China’s leaders look to boost self-reliance as country turns inward

China’s top leaders have begun a meeting on boosting the economy’s self-reliance as the country turns inward amid diplomatic tensions and the coronavirus crisis.

The four-day session known as the plenum, which will determine China’s policy goals for the next five years, began on Monday behind closed doors in Beijing. While the new economic plan will only be made public just before approval by the rubber-stamping legislature, the National People’s Congress, details released after the close of the plenum provide key clues as to Chinese Communist party’s new priorities.

The meeting is being held amid a deteriorating global economy, historically tense ties between China and the US, and an increasingly difficult international environment for Beijing as it comes under scrutiny for alleged human rights abuses and political repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and questions about its transparency when the Covid-19 outbreak emerged in Wuhan in December.

The plenum also takes place at a time of opportunity for China. The economy has been the first to begin recovering after months of paralysis from the pandemic, with expectations of 2% growth this year while the global economy is expected to contract 4.4%, according to the International Monetary Fund. Economists expect China’s economy to become the largest in the next few years.

Analysts expect leaders to advocate policies that help replace lost international trade with domestic demand, in line with the “dual circulation” economy the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has been pushing amid the pandemic, focused on improving its home-grown technology and other industrial sectors.

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Officials are also expected to outline goals for the next 15 years, as part of a larger vision of turning the country into a “modern power” by 2050 in time for the People’s Republic of China to celebrate 100 years. The release of such a long-term plan, even in what will likely be vague terms, has bolstered predictions that Xi plans to stay in power potentially for life.

Julian Gewirtz, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council for Foreign Relations, said the plenum was “ultimately about seizing near-term opportunities presented by Trump and covid”.

“China’s leaders see their country’s economic recovery, in the global context, as a new asymmetric advantage favouring China,” he said. “If this plenum had a tagline, it might as well be what the top economic policymaker, vice-premier Liu He, said in a recent speech: ‘Now the bad things are turning into good ones.’”

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