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Key takeaways from China's annual Two Sessions

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The world's second-biggest economy is struggling, and its leader is consolidating power. China just wrapped up its parliamentary session, called the Two Sessions, an annual event that offers a rare glimpse into the workings of what is becoming a more opaque political system under the helm of one man, 70-year-old Communist Party secretary, Xi Jinping. I'm joined now by Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, to talk about where China's government goes from here. Welcome, Robert.

ROBERT DALY: Good to be with you.

SCHMITZ: So these Two Sessions meetings are highly choreographed, rubber-stamp sessions of China's national legislature. But each year, there are signs of the direction that China's leadership wants to steer the country. What were you able to glean from this year's event about where China might be headed?

DALY: Well, we learn less and less from the Two Sessions almost every year. As you say, they're stage-managed, and they're getting good at clamping down. I think what we learned is that Xi Jinping is determined to stay his course. He's been nothing if not consistent. And under his leadership, he has taken China from being a increasingly open, developmental state that's focused on increasing the welfare of the Chinese people to being a closed and increasingly ideological security state. And I think that the question that the Chinese people have been asking is, what does this mean for us going forward? Will we continue to see increases in our standard of living or is it time for a period of privation and readjustment?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I mean, there are 1.4 billion people in China. How much support do you think Xi Jinping has among this massive population, and what could threaten that support? Or does that even matter at this stage, given how much power Xi Jinping has consolidated in himself?

DALY: Well, of course, it's - China's - is closed, and it's a black box. They don't allow meaningful polling. There are no elections. It still appears - and I was in China last in January - that Xi Jinping has strong support among the party itself - nearly 100 million members - the security apparatus, which is extremely important, the military, and probably also among blue-collar workers, agriculturalists, second- and third-tier cities. So I think that Xi, while he's lost a lot of support, is still very firmly in place.

SCHMITZ: And with Xi Jinping consolidating more power in himself, what does this portend for China's intentions with Taiwan? You know, Xi has made it clear he wants what he calls a reunification with Taiwan. How does he plan to do this? Is there some sort of timeline, do you think?

DALY: There has been increasing concern in the United States, in Congress and the military, that there is a timeline and that Xi Jinping is - you know, wants to move on Taiwan sooner rather than later, perhaps as early as 2027. I think that that is somewhat exaggerated. Xi Jinping has made clear to the military that he wants to be prepared to move successfully on Taiwan under any contingency by 2027, but that is not a decision to go. And because China's economy is in the midst of what is going to be a long crisis and its greatest crisis since 1978, I think that the costs for Xi Jinping of moving on Taiwan and failing - or even of moving on Taiwan and succeeding slowly - those costs are so high, added to the pressure from China's failing economy, that he's probably less likely to move on Taiwan than many think. Many in Washington would disagree with me on this.

SCHMITZ: Now, what kind of global and domestic factors does a decision like that depend on? You know, when he's, you know, calculating - OK, what is the right time for this sort of thing? - well, what's he thinking about?

DALY: Well, first, he will assume that if he moves on Taiwan, that the United States and probably also Japan would get involved. He would assume that we would also mobilize other countries to sanction China heavily, and he has seen how effective that can be in the case of Russia. Although, he's also studying the ways that Russia has been able to wriggle out from under sanctions and continue to grow its economy in spite of that.

But this is a - still a country that depends on trade, that wants foreign investment, foreign technology, that needs foreign inputs. He has to assume that all of those are going to close down. This involves escalation ladders that nobody understands and that will certainly comprise cyberspace, possibly outer space, and it could escalate to the nuclear realm. So it would be one hell of a roll of the dice, and it's hard to see how he would think that the benefits of that, especially with the pressure in China, are going to outweigh the costs.

SCHMITZ: That's Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. Robert, thank you.

DALY: OK, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.