China’s most important annual political meetings ended on Monday, leaving leader Xi Jinping firmly at the helm of a superpower that seems more eager to push back against the United States than at any time in decades.
Much of what happened over 10 days in Beijing in the highly choreographed meetings, known as the Two Sessions, was pre-arranged – but they also held a few surprises.
Here are the main takeaways:
To longtime observers of Chinese politics, the meetings sent an unequivocal message: the Chinese Communist Party is advancing and the state is retreating.
The annual meeting of the country’s legislature and the country’s top political advisory body is traditionally a stage where the central government and the prime minister shine. But the party — and Xi — increasingly figured prominently in the event.
The National People’s Congress not only approved an unprecedented third term for Xi as president, but also endorsed his sweeping reform plan to further strengthen the party’s role in all aspects of decision-making and governance. governance.
The overhaul grants the party even more direct control over crucial financial and technology sectors – at the expense of the State Council, China’s cabinet.
Under Xi, the party increasingly eclipsed the power of the State Council, reversing late Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to introduce some degree of separation between party and state.
The party – with Xi at its head – has taken all decision-making power into its own hands, with the State Council reduced to the role of executor.
Li Qiang, China’s new premier, delivered the message Monday at his first press conference.
When asked by a reporter to describe the goals of the new term of government, Li replied, “The job of the new government is to carry out and fully implement the decisions of the party’s central committee.”
Throughout the press conference, Li cited Xi seven times and the party 11 times.
A notable change in tone in both sessions this year has been a more forceful approach to publicly push back against the United States – from the highest level of Chinese leadership.
During China’s annual political theater exercise, it’s safe to assume that no public comment was made without careful consideration.
So when Xi lashed out at the United States in front of a group of government advisers representing private companies last week, the sharp rhetoric raised alarm bells for already strained U.S.-China relations.
“Western countries led by the United States have comprehensively contained and suppressed us, which has posed unprecedented severe challenges to our development,” Xi said.
Despite the deterioration of bilateral relations, the Chinese leader generally avoids directly attacking the United States and generally only refers to “Western countries” or “certain developed countries”.
Xi’s unusually blunt remarks signal a notable escalation — one that should be rigorously studied and monitored by the entire Chinese administration.
The next day, China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, echoed Xi’s accusation, warning that unless the United States stops containing and suppressing China, the two superpowers will surely be pushed towards “conflict and confrontation”.
In another sign of its hardening stance, China has appointed a US-sanctioned general as its new defense minister.
General Li Shangfu, a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army’s modernization campaign, was sanctioned by the Trump administration in 2018 for buying Russian weapons, including a Su-35 fighter jet and missile system ground-to-air S-400.
Every year on International Women’s Day, Chinese state media never fail to quote Chairman Mao Zedong’s famous quote: “Women hold half the sky”.
But the annual parliamentary meeting, which almost always coincides with the occasion, is a stark reminder of how few women hold high office in China.
This year, the gender imbalance is even more stark, as no woman has been appointed vice premier under Li, China’s new premier. Li’s predecessor, Li Keqiang, had a female vice premier in his cabinet for both terms.
In Li’s new cabinet, there are only three women – and 30 men.
The contrast is even more striking on the party side.
In a U-turn for gender equality, not a single woman was promoted to the 24-member Politburo during the party leadership reshuffle in October. For the first time in 25 years, the party’s second most powerful group and executive body is entirely male-dominated.
No woman has ever served on the Standing Committee of the Politburo – the innermost sanctuary of power.
In a surprise announcement on Sunday, Beijing retained some of its existing economic leadership, including People’s Bank of China Governor Yi Gang, a US-educated economist, and Finance Minister Liu Kun.
Both men have reached the official retirement age of 65 for ministers.
Yi, who was named chief of China’s central bank in 2018, was generally expected to retire after being ousted from the party’s Central Committee at a key party congress in October.
Xi broke party retirement norms in October by staying on for another term as party leader, breaking with precedents that leaders over 68 should step down. He also made an exception for former foreign minister Wang Yi, promoting the 69-year-old to the Politburo.
Analysts say that by retaining Yi and Liu, Beijing wants to send a message of continuity and consistency as economic headwinds loom at home and abroad.