As the full import sinks in of China’s announcement last night that the National People’s Congress, opening today in Beijing, will “debate” the introduction of a new national security law in Hong Kong, perhaps it is a good moment to look at the full text of Li Keqiang’s government work report, which runs to just over 10,000 characters. Here is a quick review of some of the key buzzwords and priorities.
The work report itself deals only very briefly with the question of Hong Kong in the final section (in the fourth to last paragraph, in fact), following general language about the CCP’s leadership of the armed forces and the determined protection of “national sovereignty, security and development interests.” Hong Kong and Macau follow together, without any particular emphasis, before the issue of Taiwan is addressed. The paragraph in question reads: “We must fully and accurately implement the policies of high-degree autonomy under ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’ and ‘Macau people ruling Macau,” building and perfecting the legal systems and implementation mechanisms for maintaining national security in the special administration regions, realizing the constitutional responsibilities of the SARs. [We must] support Hong Kong and Macau in developing their economies, improving people’s lives, and better integrating with overall national development, ensuring the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macau.”
The work report is intended as a broad overview of goals and a summary of supposed achievements, so we should not be surprised that it glosses right over this major development. The details were more forthcoming, and the language far more astringent, in the speech this afternoon (on video here) from Wang Chen, vice-chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, specifically addressing the question of new legislation for Hong Kong. Wang said, to a chilling chorus of pre-scripted applause (his voice even rose in anticipation at precisely this point) that “strong measures must be taken to stop and to punish” what he characterized as actions “seriously challenging the bottom line of the principle of ‘One Country Two Systems’, and seriously damaging national sovereignty, security, and development interests.”
The image above is a screenshot of the no-joke expression on Xi Jinping’s face when official coverage of Wang Chen’s remarks cut to the General Secretary.
The opening section of Li Keqiang’s work report outlines the “many difficulties and challenges” facing China’s development and the global economy over the past year, a reference principally to global trade tensions and “downward pressures on the domestic economy.” The epidemic, though it has occupied much of the past five months, is not mentioned here specifically, though of course it has been a major factor.
The overarching message is that there is “overall stability in the operation of the economy,” a phrase essentially meant to say that things are OK, even if there are plenty of reasons for them not to be.
There is a focus on domestic consumption, which has been a major issue in recent months – getting Chinese to open up their wallets even further. Li then runs in stepping stone fashion through a range of related issues, from rising urbanization to supply-side reform, essentially the elimination of excess capacity. It is in this relation, in fact, and not on the question of foreign policy, that we have our first mention of the “Belt and Road” in the report, a simple note that the initiative has “achieved new results.”
A Responsible Power
Several paragraphs down, after a brief feel-good mention of the 70th anniversary of the PRC in 2019 that “unleashed the patriotic fervour of people’s across the nation,” the report turns to foreign policy, referring to “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色大国外交) – a phrase China has chosen to officially translate “major country diplomacy,” because China (again officially) “does not dominate” ( 不称霸).
We have the usual language in this section about China as a responsible power and a stabilizing force in the world, though it is seeking the “reform” of the global system. Xi Jinping’s signature “common destiny” foreign policy concept is of course also there: “[We have] actively taken part in the building and reform of the global governance system, promoting the building of a community of common destiny for mankind. [We have] achieved results in economic diplomacy and cultural exchange. China has made major contributions to the promotion of world peace and development.”
It is in this section, in the context of international events, that we have direct mention of the coronavirus epidemic, a strategic choice that encourages focus on this issue as a global one – sidestepping touchy questions of origin and initial missteps – on which China has been fast and decisive, and has made immense sacrifices for the sake of the world. The fight against Covid-19 is characterized as a “people’s war” (人民战争) in which Chinese of all backgrounds were crucial, from medical personnel and scientific researchers to “grassroots cadres,” “news workers” and package couriers.
A summary of China’s response, including quarantine and control measures and the “extension of the Spring Festival holiday,” ends with language about overseas infections, suggesting these are the latest threat: “In response to the spread of overseas epidemic situations, we built a foreign import defense system in a timely manner, and strengthened concern and care for our citizens abroad. We actively carried out international cooperation in an open, transparent, and responsible manner, making timely reports of epidemic information, actively sharing epidemic prevention technologies and practices, and rendering mutual help in fighting against the epidemic together.”
