BEIJING – Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a blistering nationalist speech Tuesday, warning against any attempts to split China and touting the country’s readiness to fight “the bloody battle” to regain its rightful place in the world.
Xi’s address capped an annual session of the National People’s Congress that paved the way for him to rule for life, as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong pushes through his vision of guiding the country through a “new era” of unrivaled global military and economic supremacy.
Days after U.S. President Donald Trump signed new rules allowing top-level American officials to travel to Taiwan, Xi warned that Beijing would defend its “One China” principle, which sees the self-ruling island as its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
“Maintaining national sovereignty, territorial integrity and complete unification of the motherland is the common aspiration of all Chinese,” Xi said.
“In the face of national righteousness and the tide of history, all attempts or tricks aimed at dividing the motherland are doomed to failure,” he said to loud applause. “All will receive the condemnation of the people and the punishment of history.”
The Chinese people have the will and ability to “foil all activities to divide the nation” and are united in their belief that “every inch of our great motherland absolutely cannot and absolutely will not be separated from China,” Xi said.
Referring to self-governing Taiwan, Xi said the mainland would continue outreach to advance the cause of “peaceful unification” with the island, whose 23 million residents are strongly in favor of maintaining their de facto independent status.
After reaffirming U.S. support for the one-China principle last year, Trump has in recent months signaled a tougher line against Beijing and Friday signed the Taiwan Travel Act into law. The act encourages visits between the U.S. and Taiwan “at all levels,” specifically citing “Cabinet-level national security officials.” Chinese officials have said the act “seriously contravenes” the understanding between China and the U.S. over Taiwan.
“The recent ‘Taiwan Travel Act’ is a mine that America buried and one day it will blow up,” said Xu Shijun, former director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “China will not sit back and take such actions. The U.S. should definitely integrate the message that Xi’s sent this morning into its decision making process.”
Wang Jiangyu, an international law professor at the National University of Singapore, said Xi’s speech showed that Beijing would not budge on the issue.
“This is an official warning from China’s top leader to the U.S. and Taiwan,” Wang said. “It’s an announcement that China will never compromise on Taiwan-related issues.”
Xi also sought to address concerns about ambitious Chinese development projects abroad, saying they “will not pose a threat to any country.”
“Only those who are accustomed to threatening others will see everyone as a threat,” he added.
Xi used the speech to espouse his vision of realizing the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” — the “greatest dream” of the world’s second-largest economy.
“The Chinese people have been indomitable and persistent, we have the spirit of fighting the bloody battle against our enemies to the bitter end,” he said.
But his speech was also a reminder that the Communist Party, more than ever, reigns over the country’s affairs.
“History has already proven and will continue to prove that only socialism can save China,” he said.
“The Communist Party is the supreme political leadership of the country and the fundamental guarantee to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
The two-week session of the National People’s Congress handed Xi, 64, a second term and endorsed the Communist Party’s decision to lift presidential term limits, clearing the way for him to remain in power indefinitely after his second term ends in 2023.
His eponymous political philosophy, which was enshrined in the party charter last year, was added to the national constitution and senior government officials had to swear an oath to the document for the first time.
While delegates overwhelmingly supported the move, critics and some analysts say it raises concerns about a return to one-man-rule — and greater political repression within an already highly controlled polity.
“There is a distinct danger now that there may well be a return to the Maoist style of leadership symbolized by the dissolution of collective responsibility and the concentration of power under one person,” said Joseph Cheng, a longtime observer of Chinese politics now retired from the City University of Hong Kong.
Some of Xi’s key lieutenants were also promoted to top positions. His former anti-corruption czar, Wang Qishan, was elevated to the vice presidency while his top economic adviser, Liu He, became vice premier.
Wang could use his experience as a trade negotiator to deal with rocky relations with the Trump administration, while Liu is expected to have an influential role in economic policymaking.
Those moves were likely to further sideline Premier Li Keqiang, officially China’s No. 2 leader.
Li appealed to Washington on Tuesday to “act rationally” and avoid disrupting trade over steel, technology and other disputes, promising that Beijing will “open even wider” to imports and investment.
“No one will emerge a winner from a trade war,” Li told a news conference held during the meeting of the rubber-stamp legislature.
He made no mention of a possible Chinese response in the event Trump raises import barriers over trade complaints against Beijing, but other officials say Xi’s government is ready to act.
Trump’s government already has raised import duties on Chinese-made washing machines and other goods to offset what it says are improper subsidies and is investigating whether Beijing pressures foreign companies to hand over technology, which might lead to trade penalties. That has prompted fears of Chinese retaliation.
“What we hope is for us to act rationally rather than being led by emotions,” said Li. “We don’t want to see a trade war.”
Li also said Tuesday that he is willing to consider a formal visit to Japan amid signs of improving ties between the two nations. China hopes to see continuing improvements in its relations with Japan, he said.
In a sign of Li’s reduced status as Xi amasses power, the premier was flanked by eight newly promoted economic officials, in contrast to previous years when he appeared alone at the annual news conference.
They included Liu He, a Harvard-trained Xi adviser who was named a vice premier Monday and has told foreign businesspeople he will oversee economic reform. Neither Liu nor any of the other officials spoke at the event.
The premier traditionally is China’s top economic official but Xi has stripped Li of his most prominent duties by appointing himself to lead ruling party bodies that oversee economic reform and finance policy.
The legislature also approved the biggest government shake-up in years, merging the banking and insurance regulators to tackle financial risks, and amended the constitution to expand the Communist Party’s role in the country’s affairs.
Xi’s campaign against corruption within the Communist Party, which punished 1.5 million officials in five years, was expanded as the legislature voted Tuesday to create a national agency that will scrutinize millions of public servants.
“The Communist Party of China must … resolutely eliminate” corruption, Xi said.
The government’s propaganda machine worked in overdrive to nurture a cult of personality around Xi and stamp out dissenting views during the two-week session.
The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, referred to Xi as the “helmsman” last weekend, an echo of Mao who was known as “the great helmsman.”
The abolition of term limits triggered a rare bout of criticism on social media, prompting censors to block dozens of phrases such as “I disagree” or “emperor” as well as satirical images such as Winnie the Pooh — the cartoon bear that some compare to Xi.
China has stepped up its crackdown on civil society since Xi took power in 2012, tightening online restrictions and detaining hundreds of activists and lawyers.