President Xi Jinping has promised to transform the Chinese military into a “Great Wall of Steel” capable of protecting China’s interests abroad while he also emphasised the need for greater stability and security at home.
Xi’s remarks came in his closing speech to the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, where last week he secured unanimous backing for an unprecedented third term in office.
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Despite recently cementing his status as one of contemporary China’s most powerful leaders, Xi alluded to the many challenges facing China as it navigates a post-zero-COVID landscape, a slowing economy, and a more challenging relationship with the West, particularly the United States.
“Security is the bedrock of development, while stability is a prerequisite for prosperity,” Xi told the assembly of 3,000 delegates on Monday.
He also stressed the need for an improved “national security system,” an improved “social governance system”, and the safeguarding of “China’s new development pattern with a new security architecture”.
The speech reflected similar concerns shared during the Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in October, when Xi used the word “security” 91 times, according to the US-based Brookings Institution.
“Security is the most important thing in terms of party politics. His [Xi’s] people can safeguard his position and then he can have many, many terms, even a lifelong term. Of course security is very, very important,” Alfred Muluan Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, told Al Jazeera.
“Externally, the very important thing is he is trying to paint a picture that he wants people to think that he could protect China. So in many of his documents or speeches, he is always mentioning that China is actually now surrounded by the hostile United States and also its Western allies, so they need to fight very, very hard for China.”
China is in the midst of a massive military modernisation campaign, which will be capable of “effectively safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests” when it finishes in 2035, Xi said, when the armed forces will become a “Great Wall of Steel”.
While still a decade off, China already exerts enormous influence in the region with its powerful People’s Liberation Army, military base and island building in the South China Sea, and sway over domestic politics in neighbouring countries from Cambodia to Micronesia.
The PLA plays a major role in China’s ongoing campaign to bring Taiwan back into the fold, either through a peaceful or forceful “national reunification”.
Xi mentioned the self-ruled democracy in his speech on Monday, calling for the end of “Taiwan independence separatist activities” as well as “external interference” in a thinly veiled reference to the US, Taiwan’s top military ally.
He also appeared to offer Taiwan the “one country, two systems” arrangement seen in Hong Kong and Macau, which would in theory allow for some autonomy under Beijing’s rule but in practice is an extremely unpopular offer to Taiwanese.
Xi’s concerns for “security” also extend to the home front, where officials have set a modest gross domestic product (GDP) target of just 5 percent in 2023, reflecting the lasting effect of three years of the zero-COVID strategy.
China typically sees tens of thousands of protests over issues like land seizures, but protests became more widespread at the end of 2022 as common Chinese chafed under the economic and social constraints of the policy.
The country has also struggled with uneven development between urban and rural areas as well as growing wealth inequality.
Xi, however, told delegates on Monday of China’s ongoing efforts to ensure the “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation for all citizens.
“The relay baton of building a great modern socialist country and advancing national rejuvenation has been historically passed on to our generation,” he said, calling for efforts to “upgrade and appropriately expand the economy” by focusing on fields like science and technology as well as industrial transformation that will benefit the whole economy.