Resembling a “red” version of a Hollywood political blockbuster, the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) has been a well-orchestrated show. Directed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the gathering of the political elite closed on Friday after projecting an image of self-confidence to the world.
More than ever this year, the attention focused primarily on the leading actor, Chinese President Xi Jinping, confirming his absolute grip on power.
The grey hairs that the unchallenged leader dared to display during sessions of China’s rubber-stamp parliament gathering were the talk of the town this year.
In sharp contrast with his predecessors, the 65-year-old does not dye his greying hair, breaking yet another long-held tradition within the Party.
Even that seems to be a metaphor of his uncontested political grip in Beijing, despite growing economic and geopolitical risks ahead.
The dissenting voices last year, which criticized Xi’s state-centric policies as well as his handling of US-China trade relations, were silenced at the NPC. Again, this signaled that he is in full control of the apparatus, according to analysts.
“We should treat studying the political thoughts of Xi Jinping as the most important task of all, and consolidate the self-confidence in our political system,” Wang Yang, the head of the China People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPCC), said last week during the closing ceremony of the annual session of this other key consultative body.
More than ever, adhering to Xi’s vision seems to be the Party’s mantra as the world second-largest economy enters an era of “unprecedented risks,” according to Wang.
One year after the inclusion of “Xi’s Thoughts” in the Constitution, following a triumphant Congress, the regime sees upcoming challenges as another reason to consolidate the power.
Both the NPC and the CPCC did not shy away from the growing difficulties facing China in 2019.
Slowing economic growth was on everybody’s mind during this year session. The government adroitly acknowledged this “new normal” setting a conservative GDP growth target of between 6% and 6.5% for 2019.
These figures offer Beijing leeway, in order to adjust to a sharper than expected downturn, amid growing global uncertainty. Industrial production growth slowed to 5.3% in January and February compared to the same period last year, down from 5.7% in December, according to fresh data released by the National Bureau of Statistics.
Moreover, unemployment is on the rise, reaching 5.3% during the first two months of this year. Beijing has also released its grip on credit, and stands ready to unleash a more ambitious stimulus package if needed, amid growing concerns within the private sector.
The on-going trade war with the US is yet another problem. As negotiations with Donald Trump’s administration enter the final, and most critical stage, the regime is keeping its options open.
Noticeably, for the first time in three years, the government made no reference to the “Made in China 2025” strategy, which is a key issue with Washington. It also toned down its Belt and Road Initiative amid growing criticism from the US administration, acknowledging the need to better take into account the concerns of partner countries.
However, there were no sign of any fundamental changes to those policies, despite America’s growing demands. This, in turn, has set the stage for a fresh Cold War, regardless of the outcome of on-going trade talks.
“The overall policy tone from Beijing supports our view that no matter what happens with trade negotiations, US-China geopolitical tensions are set to rise,” Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy firm based in Washington, said.
“China’s more confident and assertive role will continue to generate friction with a US administration that is set on shaping or countering China’s economic and political influence overseas,” it argued.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent criticism over Beijing’s alleged growing control of strategic energy routes in the South China Sea is a fresh illustration of a potential escalation.
Denouncing “irresponsible” comments, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sternly urged “nations outside the region” to “refrain from stirring up trouble and disrupting the harmonious situation.”
Taiwan might also be a flashpoint as the island cannot resist “the historic trend of reunification,” Zhang Zhijun, the president of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, said during the Congress in Beijing.
The domestic political calendar also calls for renewed control as the regime faces sensitive anniversaries.
The 30th anniversary of the bloody repression against students on Tiananmen Square will take place on June 4. This event is fiercely censored, and repression against political dissent online or offline will likely rise in the coming weeks.
On October 1, Communist China will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its foundation. This is an ominous event in the eye of the Party, as the USSR could not survive longer than seven decades.
Xi will likely use the occasion to stress further the guiding role of the Party under his own leadership, and the resilience of the “China Model.” Against this backdrop expect a “more driven foreign policy” warns Eurasia Group.
Regardless of any headwind, Xi’s solo show must go on.