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China-US Sparring Hints At Future Conflict

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, and other leaders attend the opening session of the Chinese National People’s Congress on Sunday in Beijing. Chinese Leader Xi Jinping delivered an unusually candid rebuke Monday of American policies, accusing what he called Washington’s led campaign of Chinese subjugation of the country for the latest challenges facing his nation. 

“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. Xis comments marked an unusual departure for a leader who has typically refrained from direct criticism of the United States in public remarks—even as his decades-long leadership has demonstrated an unflinching outlook for bilateral relations. The allegation of American suppression of Chinese development in the last five years comes as Mr. Xi faces allegations from investors that the Chinese economy has been damaged by his policies, including his focus on national security. 

The comments were part of a speech delivered to members of China’s highest policy advisory body at the annual legislative meeting in Beijing, according to a Chinese-language transcript published by China’s official Xinhua news agency.   

While Mr. Xi has mentioned the United States in a critical tone in domestic speeches to the party, those remarks have frequently found their way out via subordinates who pass on his messages to wider audiences, both inside and outside the party. 

In statements made in public settings or reported directly to the national media, Mr. Xi has generally been more measured and vague about the United States and other Western countries, referring to them as “some” countries instead of explicitly naming them. 

Now, in explicitly accusing the United States of seeking containment, a term loaded with Cold War connotations, Mr. Xi appears to be aligning himself more closely with nationalist rhetoric, used extensively by lower-level officials and by state media, that attacks Washington—at a time when bilateral tensions remain roiling over trade, technology, geopolitical influence, and incongruent views about Russias incursion into Ukraine. The English-language version of Mr. Xi’s remarks, reported by Xinhua, does not mention containment or the United States.    

Instead, it quoted him telling his counterparts to “have the courage to fight as the country faces profound and complex changes in both the domestic and international landscape.”

President Biden has said that America is competing with China, but does not want a conflict, although Beijing is concerned that an emphasis on historical competition between democracies and autocracies in its national security strategy is a sign Washington is seeking regime change in Beijing. 

“We’re not looking for a new Cold War,” Mr. Biden said last month.

There is space for both China and the United States to tone down rhetoric, Jessica Chen Weiss, a Cornell University professor and former State Department advisor, told a web-based conference hosted by Foreign Policy on Monday. “The current spiral of tit-for-tat serves no one,” she said.    

The accusations that Mr. Xi leveled at the United States were made before an audience of politically connected businesspeople, and appeared to be, in part, an attempt by Mr. Xi to shift the blame from his own policies, including the harsh controls on Covid that weakened the economy and pressures on tech companies that have robbed the sector of some of its vitality. 

Chinese leaders typically talk in opaque terms, but as Mr. Xi continues consolidating power, he may seek new ways to explain the country’s mounting troubles, including with the economy, said Shirley Martey Hargis, a non-resident scholar at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington. 

“It is taking blame or shifting it around,” she said.   

At the Monday meeting, which included representatives of the Chinese National Chamber of Commerce, which is supported by the government, Mr. Xi sought to bolster confidence within the private sector, which is a critical growth engine and provider of jobs in the world’s second-largest economy, but is also a community reeling from the crackdown on regulations and a strict pandemic lockdown over the past few years. 

The Chinese leader insisted the Communist Party has “always treated private enterprises and private entrepreneurs as our own people,” Xinhua said, and will offer their support when they face difficulties.    

At the same time, Mr. Xi called on businesspeople to pursue wealth with a sense of responsibility, fairness and compassion, and he also reminded them of his drive for “common prosperity,” an effort to redistribute more of China’s wealth, amidst concerns about disproportionate benefits for elite classes in the country’s economic boom. 

“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. 

Mr. Xi also defended his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Xinhua, and addressed growing tensions between China and the West. He also called on the business community to cooperate with the Party in dealing with difficulties amid the uncertain global climate.    

Mr. Xi was quoted by the Xinhua newspaper saying: “In the coming time, the risks and challenges that we will encounter will only grow more acute.”

Chinese officials have long warned the United States to avoid what they describe as Cold War thinking, and Mr. Xi appeared to raise a similar sentiment at a summit with President Biden in November, according to an official Chinese summary of the meeting. It quotes the Chinese leader as saying,  “Suppression and containment will only strengthen the will and boost the morale of the Chinese people.”

The Chinese foreign policy establishment has already used the words “suppression and containment” to describe U.S. pressure, including by Wang Yi, the newly appointed senior U.S. international envoy, and by Foreign Minister Qin Gang. 

Official spokespersons from the Chinese foreign ministry, speaking with reporters abroad in regular briefings, often with strident tone, had used that terminology as well.  

In December, Mr. Wang told American banker and Asia Society co-chair John Thornton, “it is vital for the United States to renounce the unwise acts of containing and suppressing China, to make good on President Biden’s positive remarks, and return to China’s most active, proactive policies,” according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry summary of the meeting. 

When Mr. Xi sent a darker message to his Communist Party colleagues at a conference last October, he did not name the United States when warning about threats: “External attempts to crush and contain China could intensify at any moment”. 

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