China has been witnessing unprecedented national and global challenges “not seen in a hundred years”. These include the United States’ no-holds-barred anti-China hostility, a debilitating three-year-long global pandemic, and a US-led continental-scale attrition war against Russia over Ukraine with global repercussions.
Targets of 5 percent economic growth, 12 million new jobs, and 3 percent inflation expectation, which were stated in the Government Work Report, are generally considered prudent. However, there remain deep-seated Western misconceptions, distortions and outright malignments over what China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping is trying to achieve.
The following perspectives may be useful.
First, this year’s two sessions represent nothing less than a new chapter in advancing “China 3.0”, a term coined by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2021.
Under Chairman Mao Zedong’s “China 1.0”, “China stood up”. Under Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s “China 2.0”, some people were allowed to “get rich first”. China 3.0 is President Xi’s sprint toward the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation — the second-centenary goal of becoming a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and modern socialist country” by 2049, as reaffirmed by a constitutional oath-taking ceremony at the two sessions.
National betterment is a common desire of all sovereign nations. This has, however, been hyped in Michael Pillsbury’s popularized storyline in The Hundred-Year Marathon as “China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower”. In reality, four decades ago, let alone 100 years, China was too dirt poor and backward for such grandiose designs.
Second, Li Qiang, former Shanghai Party chief and President Xi’s former chief of staff in Zhejiang province, was endorsed as Chinese premier Saturday morning. Contrary to some ignorant interpretations of his character, Li has a decades-long track record as an innovative pro-market, pro-growth achiever, including a commitment to a better business environment, openness to foreign investment, embracing the new economy and unleashing entrepreneurship.
A similar criterion of selecting the best is followed for the 205-member Central Committee, the 24-member Politburo and the top leadership. They include a large proportion of highly educated and experienced individuals, many with doctoral degrees, representing a wide range of fields, including finance, nuclear sciences, aeronautics, precision engineering, ecology, and minority affairs.
Third, what with the US’ semiconductor stranglehold, China’s rapidly aging demographics, a much slower economy and a hostile external environment, speculation is rife as to whether China can ever overcome the middle-income trap, let alone surpass the US as the largest economy in the foreseeable future.
Such flawed pessimism is largely borne of a fixation on the past and an inability to read the future.
According to findings dated March 2 of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Critical Technology Tracker, China is establishing a stunning lead in 37 out of 44 high-impact emerging technology domains, spanning defense, space, robotics, energy, the environment, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, advanced materials and key quantum technology areas.
China’s technological advance is supported by an expected annual addition of some 77,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) PhD graduates by 2025. That number will outstrip that of the US by more than 3-to-1 if international students are excluded. China’s success in building its Tiangong space station from scratch speaks volumes about its self-reliant scientific and technological capabilities.
Responding to graying demographics, China is embracing the “fourth and fifth industrial revolutions” with a vengeance. Extensive robotics are commonplace in factories. Giant automated harvesters assisted by drones are becoming prevalent over vast tracks of farmland, reminiscent of American agribusinesses. More hotels, restaurants and stores are becoming fully automated with few or no staff. The country has become a cashless society with virtually all payments completed in real time through smartphones.
Enhanced productivity is also driven by linking all of China’s dynamic city clusters in regions along the eastern seaboard and further inland with the world’s largest high-speed train network, set to almost double to 70,000 kilometers by 2035. These ultramodern trains glide smoothly at 250 km an hour or faster, helping to double the nation’s consuming middle-class to 800 million by 2035. Hence, the two sessions’ emphasis on economic growth through rebalancing toward domestic consumption.
Fourth, with the global economy in shambles, some observers worry that even a prudent 5 percent growth target may not be achievable. Such doubts appear premature. According to a CGTN news report dated Feb 27, Horgos port, a border port in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, handled over 1,000 China-Europe freight trains in just two months in 2023, a sign that exports to Europe are picking up fast, albeit not yet to former levels.
Fifth, instead of fixating on GDP, China is embracing quality growth. The elevation of ecological experts to senior positions along with the creation of a new “environmental resources sector” in the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference speaks volumes about the nation’s quest for “ecological civilization”, harking back to the Chinese philosophy of harmony between humans and nature.
Sixth, contrary to perceptions, hyped or otherwise, that China has grown too rich to be considered a developing country, more than 40 percent of China’s 1.4 billion population still live on less than $5 a day, many without pensions or medical insurance, 800 million people already lifted out of abject poverty notwithstanding. Hence, President Xi’s clarion call for common prosperity.
Seventh, popular doubts about the role of the private sector are misplaced. Beijing’s recent “clampdown” on “big tech” giants, which remain a key driver of China’s 21st-century economy, is primarily designed to curb oligarchic behavior, creating a more level playing field for smaller enterprises. The two sessions place much reliance on the private sector to boost economic vitality, to innovate, and to create sufficient jobs.
Eighth, on Taiwan, contrary to the warmongering rhetoric, the two sessions have re-emphasized the importance of peaceful unification, enshrined in three serial national white papers, through people-to-people and cultural exchanges, deepening mutual trust and understanding. Over 1 million Taiwan residents and their families live and work on the mainland. It is instructive that despite “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher’s initial reluctance, Hong Kong eventually returned peacefully to the motherland under “one country, two systems”.
Ninth, the two sessions set great store on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world’s largest trading bloc, representing a third of global GDP and a third of the world population, a dynamo for an emerging “Asian Century”. Along with the Arab world, it constitutes a key part of the “Global South” of emerging economies, most having China as the largest trading partner. By 2035, emerging economies’ share of global GDP will have risen to 61 percent, using purchasing-power-parity measurements, according to the New York-based Conference Board’s Global Economic Outlook of February 2023. All these are set to consolidate China’s global economic centrality, US-led decoupling notwithstanding.
Tenth, the two sessions usher in a game-changing revamp of Party and State institutions on financial, data, and technology in the interests of national stability, security and self-reliance in response to rising external and domestic risks.
Eleventh, at the end of an early session, President Xi deliberately sought out and greeted Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu, reinforcing his message that Hong Kong under “one country, two systems” is destined to play a long-term pivotal role in the national quest for the Chinese Dream.
All in all, the two sessions consolidate China’s achievements during the past five years, including economic restructuring, reform and opening-up, improved living standards, poverty eradication, technological advancement, infrastructural upgrade, ecological improvement, and victory over the pandemic. These provide a solid foundation for advancing China 3.0 under President Xi’s leadership, with colors nailed to the mast.
The author is an international and independent China strategist, and was previously the director-general of social welfare and Hong Kong’s official chief representative for the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe, Russia, Norway and Switzerland.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.