China’s Leader, With Rare Bluntness, Blames Troubles on U.S. Containment

As he heads into an expected third term as president, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, is signaling that he will take a harder stance against what he perceives as an effort by the United States to block China’s rise. And he’s doing so in uncommonly blunt terms.

Mr. Xi has hailed China’s success as proof that modernization does not equal Westernization. He has urged China to strive to develop advanced technologies to reduce its reliance on Western know-how. Then on Monday, he made clear what he perceived was the main threat to China’s development: the United States.

“Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development,” Mr. Xi said in a speech, according to China’s official news agency.

Mr. Xi’s new directness could play well at home with a nationalist audience but risks raising wariness abroad at a time when Beijing has sought to stabilize ties with the West. It reflects how he is bracing for more confrontation and competition between the world’s two largest economies.

His meeting with President Biden in November had raised hopes that Beijing and Washington might try to arrest the downward spiral in relations. But tensions have since only escalated over a Chinese spy balloon, China’s close alignment with Russia, and controls on exports to China that have been imposed by the United States.

Better Understand the Relations Between China and the U.S.

The two nations are jockeying for influence on the global stage, maneuvering for advantages on land, in the economy and in cyberspace.

“This is the first time to my knowledge that Xi Jinping has publicly come out and identified the U.S. as taking such actions against China,” said Michael Swaine, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “It is, without doubt, a response to the harsh criticisms of China, and of Xi Jinping personally, that Biden and many in the administration have leveled in recent months.”

In an indication that Mr. Xi’s forthright approach signaled a broader shift in Beijing’s rhetoric, China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, reiterated Mr. Xi’s accusation about U.S. containment and defended Beijing’s right to respond.

“The United States actually wants China not to fight back when hit or cursed, but this is impossible,” he said at a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday.

Mr. Qin also called for the United States to take a less confrontational stance toward his country. “If the U.S. doesn’t step on the brakes but continues to speed up, no guardrail can stop the derailment,” he said.

China has come under increasing pressure from the United States, including on trade. Following President Trump’s imposition of lasting tariffs on a wide range of Chinese exports to the United States, President Biden has imposed broad curbs on the export to China of semiconductors and semiconductor manufacturing equipment. The Biden administration and Congress have increased their scrutiny of Chinese investments in the United States and begun looking at limits on American investments in China’s tech sector.

The Chinese economy grew 3 percent last year, falling far short of the government’s target of “around 5.5 percent.” The American measures had little immediate effect on overall trade, but the Chinese government’s own “zero Covid” measures imposed a massive drag on economic activity, especially last year. These measures included a two-month lockdown in Shanghai that disrupted industrial supply chains and severely damaged consumer confidence, as well as numerous citywide lockdowns across the country from late summer through early winter.

Mr. Xi’s comments about the United States were part of a speech he made to a Chinese business group. He urged private companies — a main driver of growth and jobs — to work with the party to help China counter the challenges posed by U.S. containment.

“We must remain calm, maintain concentration, seek progress while maintaining stability, take active actions, unite as one, and dare to fight,” he said, according to the report by Chinese television.

Mr. Xi has held China up as a model for other countries — one that offers a different path to prosperity than the West’s. This worldview rejects liberal democracy and a heavy reliance on the private sector and favors a model that emphasizes the centrality of the Communist Party and an increasingly state-led model of economic development.

His speech was broadly aimed at reassuring the audience that the Chinese government still wants private businesses to play a large role in the country’s economy. The recent disappearance into government custody of a top banker for the tech sector has unnerved many tech executives. The state-owned banking system has also been steering much of its lending to state-owned enterprises instead of private businesses.

Mr. Xi sought to assure private companies that the party embraced them as “one of us.” But he also said they had a responsibility to assist the party in achieving “common prosperity,” a slogan about reducing income inequality that has been linked to crackdowns on tycoons.

Andrew K. Collier, the managing director of Hong Kong-based Orient Capital Research, said that Mr. Xi may not have been trying to adjust his stance toward the United States as much as reassure the Chinese public that he is defending their interests.

“Xi Jinping’s comment about containment may heighten tensions with the United States, but he is mainly speaking to a domestic audience,” Mr. Collier said. “He’s trying to foster the country’s high-tech firms both for economic growth and to handle decoupling at a time when China is facing severe economic headwinds. Beating the nationalist drum is a politically savvy way to achieve these goals.”

David Pierson and Olivia Wang contributed reporting.

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