China President Xi Jinping delivered a speech last month for the Communist Party’s National Congress, which convenes every five years. Over the course of two hours, Xi laid out his grand vision for the future of China.
Protocol analyzed the text of that speech and compared it against National Congress reports going back as far as 1992. The data points to new trends in the 20th Congress, such as a renewed focus on the environment, a shift in emphasis from poverty alleviation to national security, and a push for economic self-sufficiency.
For tech leaders in the West, the National Congress offers a clear view into the political worldview of China’s ruling elites. “The Party Congress Report has always been a very authoritative document,” Neil Thomas, a China analyst at Eurasia Group, told Protocol. “If anything, the importance of the Congress Report has increased, given that Xi is in more control of Chinese elite politics than previous paramount leaders who ruled under a collective leadership arrangement.”
To that end, Xi emerged from this Congress with a level of power consolidation unseen since the Mao Zedong era. The Communist Party selected 13 Xi loyalists to the 24-member Politburo. At age 69, Xi will embark on his third term and has no designated successor.
“We have significantly boosted the Party's ability to purify, improve, renew, and excel itself,” Xi said in his speech.
A vision for China’s tech sector
We looked at how the frequency of words used in this year’s work report compares to the typical frequency in the previous 30 years of work reports. Words above the dotted line appeared more frequently in the 2022 report, while words below the line are more correlated with previous reports. Terms near the dotted line are used at about the same rate in both.
Three themes stood out, relating to China’s vision for its economy and tech sector:
Talent featured heavily in this year’s address. For instance, Xi said, “We must regard science and technology as our primary productive force, talent as our primary resource, and innovation as our primary driver of growth.”
This reflects China's attempt to shift its economy away from manufacturing. Instead, for the past 10 to 15 years, China has been attempting to move toward a more consumer- and information-oriented economy, according to Fei-Hsien Wang, an associate professor of history at Indiana University.
The heavier focus on talent this year could be the result of painful lessons learned through U.S. sanctions, which made clear China’s vulnerabilities in relying on more advanced supply chains in the West, particularly for semiconductors.
“Naturally, you would want to learn from that and reverse the situation to make other countries more dependent on you for high-value-added goods and services,” Thomas told Protocol. In this year’s address, Xi reiterated his goal to “further increase China's international standing and influence” and for China to “play a greater role in global governance.”
“There is little doubt China has been moving up the value chain,” Dali Yang, a professor in political science at the University of Chicago, told Protocol. While the U.S. has used tariffs to try to slow China’s development in certain sectors, trade between the U.S. and China in non-tariffed sectors has continued to grow, Yang explained. He also pointed out that China has successfully shifted its exports away from low-value-added sectors such as apparel and toward areas such as pharmaceuticals, automotives, and solar panels.
“Carbon,” “pollution,” and “green” all featured more heavily in this year’s address compared to previous years. Xi spoke approvingly of China’s attempts at ecological conservation. He also called on China to become “actively involved in global governance in response to climate change.”
Green energy — especially in areas such as solar and battery production and rare earth metal extraction — has become a major competitive advantage for China, according to Yang. “China naturally wants to retain that dominance and enhance its competitiveness going forward,” he said.
But China is still a major polluter, especially when it comes to coal. In 2021, China accounted for more than half of the total coal consumed globally, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Xi called for coal to be used in “a cleaner and more efficient way.” He also said “greater efforts will be made to explore and develop petroleum and natural gas, discover more untapped reserves, and increase production.”
Xi called for accelerated development of hydropower and nuclear energy, promising China would “exercise better control over the amount and intensity of energy consumption, particularly of fossil fuels, and transition gradually toward controlling both the amount and intensity of carbon emissions.”
Both talent and energy also tie into China’s drive to become more self-sufficient.
The push for domestic nuclear and hydropower energy production could lessen China’s reliance on energy imports from Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iraq.
“My own reading is that [energy] self-sufficiency is more important than ecological sustainability,” Wang told Protocol. Wang added, though, that the concern over the environment is likely earnest, as China has been grappling with the environmental consequences of rapid development since the late 1980s.
U.S. and European actions targeting the Russian economy in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine have highlighted the importance of self-reliance for China, especially as Xi eyes the eventual “reunification” of China under the one-China principle — i.e., taking control of Taiwan. In this year’s address, Xi called on China to strengthen the “mechanisms for countering foreign sanctions, interference, and long-arm jurisdiction."
Xi also deemed China’s national security system to be “inadequate” and highlighted the need to “share resources and production factors between the military and civilian sectors.” He called for systemic improvements to be made in “economic, major infrastructure, financial, cyber, data, biological, resource, nuclear, space, and maritime” security.
Does the self-sufficiency drive mean there will be fewer opportunities for foreign investors? After all, the valuations of China’s largest tech stocks plummeted after news broke of the Politburo skewing further in Xi’s favor. But according to Eurasia Group’s Thomas, China will still welcome high-end foreign investment as it looks to advance domestic sectors further along the technology frontier: “There will be a lot of opportunities for foreign investment in these sectors, especially where there's a gap between leading Western technologies and China's domestic capabilities,” Thomas said.
Xi’s most frequently used words also highlight two of his pet initiatives: the Belt and Road Initiative and the China Dream. But both of those were less emphasized in this year’s Congress compared to past addresses from Xi.
Mentions of the “China Dream” steeply declined since 2017, perhaps in part because China claims to have completed its prosperity goal. Xi spoke of China having already achieved “moderate prosperity, the millennia-old dream of the Chinese nation, through persistent hard work.”
The decrease in mentions of the “China Dream” could also simply represent a tactical shift in language use rather than a true change in priorities, University of Chicago’s Yang posited. After all, China is still pursuing its Centennial Goal to become “fully developed” by 2049.
“This year, of course, we see some of the struggles,” said Yang. “It does sound — especially related to the economy and zero-COVID — a little bit hollow. So maybe the people who are drafting the document had decided, ‘Oh, we don’t need to refer to that as much.’”
As for the Belt and Road Initiative, it has been declining in profile for “many years,” according to Thomas, because it “ran into a lot of problems with profligate lending and controversial projects, as well as issues with corruption and environmental destruction [and] geopolitical pushback.”
Xi’s choice of words could also reflect the greater emphasis placed on expanding China’s soft power, perhaps in lieu of these more ambitious tangible diplomatic projects. Xi called, for instance, for China to continually grow the appeal of Chinese culture.
We used term frequency-inverse document frequency to assess which terms made each work report unique relative to all the others, giving us a glimpse into shifting Party priorities. It’s a wonky term, but because it considers how a word was used not only in one document, but all of them, it’s more robust than just counting mentions in a single speech.
“Foundational” stood out from this year’s address, as Xi underscored his efforts to transform the state bureaucracy and private sector with his consolidated power. In the same sentence where Xi mentioned “foundational institutional frameworks,” he also cited the completion of “a new round of reform in Party and state institutions.”
Science and technology also factor heavily into this foundation, as Xi described them as being “strategic pillars for building a modern socialist country in all respects.”Unsurprisingly, “strait” stood out this year. China saw House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as a direct threat to its sovereignty and security. Xi said “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China's complete reunification is, for the Party, a historic mission and an unshakable commitment.” He coupled this with the aforementioned calls to strengthen China’s military and ready its domestic sectors for a potential conflict that would cut off current supply routes. Of note, Xi directly cited the need for China to bolster its military to “win local wars” — potentially referencing a conflict over Taiwan.