China, at annual gathering, lays out plan to surpass U.S.

In smugly celebratory tones, China wrapped up political meetings Thursday at which officials praised the country’s repressive political system, hailed its ongoing recovery from the pandemic, flexed Beijing’s power over Hong Kong and laid out plans to compete with the U.S. abroad, saying that “the best is still ahead of us.”

Delegates to the annual political gatherings known as the “Two Sessions” gave their rubber-stamp approval to the Communist regime’s plans to wield greater power over Hong Kong’s government, indoctrinate ethnic minorities through political and Mandarin-language instruction, and surpass the U.S. in technology. Government officials and state media repeatedly emphasized how China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated its superior political system and prefaced an inevitable rise above Western powers.

“China can already view the world on an equal level,” President Xi Jinping said in a speech during the meetings, which assembled about 3,000 delegates from around the country. China had been first to tame the coronavirus, first to resume work and first to attain positive economic growth, Xi said.

“This came from self-confidence in our path, self-confidence in our theories, self-confidence in our system, self-confidence in our culture,” he said. “Our national system can concentrate force to do big things.”

Following Xi’s example, many officials used dramatic rhetoric in describing “great historical changes unseen in a hundred years” — a favorite slogan of Xi’s meaning China’s rise and the decline of the West.

That message is one the ruling Communist Party is especially keen to push as 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the party’s founding. Its reiteration during the Two Sessions in smog-smothered Beijing came days before the first meeting between Chinese officials and senior members of the Biden administration.

“For China, 2021 will be a year of epoch-making significance,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a press briefing Monday. “It has been proven that the party’s leadership is the biggest political advantage of China’s diplomacy and the fundamental safeguard for continued victory.”

The party’s first century was “just a prelude,” Wang added. “The best is still ahead of us.”

Key to that vision of greatness, from Beijing’s point of view, is the party’s continued absolute control over a unified Chinese nation.

Nowhere was that more evident this week than with regard to Hong Kong. The National People’s Congress, one of the Two Sessions, passed an overhaul of the territory’s electoral system, giving power over selection of the chief executive and legislature to a special committee that would allow only “patriots” to govern.

At the same time, 47 Hong Kongers went on trial in the city, charged with “conspiring to subvert state power” for participating in unofficial primary elections.

Xi also continued to push for assimilation of ethnic minorities, stressing Mandarin-language education and use of state-issued textbooks at a meeting with delegates from Inner Mongolia. Mass protests erupted in the region last year over the imposition of more Mandarin-language instruction in elementary schools.

“Cultural identity is the deepest form of identity. It is also the root and soul of ethnic unity and harmony,” Xi said.

Chinese leaders continued to deny the oppression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, calling accusations of genocide a “rumor” and a “lie.” The United States’ designation of China’s actions in Xinjiang as “genocide” are a maneuver to “hold back China’s development,” said Wang, the foreign minister.

It’s a well-worn narrative that state media and officials dusted off and repeated throughout the Trump administration — that the United States is out to suppress China for fear of its usurping America’s role as the world’s greatest power.

Chinese diplomats abroad often insist that Beijing has no such plans, that it believes in multilateralism, promotes “win-win cooperation” and harmony despite differences. “No conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation — that is in the interests of both countries’ people,” Premier Li Keqiang told reporters Thursday.

But at home, officials and state media speak openly about racing to beat the U.S., especially in technology.

A draft for the next five-year plan announced at this week’s meetings included a boost in spending of more than 7% each year on research and development. China should focus on several strategic areas over the next five years, the plan said, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, integrated circuits and aerospace.

By 2035, the plan said, China should have achieved “significant breakthroughs in core technologies” and become a leading nation in innovation.

Other issues discussed at the Two Sessions included domestic challenges such as China’s aging population, post-pandemic unemployment and urban-rural inequality. China also increased its defense budget by 6.8% to about $209 billion in 2021, more than its 6.6% defense budget increase last year.

Wang, the foreign minister, warned the U.S. on Sunday that Taiwan remains a “red line” for China. He said that Washington’s support for Taiwan was “dangerous,” suggesting possible conflict over the democratically governed island, which China claims as its territory.

Aside from a Lunar New Year holiday phone call between President Biden and Xi, the new U.S. administration has so far made no significant overtures to the Chinese government. Rather, it has emphasized China’s human rights violations and anti-democratic practices, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet.

Next week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan are scheduled to meet Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi and Chinese Communist Party foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi in Anchorage. It will be the first face-to-face meeting between senior U.S. and Chinese officials since Biden’s inauguration.

The meeting will come just after Blinken and Sullivan visit Tokyo and Seoul, where they are expected to discuss approaches to countering China. This week, Biden is also holding a virtual meeting with regional allies India, Japan and Australia.

Blinken told U.S. lawmakers Wednesday that the meeting with Chinese officials would likely include discussion of the pandemic, trade and human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday that China hoped the meeting would “push Sino-U.S. relations back on the right track of healthy and stable development,” but put the onus for doing so on the U.S.

“We require the U.S. to treat China and Sino-U.S. relations in an objective, rational manner, to abandon Cold War and zero-sum thinking, respect China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and focus on cooperation,” he said.

He did not state any potential compromises from the Chinese side.

Ziyu Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.