Xi Jinping speech: Zero-Covid and zero solutions

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people at a Nanjing university watch the speechGetty Images

Many people in China normally don’t pay much attention to these set-piece, long, predictable speeches from their leaders.

However this year they were looking for any indication that the country’s strict Covid amelioration measures might be eased after the Communist Party Congress.

The short answer from Chinese leader Xi Jinping: no.

He said that there would be no wavering on zero-Covid because of the need to prioritise saving people’s lives.

The lockdowns, the mass testing, the health code scanning, the quarantine, the travel restrictions are all here to stay for the foreseeable future.

There was not even the slightest acknowledgement of the social and economic pain being caused by the policy.

Other massive challenges being faced by the government but which didn’t get a mention include: soaring youth unemployment and the property crisis.

Instead, this nearly two-hour long speech was heavy on standard Party rhetoric and short on actual solutions to China’s problems.

If you are a university graduate who can’t find a job in the tech sector following government crackdowns on these companies, Xi Jinping urging you to “follow the Party’s guidance… striving to be the new generation, building a modern socialist county” is not going to be much comfort.

The largest applause, no doubt scripted, came when Mr Xi spoke about unification between the mainland and Taiwan.

He said Beijing would encourage economic cooperation with the island, that it would genuinely strive for peaceful unification but that the Party would “never promise to renounce the use of force as an option”.

He also defended the much-criticised state security law in Hong Kong which he said had restored order to the city.

Likewise, he justified the demolition and alterations to many mosques in the northern Chinese provinces of Ningxia and Xinjiang – home to a mostly Muslim population – by saying that religions here must be “Chinese in orientation”.

Structures seen as reflecting an Arab image of Islam have been replaced by those with a more Chinese aesthetic.

There were a few other elements that did not go unmissed.

Former leader Jiang Zemin was not present but he is now 96 and perhaps too frail to attend. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao from the former administration were on stage with Mr Xi.

Also in attendance, seated at the front row of the podium, was former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli – his first public appearance since Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused him of sexual assault last year.

The 75-year-old has not publicly commented on the accusation.

(L to R) Delegates Wang Chen, Zhang Gaoli ,He Guoqiang

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However, Mr Xi’s administration does have a good story to tell in terms of climate change and other environmental initiatives.

The congress opened in Beijing under a clear blue sky. There was a time when this was unusual in the capital. Now it’s the other way around; the bad pollution days are the ones that stand out.

China’s leader said: “We’ll boost low carbon industries and promote low carbon ways of life. We’ll intensify pollution control. We’ll work to eliminate all serious pollution”.

But coal fired power won’t be phased out until the new sources of power are in place. “We’re building the new before discarding the old,” he said.

There may still be a massive income disparity here between the richest Chinese people and those less well-off but, in poverty alleviation, there have also been improvements and Xi Jinping referred to this.

Yet, if you watched this speech and had no idea what is actually going on in China right now, you would have a distorted picture of reality.

The overall message from the speech was that China is charging ahead in leaps and bounds under the Communist Party’s guidance – but the economic uncertainty swirling around here right now is of a kind not seen in the country for decades.

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