At the opening of a top level political meeting Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a sober assessment of the challenges facing the world’s second largest economy and its ruling Communist Party, laying out an ambitious vision that stretches forward to the middle of this century and pledging to build what he called a “modern socialist country” for a “new era.”
In a near three-and-a-half hour speech at the opening session of the 19th Party Congress, Xi spoke confidently about the country’s future and its opportunities. He also stressed that an increasingly strong Communist Party would continue to chart the path forward.
But such an effort is not without its challenges.
Xi has overseen a massive anti-corruption drive since rising to power five years ago, which has punished more than one million officials and led to the downfall of several high-ranking party members as well. He said the fight against corruption will always be in progress and is still the party’s biggest threat.
In his speech, he spoke frequently about the struggles China’s leadership faces, mentioning the word “struggle” more than two dozen times.
“As socialism with Chinese characteristics enters a new era, the party must apply new approaches. To forge iron, one first needs to get strong,” Xi said. “A party and its authority rests on winning the hearts and minds of the people. What the public opposes and hates, we must address and resolve.”
Xi said the demands of China’s near 1.4 billion people are becoming increasingly broad.
“Not only have their material and cultural needs grown; demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security, and a better environment are also increasing each day," he said.
But much like other topics Xi spoke about in his address, which left some struggling to stay awake and hungry as it pushed past noon, it was unclear how China’s ruling party would do just that.
Although the Chinese leader mentioned growing demands for democracy, he made it clear that no major political reforms were on the horizon.
"A political system cannot be criticized abstractly without consideration for social and political circumstances, and historical cultural traditions. It cannot look up to one man as the highest authority or blindly copy foreign political systems without regard for specific conditions," Xi said.
Xi’s first five years as China’s top leader has been marked by an ever-increasing tightening of expression both online and in society. As Xi has sought to forward his vision for China, he has led a sweeping crackdown on civil society and locked up dissidents and lawyers.
He has shown little signs of loosening that grip. In fact, the 19th Party Congress is expected to further expand his power.
During the twice-a-decade gathering, China’s Communist Party rulers will reshuffle their leadership and install a new Politburo Standing Committee, a top group of leaders that will rule the country for the next five years. The body is expected to be filled with more members who are loyal to Xi and part of his faction within the party.
On the economy, Xi said that China’s development is not a threat to any country and that it would continue to open its doors to foreign companies. He said that China would expand access to its services sector and deepen market oriented reforms, while strengthening state owned companies.
In his speech, Xi tried to balance his emphasis on socialism and state control with promises of fair play towards foreign companies who can bring in the new and innovative technologies his government eagerly wants.
"All businesses registered in China will be treated equally," he said while promising to "protect the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors."
Analysts say Xi’s pledge, which did little to boost markets in China on Wednesday, is a response to growing complaints of discrimination that foreign-invested companies say they face here. They add that it also highlights the government's preference for foreign companies establishing joint ventures and offering up their technical know-how, as opposed to operating from overseas destinations.
Xi said in his address that the Communist Party aims to develop China into a “basically” modernized, innovation-driven country by 2035 and to become a modern “strong power” by 2050.
Saibal Dasgupta contributed to this report