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China’s Xi promises to build ‘great wall of steel’ in rivalry with West

Chinese leader Xi Jinping during the closing session of the National People's Congress in Beijing on Monday. (Mark R Cristino/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
6 min

China needs “self-reliance and strength in science and technology” to better compete with the West in military preparedness, economic growth and many other areas, leader Xi Jinping said Monday, closing an annual Chinese Communist Party meeting during which he cemented his hold on power and escalated his rhetorical confrontation with the United States.

The urgent need for technological progress was a dominant theme of the eight-day National People’s Congress meeting, during which the rubber-stamp parliament confirmed a third term in power for Xi and elevated his loyal lieutenant Li Qiang into the No. 2 role.

“With the founding of the Communist Party of China … and after a century of struggle, our national humiliation has been erased, and the Chinese people have become the masters of their own destiny,” Xi told the 3,000 or so delegates in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, red flags behind him. He was referring to the party’s start in 1921 and its struggle to eliminate the humiliation of the years when the country was carved up by colonial powers.

“The Chinese nation’s great revival is on an irreversible path,” Xi said.

Self-reliance has long been one of Beijing’s top priorities, but deteriorating ties with Washington, underscored by recent export controls aimed at cutting off access to technology that could aid China’s military program, have made it all the more urgent.

In his first speech since being confirmed Friday for a third term, Xi pledged to “build the military into a great wall of steel that effectively safeguards national sovereignty, security and our development interests,” adding that “safety is the foundation of development, and stability is the prerequisite for prosperity.”

Xi’s remarks capped off a meeting that put the Communist Party firmly in control of science- and technology-related decisions and consolidated the government’s grip on innovation.

Throughout the gathering, officials repeatedly emphasized self-reliance as key to achieving China’s goals in every arena. The cabinet said changes were a necessary response to “the severe situation of international scientific and technological competition as well as external containment and suppression.”

For years, the government has pushed for the country to become a global tech power by investing in manufacturing capacity in key industries, such as semiconductors and artificial intelligence. But in crucial areas, like ultrasmall chips, Chinese companies haven’t been able to keep up with advancements elsewhere. Many of the country’s national champions in supercomputing, semiconductors and 5G have been blacklisted by Washington.

“There is a general sense that they are very behind on the key core technologies that are going to be necessary to drive a modern economy,” said Trey McArver, co-founder of the research consultancy Trivium China. “‘Why can’t we make three-nanometer chips?’ There are a lot of major technologies they are behind on, and they are trying to figure that out.”

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In rare remarks directly criticizing Washington, Xi said in a March 6 meeting with a trade group that private enterprises must “play a greater role in promoting self-reliance and self-improvement in science and technology” to counter U.S. “containment and suppression.”

While attending a meeting with a delegation of the People’s Liberation Army two days later, Xi emphasized the importance of self-reliance and establishment of a “resilient industrial supply chain” to “serve a strong army and win wars.”

This year’s congress took place amid a bleak economic outlook. A stifling three years under Xi’s covid restrictions have left China grappling with its lowest levels of economic growth in decades, and the Communist Party projected that the world’s second-largest economy would achieve modest growth of 5 percent in 2023.

The country faces a real estate crisis, rising unemployment, an aging population and declining consumer confidence. Government crackdowns on the tech sector have left entrepreneurs and investors shaken. Li, the newly appointed premier, used his first news conference to reassure the country’s embattled entrepreneurs. After acknowledging “inappropriate discussions” about the role of private businesses last year, he promised that their “pioneering spirit” would always be valued — so long as they contributed toward a new era of “high quality” growth.

The focus, Li said, should be on better — not simply more — economic output, especially in high-tech innovation and the transition toward environmental sustainability. “Objectively speaking, the majority of everyday people are not focused on the rate of [gross domestic product] growth from day to day,” he said.

As former party boss in China’s innovation hotbeds of Jiangsu and Shanghai, Li has cast himself as a friend of private and international businesses as well as an emerging-technology enthusiast. On Monday, he reminded journalists he was an early adopter of the internet, describing himself as a “veteran netizen.”

But Li, who has been a close associate of Xi for over two decades, also occasionally echoed the paramount leader’s view that businesses are supported by — and should contribute toward — the nation’s political goals.

The “notable advantages” of China’s political system mean that hardships facing the economy can be overcome if the people of China “dare to struggle” and “strive for self-improvement,” he said.

Under changes announced last week, the Ministry of Science and Technology saw its powers reduced, while a new decision-making body, the Central Commission on Science and Technology, was established, giving the party a more direct hand in technological innovation.

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The government also established a National Data Bureau, which will absorb some functions of the country’s top internet regulator, the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission. The bureau will oversee the development of China’s data infrastructure and the construction of China’s “digital economy and digital society.”

Executives of China’s top chip companies were among new delegates at this year’s congress, including the chairman of Huahong Semiconductor, China’s second-largest chip foundry, and the leader of artificial intelligence chip company Cambricon Technologies. Chinese state media said their presence was a reflection of “the industry’s growing importance to the Chinese economy.”

Delegates called for a “chip law” to promote the development of semiconductors and advocated for more integrated-circuit colleges to be established to cultivate talent.

A recent commentary in the People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, praised the changes: “China is committed to putting scientific and technological innovation at the core of the country’s overall development. It is committed to the path of independent innovation with Chinese characteristics.”

Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.