China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), kicked off its annual session last weekend. Proposals, messages, and signals during these meetings can be useful for discerning China’s priorities in both domestic and foreign affairs. The 2017 NPC is the focus of even more attention than usual; not only will it elaborate specific policies, as usual, but more importantly, the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC) National Congress later this year will announce a party leadership shake up. The NPC next year will formulate a new national leadership line-up for the next five years. Everyone is watching this year’s session for clues as to how the changes will play out.
The annual Report on the Work of the Government, a Chinese version of the U.S. State of the Union address, usually delivered by the Chinese premier at the NPC, offers a rare opportunity for observers to tabulate and evaluate the major areas of work China is prioritizing. In this speech, China-watchers usually concentrate on China’s annual growth target, its investment policies, and its military spending. However, one should also be wary of changes in China’s stated policies on Hong Kong and Taiwan, and its rhetoric toward the international order and international system. Compared with Premier Li Keqiang’s reports in 2015 and 2016, the language describing each of these three issue has slightly changed. These modifications to Chinese official rhetoric will have profound implications.
For starters, this was the first time that Beijing’s attitude toward “Hong Kong independence” has ever appeared in the government work report. Li said, in a very explicit and firm tone, that the notion of Hong Kong independence would lead nowhere. The comment is a reaction to recent events in the Chinese special administrative region. According to a poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in July 2016, 17.4 percent somewhat supported or strongly supported independence for Hong Kong when the “one country, two systems” promise expires in 2047, while another 57.6 percent were somewhat against or strongly against the idea. Moreover, among people aged 15 to 24 years old, those who were in favor of this idea reached a peak of 39.2 percent, with only approximately 26 percent standing in the opposition camp.
“Hong Kong independence” is a relatively new term, but that there is a dangerous trend that the notion has been increasingly accepted after a series of street protests since 2014’s Occupy Central movement. What is worse, two lawmakers pledged loyalty to a “Hong Kong nation” and used an extremely malign term for China when they took their oaths last year. All these incidents have conspicuously gotten on Beijing’s nerves. In less than three weeks, Hong Kong will elect its new chief executive from among three candidates. Beijing has no option but to draw a bottom line toward Hong Kong independence in one of the highest-profile political speeches of the year. This shows that Beijing is highly concerned about the independence issue and will try to ensure that those who are in favor of independence will not prevail in the years to come.
Second, on Taiwan, this was the first time that the “One China Principle” has been mentioned in the work report in the past three years, since Li began giving the addresses. “We will thoroughly implement our major policies on Taiwan and uphold the ‘One China Principle,’” Li said in this year’s government work report.
Cross-strait ties have deteriorated since Taiwan’s first female leader, Tsai Ing-wen, came to power last May. There is a conspicuous gap between Beijing’s expectations and Taipei’s reassurances. From Beijing’s perspective, Tsai should explicitly rule out Taiwan independence and either endorse the “1992 Consensus” — an understanding between Beijing and Taipei where the two sides agree to the idea of “one China” — or state publicly that the two sides of the Strait belong to “one China” using alternative terms. Tsai, instead, has consistently stated that she would maintain the status quo but refused to endorse the 1992 Consensus in various speeches and interviews. Beijing already distrusts Tsai, partly because she was the creator of the “special state-to-state relations” theory during Lee Teng-hui’s administration. Moreover, her phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump, exacerbated Beijing’s fears that Tsai’s reassurances were all duplicitous. Beijing also worries that under her leadership, Taiwan may pursue independence in a more clandestine and flexible manner, for example, by launching “de-sinicization” policies designed to eliminate Chinese influences. All these fears combined forced Beijing to reiterate its “One China Principle” in the government work report.
Third, this was the first work report in recent years in which the Chinese premier has stated that China would firmly safeguard the authority and the effectiveness of multilateral systems. This position was perhaps a reaction to new U.S. President Donald Trump’s attitudes toward multilateralism. The doctrine of “America First” could well mean that the United States will act alone or bilaterally in the years to come, a huge shift from President Barack Obama’s focus on multilateralism.
Trump has already made some disparaging remarks about multilateral institutions. “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!” Trump said one tweet last year, he rebuke to the UN after its Security Council approved a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. He also signed an executive order to withdraw from the 12 nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a linchpin of Obama’s Asia policy. This move also indicated that United States has ended the era of multinational trade accords, which has defined the global economy for decades. Instead, Trump said he would strike numerous bilateral deals.
Faced with such an increase in anti-multilateralism sentiment and attempts to reverse the trend of globalization, Li reiterated China’s stance over multilateralism. Earlier this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed a similar stance at the 53rd Munich Security Conference, saying that multilateralism is an effective way to safeguard peace, advance development, and resolve global issues. President Xi Jinping himself delivered an strong defense of globalization at the World Economic Forum’s Davos meeting earlier this year.
These changes in the government work report may seem slight, but they reflect China’s top leaders’ thinking and may have profound effects in the years to come. To obtain a clearer picture of Chinese policies on Hong Kong and Taiwan, and its strategies toward the United States, one should pay more attention to the two press conferences held by China’s foreign minister and premier in the next few days.
Han Ze is a second-year Master’s student in School of International Studies at Peking University. He previously worked as an intern at the Tsinghua-Brookings Center and Development Research Center of the State Council.