BEIJING – Chinese President Xi Jinping warned of “severe” challenges while laying out a road map to turn the country into a leading global power by 2050 as he kicked off a twice-a-decade party gathering expected to cement his influence into the next decade.
In a speech that ran for more than three hours on Wednesday, Xi declared victory over “many difficult, long overdue problems” since he took power in 2012. He said China would continue opening its doors to foreign businesses, defend against systemic risks, deepen state-run enterprise reform, strengthen financial sector regulation and better coordinate fiscal and monetary policy.
“Right now both China and the world are in the midst of profound and complex changes,” Xi said. “China is still in an important period of strategic opportunity for development. The prospects are bright, but the challenges are severe.”
Investors are watching to see whether Xi will push through tough reforms as the world’s second-largest economy faces structural challenges over the next five years. At the same time, he is seeking to boost China’s global clout with infrastructure spending while seeking to avoid a conflict with U.S. President Donald Trump over North Korea.
Pyongyang, instead of testing another nuclear bomb, as some had feared, sent a congratulatory message to the party — but an unusually short one that made no mention of the historic ties between Beijing and Pyongyang, in contrast to the one issued for the last Chinese communist congress in 2012, when outgoing leader Hu Jintao was praised by name.
In his speech, Xi called for the party to lead development of technology industries — an area fraught with trade tensions and complaints that Beijing encourages theft of foreign know-how and hampers access to its own markets.
Xi spoke of making a “country of innovators” and creating competitors in aerospace, cyberspace, clean energy and other areas. Xi promised to promote cooperation among universities, government research institutes, state companies and small enterprises.
Chinese companies are spending billions of dollars a year on developing their own technology in computers, telecoms and other fields. But the country also is regarded as a global center for industrial spying, and intelligence experts say the scale is growing as Beijing tries to create competitors in fields from robotics to energy to pharmaceuticals.
Foreign business groups also have expressed concern about development plans they say would limit access to emerging industries by dictating in advance leading competitors will be Chinese-owned.
Global companies are setting up research and development facilities in China but business groups say they are reluctant to transfer their most advanced technologies or conduct high-level research in this country for fear it will be stolen.
Economic analyst Jude Blanchette at the Conference Board’s China Center said: “We have a fairly clear blueprint of Xi Jinping’s political economy, with incredibly robust, strengthened state-owned sector playing a large role in propping up growth.
“We’re moving into a sort of China Inc. 2.0 — a real upgraded version. That, sure, has markets and they’re going to play a really important role in this, but this is all within a bird-caged economy.”
Xi’s speech — officially known as the party work report, China’s most important policy document — included sections on politics, the economy, national defense, foreign policy and Hong Kong and Taiwan. He reiterated the goal of attaining “moderately prosperous society” by 2020, which has helped drive economic policy over the past five years.
On Taiwan, he said China has the resolve, confidence and ability to thwart any attempt by the self-ruled island to declare independence.
Taipei quickly responded, with the Cabinet’s Mainland Affairs Council saying it was “absolutely” the right of Taiwan’s 23 million people to decide their future.
Xi also laid out an ambitious plan to make China a “great modern socialist country” in the following 30 years — part of what he has called the “Chinese dream.” By 2050, he said, the party would be near the goal of achieving a “beautiful China” with the rule of law, innovative companies, a clean environment, an expanding middle class, adequate public transportation and reduced disparities between urban and rural areas.
“Chinese people will enjoy greater happiness and well-being, and the Chinese nation will stand taller and firmer in the world,” Xi said of his vision for 2050.
Xi painted China’s governance system as a unique development model while hailing signature policies like his Belt-and-Road infrastructure initiative and anti-corruption campaign, which has ensnared some 1 million officials since 2012 and sidelined many of his would-be rivals.
Xi affirmed the Communist Party’s supremacy and said that China shouldn’t copy the political systems of foreign nations, repeatedly emphasizing that the country had entered a “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” He called for the rejection of the “Cold War mentality” in addressing global challenges, and said China would never seek global hegemony.
Xi said the Communist Party will strive to fully transform the People’s Liberation Army into one the world’s top militaries by 2050, and emphasized the need to modernize its combat capability.
“A military is built to fight,” he said.
Throughout the week, more than 2,000 delegates to 19th Party Congress will discuss and approve Xi’s report and revisions to the party charter. They will also appoint a new Central Committee, which will elect the party’s Politburo and its Standing Committee — China’s most powerful body — the day after the congress ends on Oct. 24.
Xi is set to emerge as one of the country’s top three leaders along with Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. He will be looking to secure a majority of allies on the new Standing Committee, which may potentially include possible successors who could rule until 2032.
While economic growth has surprised on the upside in recent quarters, inefficient state-owned enterprises and ballooning corporate debt pose threats to stability. Last year, China saw its slowest full-year growth in about a quarter century, and S&P Global Ratings last month cut China’s sovereign rating for the first time since 1999.
The Communist Party has been adept at changing course and finding ways for its citizens to make money, according to Fraser Howie, co-author of the books “Red Capitalism” and “Privatizing China.”
“The bargain certainly in the past 25 years plus has been forget political freedoms, we will allow you to get rich,” Howie said. “Keeping power has been of absolute paramount importance to the party, and that’s the focus of what these meetings are about.”