April 17, 2021

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A Confident China Promises Robust Growth and a Hard Line on Hong Kong – The New York Times

5 min read

BEIJING — China sent a forceful message on Friday advancing the top leader Xi Jinping’s sweeping agenda for the country’s economic and political ascent and drawing a hard line against challenges to Communist Party rule.

China’s leaders used the opening of the annual legislative assembly, the National People’s Congress, to unveil proposed rules that would drastically weaken the pro-democratic opposition in Hong Kong. They set a goal of at least 6 percent economic growth for this year and announced a robust rise in military spending. They released a long-term plan that promised to ease China’s dependence on foreign energy, technology and markets.

The volley of actions reflected Mr. Xi’s conviction that momentum is in China’s favor while much of the world struggles with the pandemic and its economic and political aftershocks. After initially failing to contain the coronavirus last year, China imposed strict controls that all but wiped out the virus in its borders. That success has allowed for a relatively quick economic rebound and has bolstered the Communist Party’s belief that China’s authoritarian system has worked while the United States’ democratic system has faltered.

In the months leading up to the legislative meeting, Mr. Xi has sought to underscore confidence in China’s authoritarian path while cautioning against overreach. “The East is rising and the West is declining,” he said at a closed-door meeting last year to discuss China’s next long-term development plan, which was released at the Congress.

The signs suggest that “having emerged triumphantly from the pandemic, Xi will look to further centralize his power,” said Lynette H. Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto.

By pushing through new rules for Hong Kong, Mr. Xi is taking aim at a thorn in his party’s side: opposition to Chinese rule that erupted in monthslong demonstrations in 2019.

The proposed election rules would effectively lock the beleaguered democratic camp out of election contests in the city. A Politburo member who introduced the draft rules said that they would help root out people who were not loyal to the country.

Opposition forces in the city had coalesced into a “severe threat to national sovereignty, security and development interests,” the Politburo official, Wang Chen, told the neat rows of nearly 3,000 congress delegates. “This must be met with staunch opposition and forceful measures to contain and defuse the risks.”

He said that Beijing would overhaul the membership of the territory’s Election Committee, a body that chooses the chief executive, whose approximately 1,200 members are selected by groups that have typically been loyal to Beijing and the city’s business elite.

China will also set up a new, separate procedure to vet candidates for various levels of elective office in Hong Kong. Mr. Wang said the changes would make sure that only solidly loyal supporters of China could be involved in the territory’s government.

“Ensure that control is firmly in the hands of forces that love their country and love Hong Kong,” he told the congress.

Willy Lam, a professor of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that it was possible that not a single pro-democracy candidate would be elected to Hong Kong’s legislature.

“This is a very ominous development for Hong Kong, because in the Basic Law there was a clear-cut pledge that Hong Kong would incrementally proceed toward democracy,” he said, referring to the city’s mini-Constitution. “Now this is rolling back the clock.”

Turning to the economy, officials highlighted China’s plans to sustain recovery from the pandemic, which just over a year ago threw the country into its worst crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

China’s premier, Li Keqiang, promised a robust return to economic growth of more than 6 percent, a signal that China is ready to do what it takes to keep the world’s second-largest economy running strongly.

Economic weakness last year because of the pandemic should make this year’s target easy to meet. Western economists have already been forecasting growth of around 8 percent this year. That means the Chinese economy will continue to buy much of what the rest of the world produces, including iron ore and computer chips.

Still, Mr. Li warned of risks ahead.

“As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, instability and uncertainty are mounting on the international landscape, and the global economy continues to face grave challenges,” Mr. Li said as he delivered his annual report on the government’s work.

The growth target for this year indicates that China expects a striking bounce-back after last year, when the uncertainties of the pandemic led the government to abandon setting an annual growth target for the first time in many years. China ended up recording growth of 2.3 percent in 2020, much slower than the usual pace of 6 percent or higher in recent years, but by far the best performance of any major economy.

But China’s growth last year was even more unbalanced than usual. The country lost ground on its goal of shifting from its addiction to exports and debt-fueled infrastructure investments and toward a more sustainable reliance on domestic consumption. As in most countries during the pandemic, travel and leisure spending plummeted in China last year.

Mr. Li pledged to cut taxes for the smallest businesses, many of which are tiny shops in towns and villages. But infrastructure spending will continue at a very fast pace. Mr. Li announced only a token cut — 2.7 percent — in the issuance this year of special-purpose bonds, which are mostly used to pay for infrastructure projects and had nearly tripled in the past two years.

Mr. Li promised on Friday to step up efforts to boost consumption. “With a focus on improving the people’s well-being, we will expand demand and promote a better alignment between consumption and investment,” he said.

He forecast a slight narrowing of the central government’s budget deficit this year. That is to be achieved through limits on social spending, even as military spending continues to surge by nearly 7 percent a year.

His government also released a draft plan for long-term development, setting out goals to transform the country into a technologically advanced and environmentally clean power over the five years and beyond.

Keith Bradsherreported from Beijing, and Chris Buckleyfrom Sydney, Australia. Austin Ramzy and Vivian Wang contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Albee Zhang, Claire Fu and Liu Yi contributed research.

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