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China reverts to isolationism, ramps up military spending

14 Mar 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

The recent convening of China's National People’s Congress (NPC) has sent ripples through the global community, with its unmistakable message signaling a departure from the path of liberalization and openness. Amidst discussions ranging from economic growth targets to defense expenditures and Taiwan policy, the echoes of a return to isolationism and militarization reverberate throughout the proceedings.

With the lowering of the economic growth target to a modest five percent for 2024, China appears to be relinquishing its pursuit of rapid economic expansion in favor of a more measured approach. However, this shift is accompanied by a notable increase in defense spending, rising by an impressive 7.2 percent. This dual trajectory reflects a prioritization of military modernization over economic development, raising concerns about the broader implications for regional stability and global security.

The Chinese economy which had taken a nosedive in the days of the pandemic has since failed to recover. One of the major factors responsible for this situation is the introduction of stringent laws on state security and work security which have made China a difficult place for the international business community to live and work. 

The reason behind the spectacular growth story of China of yesteryears was the move to integrate the Chinese economy to the international economic order. Now, however, foreign direct investment is going down in China. There has also been a decline in the rate of growth of exports and imports. China is going back to the days of isolation. These are more akin to the features of a communist society of a fundamentalist nature.

On Taiwan, the stand of the National People’s Congress last year was “to advance the process of China’s peaceful reunification.” This year, the stance is much tougher and the call is to “be firm in advancing the cause of China’s reunification.” Thus, the key word “peaceful” is missing from the process of reunification as envisaged by Beijing. The reason for this is evident. The way of a peaceful reunification as planned by Beijing was to threaten the population of Taiwan to vote for a political party which favours unification of the island territory with the mainland. The fond hope of Beijing has been dashed. In the last presidential election in Taiwan, the opposite has happened. People of Taiwan have elected a president who is firm on preserving the status quo of an independent existence of the island territory.

Increased military spending is a corollary to the aspiration of Beijing to integrate Taiwan with China by force. If China attempts to invade Taiwan the way it had invaded Tibet in 1950, it will surely attract military intervention by the U.S. which has a treaty with Taiwan to help it with arms and ammunition in case of a Chinese invasion. This increased spending on defence will, however, come at the cost of the welfare of the common Chinese people as the process of economic development will be thwarted.

One of the biggest surprises of the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in 2024 was the cancellation of the routine daily briefing of the media on the proceedings of the meeting by the Chinese Premier. 

On March 5, 2024, the first day of the meeting, there was a surprise announcement that the media briefing by Premier of China Li Qiang stood cancelled for the entire duration of the week-long meeting. An even bigger surprise announcement, made by National People’s Congress spokesman Lou Qinjian, was that Premier Li would not hold any such annual Press conference for the remaining term of the rubber stamp parliament of China, ending in 2027. 

It has been a routine practice since 1993 that the Premier of China meets the media every day at the end of the session during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress and takes wide-ranging questions from Chinese and foreign journalists in news conferences broadcast live globally. It has been a part of Chinese strategy throughout the 1990s and 2000s to use the opportunity of this annual Press conference to elucidate the politics of the Chinese Communist Party and the policies of the Chinese government in a bid to attract foreign investment and boost trade.

National People’s Congress spokesperson Lou has offered the excuse that since different Ministers would be holding briefings on diplomacy, the economy and the livelihood of the people, another Press conference by the Premier may be redundant. Analysts say, however, that the excuse is a lame one. The meet-the-Press sessions of the Premier used to be the highlight of the annual meeting of the parliament. Being the head of the State Council and as the main person tasked to run economic policies, the Premier could speak with more authority and offer a bigger perspective than individual Cabinet Ministers.

“China was heading towards an era of opening up. Now it is heading towards an era of isolation, as shown by the cancelled premier news conference,” political commentator Chen Daoyin who had been a teacher at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law has been quoted to have said. Political scientist at Australian National University Wen-Ti Sung has said that the scrapping of the news conference of the Premier is an effort by Beijing further to control the narrative about the Chinese state.

The real reason for Premier Li being sidelined and not allowed to interact with the international media may be different and traced to his Press conference in the annual meet of the National People’s Congress in 2023. At the close of the annual session of parliament that year, Li sought to reassure the private sector in China. This could have been construed as an act of insubordination and his failure to toe the line mandated by President Xi.

Premiers in China generally toe the line of the Chinese Communist Party laid down by its General Secretary but there have been exceptions in the past when a Premier has used the platform of the news conference to express views that have struck a different note. One such notable exception was in 2000 when Li Qiang’s predecessor Li Keqiang said 600 million Chinese earned less than $140 per month. It was blasphemy indeed as the revelation stood in stark contrast with the official line that China had eradicated rural poverty.

The beginning of the move to take China back to the days of fundamentalist communism of Mao Zedong was made during the amendments to the Chinese constitution carried out in 2018, when the term limits for the President and the Vice President of China were removed. Earlier they could not hold office for more than two consecutive five-year terms, but now there is no such limit. President Xi is holding office for a record third term. In the same vein, in the course of the amendments of 2018, the socialist system in China was qualified as: “The defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the leadership of the Communist Party of China.” This amendment to the constitution of China laid the basis for strengthening the grip of President Xi on all aspects of Chinese society. It is no wonder that at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in 2024 President Xi laid emphasis on strict adherence to the constitution of China. 

The constitution of any country, as experts point out, should not be like a dinosaur that cannot adapt to a changing situation, but a living document; changing with the needs of an emerging society. That is what leaders like Deng Xiaoping had sought to do with the amendment to the Chinese constitution in 1982 and that is what leaders like L Keqiang had tried to uphold. Now with his emphasis on supremacy of the party and the state machinery and the negation of market reforms, President Xi is trying to bring the dinosaur back. 

Li Keqiang, incidentally, was subsequently sidelined by President Xi and had to retire prematurely. He died in 2023 under unusual circumstances; while swimming in a hotel swimming pool, reportedly from a heart attack. 

“The party does not want mourning for a popular, liberal, former number two leader to generate wider criticism of the current administration, led by Xi Jinping,” the BBC commented on October 27, 2023, after the death of Li Keqiang. “It is not just that Li died so suddenly, suffering a heart attack just months after stepping down, but because of what he represented: a way of potentially governing China with different priorities to those of the General Secretary Xi. He was a bright pragmatist who was not so concerned with ideology. As the then party secretary of Liaoning province, Li was said to have told the U.S. ambassador in 2007 that the local GDP figures were unreliable as a way of judging economic health.”