The urgent need for technological progress was the dominant theme of the eight-day National People’s Congress meeting, which ended on Monday after the rubber-stamp parliament confirmed Xi in power for a third term and promoted his loyal lieutenant Li Qiang to No. 2 character.
“When the Chinese Communist Party was established … after a century of struggle, our national shame was wiped away, and the Chinese people became the masters of their own destiny,” Xi told the 3,000 or so delegates in the Great Hall. People in Beijing, red flags behind him. He refers to the early 20th century when China was carved up by colonial powers, what Beijing calls a “century of shame” and promises not to be repeated.
“China’s great renaissance is on an irreversible path,” Xi said.
Self-reliance has long been one of Beijing’s top priorities, but relations with Washington have been straining, underscored by recent export restrictions aimed at cutting off China’s access to technology that could help its military program.
In his first speech since being confirmed for a third term on Friday, he pledged to “build the military into a steel wall that effectively protects the interests of national sovereignty, security and development”. And stability is a prerequisite for prosperity.”
Xi’s comments put the Communist Party firmly in control of decisions related to science and technology, halting a gathering that has consolidated the government’s grip on innovation.
Throughout the NPC meeting, officials repeatedly stressed the importance of self-reliance in achieving China’s goals in every arena. The cabinet said the changes were a necessary response to “the harsh environment of international scientific and technological competition and external control and repression”.
Over the years, the government has pushed for the country to become a global technology power by investing in manufacturing capacity in key industries such as semiconductors and artificial intelligence. But in key areas such as ultrasmall chips, Chinese companies have been unable to make progress elsewhere. Many of the country’s national champions in supercomputing, semiconductors and 5G have been blacklisted by Washington.
“There’s a general feeling that they’re far behind in key technologies that are essential to powering a modern economy,” said Trey McArver, co-founder of research consultancy Trivium China. “‘Why can’t we make three-nanometer chips?’ There are many key technologies that they are behind and they are trying to figure it out.
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In rare comments directly critical of Washington, Xi said at a meeting with a trade group on March 6 that US “private enterprises should play a greater role in promoting self-reliance and self-improvement in science and technology to counter regulation and repression.” “
While attending the meeting with Delegation of the People’s Liberation Army Two days later, Xi emphasized the importance of self-reliance and established a “resilient industrial supply chain” to “serve a strong military and win wars.”
This year’s NPC meeting took place amid a gloomy economic outlook. Three years of stuttering under Xi’s Covid restrictions has left China mired in economic growth at its lowest level in decades, and the Communist Party predicts the world’s second-largest economy will reach a modest 5% growth in 2023.
The country is facing a real estate crisis, rising unemployment, an aging population and declining consumer confidence. The government’s crackdown on the tech sector has spooked entrepreneurs and investors. Li, the newly appointed premier, used his first news conference to reassure the country’s struggling entrepreneurs. After admitting to “inappropriate debates” about the role of private businesses last year, he promised that their “pioneer spirit” would always be respected – as long as they contribute to a new era of “high-quality” development.
Li said the focus, particularly on high-tech innovation and the shift toward environmental sustainability, should be better — not simply — economic output. “Objectively speaking, the majority of everyday people don’t pay attention to the growth rate of GDP from day to day,” he said.
As a former party boss of China’s innovation zones of Jiangsu and Shanghai, Li has positioned himself as a friend of private and international businesses and a budding tech enthusiast. On Monday, he reminded reporters that he was an early adopter of the Internet, describing himself as a “senior netizen.”
But Li, who has been a close ally of Xi for more than two decades, has occasionally echoed the leader’s view that businesses are supported by — and should contribute to — the country’s political goals.
He said the “remarkable advantages” of China’s political system are that if the Chinese people “dare to fight” and strive for “self-improvement”, the economy can overcome the difficulties it faces.
Under the changes announced last week, the Ministry of Science and Technology has had its powers reduced, while a new decision-making body, the Central Commission for Science and Technology, has been established, giving the party a direct hand in technological innovation.
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The government also established the National Data Bureau, which will absorb some of the 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.”
New delegates to this year’s congress included executives from China’s top chip companies, including the chairman of Huahong Semiconductor, China’s second-largest chip foundry, and the head of artificial intelligence chip company Cambricon Technologies. Chinese state media said their presence reflected “the industry’s importance to the Chinese economy”.
Delegates called for a “Chip Act” to spur growth in semiconductors and advocated the establishment of more integrated-circuit colleges to nurture talent.
A recent opinion piece in the party mouthpiece People’s Daily praised the changes: “China is committed to placing scientific and technological innovation at the center of the country’s overall development. It is committed to the path of independent innovation with Chinese characteristics.
Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.