Beijing: China’s prime minister has warned the world is entering a period of profound political and economic upheaval as the spectre of Donald Trump hung over the opening day of the country’s annual national people’s congress.
Speaking in the Great Hall of the People, the cavernous Mao-era building where China hosts its most important political spectacles, Li Keqiang urged China to brace for “more complicated and graver situations” ahead, as a result of developments “both in and outside China”.
“There are many uncertainties about the direction of the major economies’ policies and their spillover effects, and the factors that could cause instability and uncertainty are visibly increasing,” Li warned in what appeared to be in part an indirect reference to Trump’s shock election.
Trump, who has described China as an “enemy” of the United States, has repeatedly threatened to play hardball with Beijing over trade, stirring fears of a potentially destabilising trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
During his speech to Congress last Tuesday Trump claimed the US had lost 60,000 factories since China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001.
Addressing about 3,000 delegates in the Tiananmen Square auditorium, Li sought to contrast China with Trump’s increasingly inward-looking America, warning that “both the deglobalisation trend and protectionism are growing”.
“China is a responsible country,” he said.
“In the face of profound changes in the international political and economic landscape, China will always stand on the side of peace and stability, will forever be committed to equity and justice, and will always work for world peace, contribute to global development, and uphold the international order,” Li said.
“We will ... oppose protectionism in its different forms [and] become more involved in global governance.”
In what appeared to be another indirect swipe at Trump, who has threatened to withdraw from the Paris climate deal, Li said: “We played our part in ensuring that the Paris agreement was put into force”.
Li’s speech, in which he also announced that China would lower its annual growth target to “around 6.5 per cent”, comes less than two months after Xi Jinping used an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos to position China as a champion of globalisation and a responsible global player.
Many have balked at the suggestion that Xi’s increasingly repressive and protectionist China might become a standard-bearer for a progressive economic policies. However, Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese politics at King’s College London, said Trump’s election meant the world was looking to Beijing for leadership like never before on issues such as trade and climate change.
“Now China is a stabiliser rather than a destabiliser. Suddenly these congresses are not just about domestic issues — they are actually a global power doing global things because of the space that America, Brexit and others have opened up around it. So they have a much bigger potential impact.”
Little in the way of policy will be decided by the annual two-week meeting of the National People’s Congress, a rubber-stamp parliament which rarely challenges pre-agreed Communist party plans.
However, the summit does mark the beginning of a crucial year in Chinese politics.
This autumn President Xi, who took power in late 2012, will reach the midway point of his decade-long term in power, an event that will be marked by the Communist party’s 19th congress. Intense political jockeying is already underway to decide which politicians will be handed a place at the Communist party’s top table, the Politburo, at that meeting.
“The stakes are very, very high,” said Brown, the author of CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping. “If the congress is remotely interpreted as divided or fractious then that is a big, big failure. So I am sure it will be hugely controlled, very, very tightly scripted with a very simple message that reform is still on track.”
Beijing has used the annual gathering to hammer home the supremacy of President Xi, a 63-year-old strongman widely seen as the country’s most powerful leader in decades.
During his 105-minute speech, Li repeatedly referred to Xi as China’s “core” — a title bestowed on only four Chinese leaders since 1949 — and urged Communist party cadres to rally around him as China faced a new era of uncertainty.
Xi’s position as “the core” was “of crucial and far-reaching significance for ensuring the flourishing and long-term stability of the party and the country,” the prime minister said.