March 6, 2023
by: Chun Han Wong, Keith Zhai and James T. Areddy
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Chinese leader Xi Jinping issued an unusually blunt rebuke of U.S. policy on Monday, blaming what he termed a Washington-led campaign to suppress China for recent challenges facing his country.
“Western countries—led by the U.S.—have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development,” Mr. Xi was quoted by state media as saying on Monday.
Mr. Xi’s comments marked an unusual departure for a leader who has generally refrained from directly criticizing the U.S. in public remarks—even as his decadelong leadership has demonstrated a pessimistic view of the bilateral relationship.
The accusation of U.S. suppression of China’s development over the past five years comes as Mr. Xi faces charges from investors that China’s economy has been damaged by his policies, including the emphasis on national security.
The comments were part of a speech to members of China’s top political advisory body during an annual legislative session in Beijing, according to a Chinese-language readout published by the official Xinhua News Agency.
W hile Mr. Xi has mentioned the U.S. in critical tones during internal speeches, such remarks have often filtered out through subordinates relaying his messages for broader audiences, within the party and beyond. In statements made in public settings or directly reported by state media, Mr. Xi has typically been more measured and vague regarding the U.S. and other Western countries, referring to them as “certain” countries rather than naming them explicitly.
N ow by directly accusing the U.S. of seeking containment, a term loaded with Cold War meaning, Mr. Xi appears to be associating himself more closely with nationalist rhetoric—widely used by lower-ranking officials and state media—that attacks Washington, at a time when bilateral tensions continue to simmer over trade, technology, geopolitical influence and discordant views on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The English-language version of Mr. Xi’s speech reported by Xinhua didn’t refer to containment or the U.S. Instead, it quoted him telling fellow officials to “have the courage to fight as the country faces profound and complex changes in both the domestic and international landscape.”
President Biden says the U.S. competes with China but doesn’t want conflict, though Beijing worries that an emphasis in his national-security strategy on historic rivalry between democracies and autocracies is a sign Washington seeks regime change in Beijing. “We’re not looking for a new Cold War,” Mr. Biden said last month.
The escalatory spiral makes it hard to cool tensions but both China and the U.S. have room to tame the rhetoric, Jessica Chen Weiss, a Cornell University professor and former State Department adviser, told an online conference hosted by Foreign Policy magazine on Monday. “The current tit-for-tat spiral serves no one,” she said.
The accusations by Mr. Xi against the U.S., delivered to an audience that includes politically connected businesspeople, appeared in part to be an effort by Mr. Xi to shift blame away from his own policymaking, including tough Covid controls that have weakened the economy and pressure on technology companies that cost the industry some of its dynamism.
Chinese leaders often speak in opaque terms but as Mr. Xi continues to consolidate power, he might be searching for new ways to explain the country’s gathering troubles, including on the economy, said Shirley Martey Hargis, a nonresident fellow at the Washington think tank Atlantic Council. “It’s either take the blame or shift it,” she said.
At Monday’s meeting, which included representatives from China’s state-backed national chamber of commerce, Mr. Xi sought to boost confidence within the private sector—a crucial driver of growth and supplier of jobs in the world’s second-largest economy, but also a community shaken by regulatory crackdowns and harsh pandemic lockdowns in recent years.
The Chinese leader insisted that the Communist Party “has always regarded private enterprises and private entrepreneurs as our own people,” and would provide them with support whenever they run into difficulties, Xinhua said.
At the same time, Mr. Xi urged business people to strive for wealth with a sense of responsibility, righteousness and compassion, and to bear in mind his push for “common prosperity”—aimed at redistributing more of China’s wealth, amid concerns that the elite classes had benefited disproportionately from the country’s economic boom.
According to Xinhua, Mr. Xi also defended his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and addressed the growing tensions between China and the West. He also urged the business community to work together with the party to overcome difficulties in an uncertain global environment.
“In the coming period of time, the risks and challenges that we face will only increase and intensify ever more,” Mr. Xi was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
Chinese officials have long warned the U.S. against what they call Cold War thinking, and Mr. Xi appeared to make a similar point in his November summit with President Biden, according to China’s official summary of the meeting. It quoted the Chinese leader as saying, “Suppression and containment will only strengthen the will and boost the morale of the Chinese people.”
China’s foreign-policy establishment had already been using the words “suppression and containment” to describe pressure from the U.S., including Mr. Xi’s new top international envoy, Wang Yi ,and foreign minister, Qin Gang.
Official spokespeople for China’s Foreign Ministry, who speak to foreign reporters at regular briefings, often in strident tones, have also used the terminology.
In December, Mr. Wang told American banker and co-chair of Asia Society John Thornton, “It is imperative that the U.S. abandon its unreasonable acts of containment and suppression of China, earnestly put President Biden’s positive remarks into action, and return to the more positive and practical China policy,” according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry summary of the meeting.
When Mr. Xi sent a dark message to fellow Communist Party leaders at a conference last October, he didn’t name the U.S. when warning of threats: “External attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time.”