The next section of Li’s report outlines the priorities for the upcoming work of the government, including development goals for the coming year. This section starts out with mention of the “442 Formula,” referring to the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), the “Four Confidences” (四个自信) and the “Two Protections” (两个维护). Taken together, the “442 Formula” signifies the power of Xi Jinping and the need to remain loyal to his leadership in word and deed. CMP noted in March that both the “442 Formula” and the banner term “Xi Jinping Thought of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平中国特色社会主义思想), both being phrases signifying Xi’s paramount position, had been missing from success texts emerging from meetings of the Standing Committee of the CCP Politburo, the Communist Party’s highest decision-making body. This suggested some reputational tensions for Xi in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, but by mid-March the tables had turned again.
In the government work report, both the “442 Formula” and Xi’s banner term are present, starting out the discussion o0f 2020 development goals.
The “Four Consciousnesses,” first raised by Xi Jinping in 2016, are as follows:“political consciousness” (政治意识), “consciousness of the overall situation” (大局意识), “consciousness of the core” (核心意识) and “compliance consciousness” (看齐意识). Together, they essentially boil down to allegiance to Xi Jinping, who in 2016 was designed as the “core” of the CCP. The “Four Confidences” are 1) confidence in the path, 2) confidence in the theories [of the Party], 3) confidence in the system [of socialism with Chinese characteristics], and 4) confidence in [China’s unique] civilization. The “Two Protections” (两个维护) are about protecting the core status of General Secretary Xi Jinping, and protecting the authority and the unified collective leadership of the Party’s Central Committee.
The bottom line in all of these buzzwords? Xi Jinping is the Party, and the Party reigns supreme.
The next buzzword in this very buzzword-loaded section of the work report is the “Six Stabilities” (六稳), or “Six Steadies.” This phrase is all about managing expectations of the economy, and ensuring that economic uncertainty does not translate into social unrest. They are: stable employment (稳就业), stable finance (稳金融), stable foreign trade (稳外贸), stable foreign investment (稳外资), stable investment (稳投资) and stable expectations (稳预期).
On this last “stability,” the question of expectations and their potentially uncomfortable implications, it is worth noting that China has now officially dropped the use of GDP targets. This is something that was in the cards for quite some time, and an interesting discussion of the use of GDP in China can be found here. The government work report says on this matter, after declaring that “China’s development must be full of hope,” that: “Based on comprehensive research and a considered assessment of the situation, we have made appropriate adjustments to the expected targets set before the epidemic.”
The focus economically, as in all areas, is stability. And in the next paragraph of the work report, the link becomes clear between the decision on GDP targets, the “Six Stabilities” and a related buzzword, the “Six Guarantees,” referring to 1) employment, 2) basic livelihoods, 3) the market structure, 4) grain and energy security, 5) industry supply chains, and 6) operations at the grassroots:
It should be noted that we did not propose specific targets for the annual economic growth rate, mainly because the global epidemic situation and the economic and trade situation are highly uncertain, and China ’s development faces some unpredictable factors. In doing so, it is helpful to guide all parties to concentrate on the ‘Six Stabilities’ and the ‘Six Guarantees.’ The ‘Six Guarantees’ are the focus of this year’s ‘Six Stabilities’ work. By sticking to the bottom line of the ‘Six Guarantees,’ we can stabilize the economic fundamentals; to promote stability through these guarantees, and in stability seek progress, laying a solid foundation for the comprehensive construction of a well-off society.
Despite the difficulties facing the Chinese economy, which were challenging enough even before this year’s Covid-19 epidemic, the work report is resolute in maintaining China’s anti-poverty goals. This uncompromising attitude is likely more about the propaganda necessities of 2020 than about real and practical determination. Before the outbreak in Wuhan in January, the die had already been cast in terms of the main propaganda themes for the year. The focus would be on the fight against poverty and the realization of a moderately well-off society (xiaokang shekui), 2020 having been set by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao years ago as the year by which to reach this development goal. As the official Xinhua News Agency reported back on January 1, less with optimism than with the surety of CCP spin: “The absolute poverty that has plagued the Chinese nation for thousands of years is about to end in 2020, a miracle in global poverty reduction history.”
Things changed dramatically as the country was shut down in late January, but propaganda on anti-poverty and the realization of xiaokang continued alongside the noisy official narrative of a “people’s war” against the coronavirus. Now we see the themes coming back with a vengeance, assuming their rightful places in the 2020 propaganda plan. The government work report reads: “Poverty alleviation is a firm task that must be completed in order to build a well-off society, and we must adhere to the current poverty alleviation standards . . . “
This is a basic rundown of the top themes and priorities laid out in Li’s work report today. But as I suggested at the start, the most pressing issue, and the one most urgently requiring the attention of the international community, is the issue summarily dealt with only toward the end of the report – the question, now an apparent certainty, of national security legislation, and new related mechanisms, in Hong Kong.
I include the full text of Wang Chen’s address on Hong Kong today below.