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Xi Jinping addressed the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on Saturday. Photo: Xinhua

Xi Jinping steers clear of US trade war and slowing economy in glowing review of China’s ‘extraordinary’ 2018

  • President steers clear of controversies and makes no mention of increased tensions with US in his review of the previous 12 months
Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping tried to talk up the country’s achievements over the past 12 months in a year-end speech that ignored or downplayed some of the major challenges, including the trade war with the US, that has put the Communist Party’s leadership to the test.

In Saturday’s address to members of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the party’s advisory body, Xi said 2018 had been “extraordinary” for the party and government and flagged up a number of achievements, Xinhua the state news agency reported.

While the Belt and Road Initiative has faced an increasing international pushback amid fears it is saddling poorer countries with unsustainable debts, Xi’s speech steered clear of this and other sensitive topics.

Instead he praised the initiative for helping to improve international ties, adding: “Our circle of friends is expanding.”

The Chinese leader also highlighted a number of international forums and events the country had organised and pointed to the Greater Bay Area plan, a project to integrate Hong Kong and Macau more closely with neighbouring parts of the mainland, as proof of how the “one country, two systems” policy was developing.

But despite the president’s warm words, the Great Bay Area project remains stuck at the planning stage and there is still no clear timetable for the release of the plans.

Xi only made terse references to the country’s economy development, which is facing its biggest challenges in a decade as growth slows and concerns grow that the country will not be able to achieve its growth target of 6.5 per cent for this year.

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Xi did not highlight any particular economic achievements over the past year and said only that next year the party would continue to promote stable economic development.

In contrast, Ning Jizhe, head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, struck a more upbeat tone at an economic forum earlier this month, saying the country would have little problem in meeting its main macroeconomic goals for the year.

He told the event that in the first 11 months of the year GDP had grown by 6.7 per cent, inflation stood at 2.1 per cent – well below the target of 3 per cent, unemployment stood at 4.8 per cent and foreign exchanges reserves remained above the psychologically important US$3 trillion level.

Xi said the central government had implemented 171 reforms this year and consistently increased market access for foreign investors, but did not address the growing criticism of Chinese trade practices from the US, Europe and Japan and doubts about whether all the changes promised will take shape.

In particular, there was no reference in his speech to the trade war with the US nor to the other flashpoints in relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

Instead, Xi stressed that China was playing an active role in international multilateral diplomacy – a stance it has previously highlighted as a contrast to the “America first” policy of the Trump administration.

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Looking ahead to the coming year, Xi reminded delegates of his three key policy priorities – fighting pollution, corruption and poverty – and said the year offered challenges and opportunities to build a “well-off society in an all-round way”.

2019 will mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and Xi told his audience they should make the strengthening of ideological and political guidance a priority. “Winning people’s hearts is the biggest political battle,” he said. “Consensus is the power for forging ahead.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Xi speech steers clear of trade war with the US