BEIJING — Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Sunday called for faster military development and announced no change in policies that have strained relations with Washington and tightened the ruling Communist Party’s control over society and the economy.
China’s most influential figure in decades spoke as the party opened a congress that was closely watched by companies, governments and the Chinese public for signs of its economic and political direction. It comes amid a painful economic slump and tension with Washington and Asian neighbors over trade, technology and security.
The congress will install leaders for the next five years. Xi, 69, is expected to break with tradition and award himself a third five-year term as the party’s general secretary, entrenching his vision of reasserting its dominance in the economy, society and culture following four decades of market-style liberalization.
Xi called for accelerating military and technology development to propel the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” in a televised speech of one hour and 45 minutes to some 2,000 delegates in the cavernous Great Hall of the People.
The party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, needs to “safeguard China’s dignity and core interests,” Xi said, referring to a list of territorial claims and other issues over which Beijing says it is ready to go to war. China has the world’s second-largest defense budget after the United States and is trying to extend its reach by developing ballistic missiles, aircraft carriers and overseas outposts.
“We will work faster to modernize military theory, personnel and weapons,” Xi said in the speech, which was punctuated by brief bursts of applause from the masked delegates. “We will enhance the military’s strategic capabilities.”
Xi cited his government’s severe “zero COVID” strategy, which has shut down major cities and disrupted travel and business, as a success. He gave no indication of a possible change despite public frustration with its rising cost.
The congress will name a party Standing Committee, the ruling inner circle of power. Economic officials aren’t due to be named until China’s ceremonial legislature meets next year. But the party lineup, due to be revealed after the congress ends Saturday, will indicate who is likely to succeed Premier Li Keqiang as the top economic official and take other posts.
Xi is widely expected to promote allies who share his ambition for state-led development. Analysts are watching whether a slump that saw economic growth fall to below half of the official 5.5% annual target might force him to compromise and promote supporters of market-style reform and entrepreneurs who generate wealth and jobs.
Xi on Sunday gave no indication whether he would pursue a third term as leader or when he might step down.
During his decade in power, Xi’s government has pursued an increasingly assertive foreign policy while tightening control at home on information and dissent.
Beijing is feuding with Japan, India and Southeast Asian governments over conflicting claims to the South China and East China Seas and a section of the Himalayas. The United States, Japan, Australia and India formed a strategic group dubbed the Quad in response.
The party has increased the dominance of state-owned industry and poured money into strategic initiatives aimed at nurturing Chinese creators of renewable energy, electric car, computer chip, aerospace and other technologies.
Its tactics have prompted complaints Beijing improperly protects and subsidizes its fledgling creators and led then-President Donald Trump to hike tariffs on Chinese imports in 2019, setting off a trade war that jolted the global economy.
Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, has kept those penalties in place and this month increased restrictions on Chinese access to U.S. chip technology.
The party has tightened control over private sector leaders including e-commerce giant Alibaba Group by launching anti-monopoly, data security and other crackdowns. Under political pressure, they are diverting billions of dollars into chip development and other party initiatives. Their share prices on foreign exchanges have plunged due to uncertainty about their future.
The party has stepped up censorship of media and the internet, increased public surveillance and tightened control over private life through its “social credit” initiative that tracks individuals and punishes infractions ranging from fraud to littering.
Last week, banners criticizing Xi and “zero COVID” were hung from a pedestrian bridge over a major Beijing thoroughfare in a rare protest. Photos of the event were deleted from social media and the popular WeChat message service shut down accounts that forwarded them.
On Sunday, Xi said the party will step up technology development and “ensure security” of its food sources and industrial supply chains.
Xi said the party would build “self-reliance and strength” in technology by improving China’s education system and attracting foreign experts. He said Beijing will launch “major national projects” with “long-term importance” but gave no details.
The president appeared to “double down” on technology self-reliance and “zero COVID” at a time when other countries are easing travel restrictions and rely on more free-flowing supply chains, said Willy Lam, a politics specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Xi was joined on stage by party leaders including his predecessor as general secretary, Hu Jintao, former Premier Wen Jiabao and Song Ping, a 105-year-old party veteran who sponsored Xi’s early career. There was no sign of 96-year-old former President Jiang Zemin, who was party leader until 2002.
The presence of previous leaders shows Xi faces no serious opposition in the top party ranks, said Lam.
“Xi is making it very clear he intends to hold on to power for as long as his health allows him to,” he said.
Xi made no mention of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Beijing refuses to criticize. Ahead of the February attack, Xi issued a joint statement with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying they had a “no limits” friendship.
Xi defended a crackdown aimed at crushing a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, saying the party helped the former British colony “enter a new stage in which it has restored order and is set to thrive.”
Xi’s government also faces criticism over complaints about mass detentions and other abuses against mostly Muslim ethnic minority groups and the jailing of government critics.
Amnesty International warned Sunday that extending Xi’s time in power will be a “disaster for human rights.” In addition to conditions within China, it pointed to Beijing’s efforts to “redefine the very meaning of human rights” in the United Nations.
Xi’s government poses a “threat to rights not just at home, but globally,” the group’s deputy regional director, Hana Young, said in a statement.
Xi said Beijing refuses to renounce the possible use of force against Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy the Communist Party claims as part of its territory. The two sides split in 1949 after a civil war.
Beijing has stepped up efforts to intimidate Taiwanese by flying fighter jets and bombers near the island. That campaign intensified after Speaker Nancy Pelosi of the House of Representatives in August became the highest-ranked U.S. official to visit Taiwan in a quarter-century.
Unification of the two sides “will be achieved,” Xi said.
Beijing needs to prevent “interference by outside forces,” he said, a reference to foreign politicians the ruling party says are encouraging Taiwan to make its de facto independence permanent, a step the mainland says would lead to war.
“We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification,” Xi said. “But we will never promise to renounce the use of force. And we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”
The Taiwanese Cabinet’s Mainland Affairs Council responded by saying the island’s 23 million people had the right to determine their own future and would not accept Beijing’s unilateral demands. China has frozen all contacts with the island since President Tsai Ing-wen’s election to her first term in 2016.
“We firmly call on the Chinese Communist authorities to abandon the imposition of a political framework and the use of military force and coercion,” the council said in a statement.
The ruling party elite agreed in the 1990s to limit the general secretary to two five-year terms in an effort to prevent a repeat of power struggles from earlier decades. That leader also becomes chairman of the commission that controls the PLA, and holds the ceremonial title of national president.
Xi made his intentions clear in 2018 when he had a two-term limit on the presidency removed from China’s constitution. Officials said that allowed Xi to stay if needed to carry out reforms.
The party is widely expected to amend its charter this week to raise Xi’s status as leader after adding his personal ideology, Xi Jinping Thought, in a 2017 amendment. The vague ideology emphasizes reviving the party’s leadership role in a throwback to what Xi regards as its golden age following the 1949 revolution.
The spokesperson for the congress, Sun Yeli, said Saturday the changes would “meet new requirements for advancing the party’s development” but gave no details.