China’s most important annual political meetings wrapped up Monday, leaving leader Xi Jinping firmly at the helm of a superpower that appears more eager to push back against the United States than at any time in decades.
Much of what took place over 10 days in Beijing at the highly choreographed meetings, known as the two sessions, was pre-arranged – but they also threw up a few surprises.
Here are the key takeaways:
The Party – and Xi – prevails
To long-term observers of Chinese politics, the meetings sent an unequivocal message: the Chinese Communist Party is advancing and the state is in retreat.
The annual meeting of the country’s rubber-stamp legislature and top political advisory body is traditionally a stage for the central government and the premier to shine. But the party – and Xi – has increasingly loomed large over the event.
The National People’s Congress not only endorsed an unprecedented third term for Xi as president, but also approved his sweeping reform plan to further bolster the party’s role in all aspects of decision-making and governance.
The overhaul grants the party even more direct control over the crucial financial and technology sectors – at the expense of the State Council, China’s cabinet.
Under Xi, the party has increasingly eclipsed the power of the State Council, reversing efforts by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to introduce a degree of separation between the party and the state.
The party – with Xi at its helm – has taken all decision-making power into its own hands, with the State Council reduced to the role of an executor.
Li Qiang, China’s new premier, drove the message home Monday during his debut news conference.
When asked by a reporter to outline the goals for 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 news conference, Li cited Xi seven times and the party 11 times.
Hardened stance on US
A notable shift in tone at the two sessions this year was a more forceful approach in publicly pushing back against the US – from the very top of the Chinese leadership.
At China’s annual exercise in political theater, it is safe to assume that no public comment was made without having been carefully thought out.
So when Xi lashed out at the US in front of a group of government advisers representing private businesses last week, the sharpened rhetoric sent alarm bells ringing for already fraught US-China relations.
“Western countries led by the United States have contained and suppressed us in an all-round way, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our development,” Xi said.
Despite worsening bilateral relations, China’s top leader usually avoids directly attacking the US, and generally refers only to “Western countries” or “some developed nations” instead.
Xi’s unusually direct remarks signal a notable escalation – one that is expected to be rigorously studied and followed by China’s entire officialdom.
The next day, China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang echoed Xi’s accusation, warning that if the US doesn’t stop containing and suppressing China, the two superpowers will surely be driven toward “conflict and confrontation.”
In another sign of the hardening stance, China appointed a US-sanctioned general as its new defense minister.
Gen. Li Shangfu, a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army’s modernization drive, was sanctioned by the Trump administration in 2018 for buying Russian weapons, including an Su-35 combat aircraft and S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
Few women in the leadership
Every year on International Women’s Day, Chinese state media never fails to cite Chairman Mao Zedong’s famous quote: “Women hold up half the sky.”
But the annual parliamentary meeting, which almost always coincides with the occasion, is a glaring reminder of just how few women hold high office in China.
This year, the gender imbalance is even more striking, as no woman has been appointed vice-premier under Li, China’s new premier. Li’s predecessor, Li Keqiang, had one 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 stark on the party’s side.
In a reversal for gender equality, not a single woman was promoted to the 24-member Politburo at the party’s leadership reshuffle in October. For the first time in 25 years, the party’s second-most powerful group and executive policymaking body is completely dominated by men.
No women has ever made it into the Politburo Standing Committee – the innermost sanctum of power.
Retirement norms broken, again
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 appointed China’s central bank chief in 2018, had widely been expected to retire after being left off the party’s Central Committee at a key party congress in October.
Xi shattered the party’s retirement norms in October by staying on for another term as party leader, breaking with precedents that leaders older than 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 by retaining Yi and Liu, Beijing wants to send a message of continuity and consistency as economic headwinds loom at home and abroad.