal Westernization.
Sailors recovering a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that was shot down by the United States last month. The incident only increased tensions between the two nations. Photo Tyler Thompson/US Navy
He has urged China to strive to develop advanced technologies to reduce its dependence on Western knowledge.
But on Monday he made clear what he saw as the main threat to China’s development: the United States.
“Western countries, led by the United States, have implemented an all-out containment, encirclement and suppression of China, posing unprecedented serious challenges to our country’s development,” Xi said in a speech, according to the Chinese official news agency.
Xi’s new outspokenness may be welcomed by a nationalist public at home, but could raise suspicions abroad at a time when Beijing has sought to stabilize ties with the West.
It reflects how it is preparing for greater confrontation and competition between the two largest economies in the world.
His meeting with President Joe Biden in November had raised hopes that Beijing and Washington would try to stop the downward spiral in their relations.
But since then tensions have only escalated over a Chinese spy balloon, China’s close alignment with Russia and US-imposed controls on exports to China.
“This is the first time, to my knowledge, that Xi Jinping has come forward publicly and singled out the US for taking these kinds of actions against China,” said Michael Swaine, a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
“It is certainly a response to the harsh criticism of China, and of Xi Jinping personally, that Biden and many in the administration have launched in recent months.”
In a sign that Xi’s direct approach signaled a broader shift in Beijing’s rhetoric, China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, reiterated Xi’s accusation of US restraint and defended Beijing’s right to respond.
“Actually, the United States wants China not to fight back when it is hit or cursed, but this is impossible,” he told a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday.
Qin also called on the United States to take a less confrontational stance towards his country.
“If the United States doesn’t hit the brakes and keeps accelerating, there will be no guardrail that can stop the derailment,” he said.
China has come under increasing pressure from the United States, also on trade.
Following President Donald Trump’s imposition of long-standing tariffs on a wide range of Chinese exports to the United States, Biden has imposed sweeping curbs on the export of semiconductors and semiconductor manufacturing equipment to China.
The Biden administration and Congress have increased their scrutiny of Chinese investment in the United States and have begun considering limits on US investment in the Chinese technology sector.
China’s economy grew 3% last year, well below the government’s target of “about 5.5%”.
The US measures had little immediate effect on global trade, but the Chinese government’s own “zero COVID” measures put a huge drag on economic activity, especially last year.
These measures included a two-month lockout in Shanghai that disrupted industrial supply chains and severely damaged consumer confidence, as well as numerous lockouts across the country from late summer to early winter.
Xi’s comments about the United States were part of a speech he gave to a Chinese business group. She urged private companies – key drivers of growth and jobs – to collaborate with the party to help China counter the challenges posed by US containment.
“We must keep calm, stay focused, seek progress while maintaining stability, take active action, unite as one and dare to fight,” he said, according to the Chinese television report.
Xi has held up China as a model for other countries, offering a different path to prosperity than the West.
This worldview rejects liberal democracy and a heavy reliance on the private sector and favors a model that emphasizes the centrality of the Communist Party and an increasingly state-led model of economic development.
Broadly, his speech was intended to reassure the audience that the Chinese government still wants private companies to play an important role in the country’s economy.
The recent disappearance, in government custody, of one of the top bankers in the technology sector has unsettled many executives in this sector.
The state banking system has also been directing much of its lending to state companies rather than private companies.
Xi tried to reassure private companies that the party welcomed them as “one of us.”
But he also said they had a responsibility to help the party achieve “common prosperity,” a slogan about reducing income inequality that has been linked to the crackdown on tycoons.
Andrew K. Collier, managing director of Hong Kong-based Orient Capital Research, said Xi may not have been trying to adjust his stance toward the United States, but rather to reassure Chinese public opinion that he was defending their interests.
“Xi Jinping’s comment on containment may escalate tensions with the United States, but it is primarily directed at a domestic audience,” Collier said.
“He is trying to nurture the country’s high-tech companies both for economic growth and to manage decoupling at a time when China is facing strong economic headwinds.”
Beating the nationalist drum is a politically savvy way to achieve these goals.”
c.2023 The New York Times Company