Chinese leader Xi Jinping has officially secured a third term as President, after a unanimous vote by the 2,977-strong National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament.

There was no doubt about the result of Friday’s election – Mr. Xi was endorsed for an unprecedented third term as Communist Party general secretary, the position from which his true power flows, at a congress last October. But the lack of even a show of dissent demonstrates how Mr. Xi has tightened his grip on the party over his decade in power: In 2013, he received 99 per cent of the vote, as did his predecessor Hu Jintao; since 2017, all delegates have cast their ballots for Mr. Xi.

After Friday’s vote, he took an oath to uphold the constitution, which was revised five years ago to scrap the two-term limit on the presidency. Over the weekend, officials chosen by Mr. Xi will be appointed to various cabinet roles, including Li Qiang, who is expected to be named premier, China’s No. 2 post, putting him in charge of managing the world’s second-largest economy.

Mr. Li, former party chief of Shanghai, China’s financial capital, is a long-time acolyte of Mr. Xi’s and may be given more power and responsibility than his predecessor Li Keqiang, who was increasingly sidelined over the past decade.

“Officials know that Li Qiang is Xi Jinping’s guy,” said Trey McArver, a co-founder of consultancy Trivium China. “He clearly thinks that Li Qiang is a very competent person and he has put him in this position because he trusts him and he expects a lot of him.”

Mr. Li, who lacks significant economic experience, faces a daunting task. While China’s economy has rebounded since the country scrapped its draconian pandemic restrictions late last year, many structural issues remain. Pandemic policies, particularly snap lockdowns in major cities such as Shanghai, undermined confidence in China, and many companies have begun diversifying their exposure to the country, moving some manufacturing to India or Vietnam and scaling back investments.

Beijing’s tacit support for Russia’s war in Ukraine has also severely damaged relations with Europe and the U.S., both vital markets for China, while the country’s now-abandoned one-child policy has hastened a growing demographic crisis that threatens to make China old before it becomes rich.

While there is little doubt regarding the competency of Chinese policymakers, the government “increasingly resembles a crew of firefighters who bring extraordinary skill to dousing fires that they themselves ignited,” Dan Wang, a Shanghai-based analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics, wrote this month. Last year, he said, “China’s long-term growth prospects became more uncertain as its political risks grow more salient.”

As China’s zero-COVID strategy became increasingly untenable last year, Mr. Xi surprised many observers with the speed of at which Beijing pivoted. Keen to boost the economy, China also eased up on its rhetoric regarding private business, and Mr. Xi engaged in a whirlwind of diplomacy at the November G20 summit in Indonesia.

That included a face-to-face meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, the first since he was elected, and a temporary easing of tensions between the two superpowers. But what little hope there was for rapprochement was dashed this year when a Chinese spy balloon was spotted over the U.S., sparking a new round of denunciations and once again putting relations into the deep freeze.

Speaking this week, Mr. Xi accused Western countries, led by the U.S., of having “implemented the all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.”

“In the coming period, the risks and challenges that we’re facing will only become more and more numerous and grim,” he said, telling officials they should brace for further “struggle.”

After the National People’s Congress confirmed a 7.2-per-cent increase in military spending, Mr. Xi on Thursday called for “more quickly elevating the armed forces to world-class standards.” Western politicians have warned of potential conflict over the self-ruled island of Taiwan as the People’s Liberation Army builds up its capabilities and the cross-strait military balance becomes increasingly skewed.

“We are at a dangerous inflection point,” said Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations. “With ‘engagement’ rendered dysfunctional as an operating system, U.S.-China relations have been left hurtling toward an ever more dangerous precipice.”

If ties between Beijing and Washington are frayed, those between China and Canada seem at risk of breaking completely. Relations were already at a low point last year, after Ottawa’s new, China-focused Indo-Pacific Strategy attracted Beijing’s ire, and this has been exacerbated by the scandal over Chinese political interference in Canada.

Even as Ottawa has attempted to downplay the effect of such meddling, ministers have been forced to comment publicly on matters such as alleged spying by Chinese diplomats. And a closed-door probe ordered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will do little – in the words of Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang – to “prevent rumours and hype from disturbing bilateral ties.”

The Globe and Mail, March 10, 2023