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With Xi in office for the long haul, China touts its stability — 'the opposite of Washington, D.C.'

With Xi in office for the long haul, China touts its stability — 'the opposite of Washington, D.C.'
Members of a band from the People's Liberation Army leave following a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping after the closing session of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 20, 2018. (Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

President Xi Jinping offered an assertive vision Tuesday of a proud and capable China, culminating an unusual legislative session that endowed him with indefinite power and sparked rare public dissent — including one extremely famous eye roll.

"Today, the creative spirit of the Chinese people is being realized in an unprecedented way," Xi said in a televised address at the close of the National People's Congress. "We are making big strides to the front of the world."

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Xi's speech — the equivalent of an inaugural address for his second term — played up themes of tradition and nationalism that underscored a "Chinese dream" of restored global prominence. His words capped a legislative session at which the party sought to present China as strong, stable and open — a foil, experts say, to President Trump's Washington and his claims that China violates fair trade.

"There's a whole lot of politicking happening in Beijing," said Yanmei Xie, a senior China policy analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics, a Beijing research firm. "But the whole picture, it's one of long-term strategic vision, of a team with continuity and stability, and with competent management. Basically every single aspect is the opposite of Washington, D.C., right now."

Premier Li Keqiang reinforced that distance on Tuesday by responding to Trump's threats of steep tariffs with a vow to further open China's markets. He stressed the global ramifications of a trade war and encouraged everyone to "act rationally instead of being led by emotions."

Delegates applaud as China's President Xi Jinping walks past after he delivered a speech during the closing session of the National People's Congress on Tuesday.
Delegates applaud as China's President Xi Jinping walks past after he delivered a speech during the closing session of the National People's Congress on Tuesday. (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP/Getty Images)

Li insisted China would protect the intellectual property of foreign companies that operate in the country. His comments followed media reports that the White House may slap China with $60 billion worth of tariffs for stealing trade secrets or forcing U.S. companies to give them up. The administration already has announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, although those are likely to have a less punishing effect on China than on America's allies.

The trade deficit with China reached a record $375 billion last year, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, a figure Trump often highlights.

"A large trade deficit is not something we want to see," Li said at an annual news conference to mark the legislative session's end. "What we want is balanced trade, otherwise bilateral trade would not be sustainable."

The reality is more complicated. China remains one of the world's most protectionist nations, and American businesses have complained that the environment is only getting tighter.

Li's reassurances offered yet another twist in an annual conclave that stretched more than two weeks. The National People's Congress — filled with hours-long speeches and the dulling certainty of a rubber-stamp legislature — rarely makes actual news. This year was different.

All but two of the 3,000 delegates voted to erase presidential term limits, allowing Xi to extend his tenure indefinitely. The move set the tone for a sycophantic show of political pageantry that tossed aside decades of collective leadership in favor of one man.

Officials agreed to enshrine Xi's main ideology in the constitution and unanimously approved his second term as president. They also elevated some of his closest associates, including Wang Qishan, the 69-year-old former head of the powerful anti-corruption agency, to vice president.

The gathering of China's political elite — military generals, local party chiefs, business leaders — framed the changes as assurances of stability. Delegates voted to overhaul China's regulatory agencies, stripping away bureaucracy and planting the party at the center of society.

They also approved a new, national anti-corruption agency more powerful than the nation's judiciary. It will be responsible for tackling graft but also imposing the party's ideology and instilling staunch loyalty to Xi.

"In the '80s, the term we used was 'small government, big society,' " said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian whose father was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. "Right now it's the opposite: big government, small society."

Xi already has entrenched the party more deeply into China's economy, military and universities, and sought to minimize dissent. Authorities worked diligently to ensure a mundane congress, from screened questions to canned responses. But it was a single eye-roll that pierced the pretense of democracy.

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About midway through the congress, state media caught a Chinese reporter expressing pure disgust at her colleague's lengthy, obsequious news conference question. Liang Xiangyi, from the financial news company Yicai Media, rolled her eyes and turned her head in such an instinctual, visceral way that the image went viral.

Censors blocked it by nightfall, but not before citizens sent around GIFs and created cellphone cases with the epic eye roll.

The questioner, Zhang Huijun, said she was affiliated with the L.A.-based American Multimedia Television U.S.A., which partnered in the past with Chinese state television. A petition appeared on the White House website soon after, asking the administration to investigate the California company's ties to the Communist Party.

"This incident has now turned into a meme, which is going to be here for some time to come," said Manya Koetse, who runs What's on Weibo, a site that tracks social media trends. "For many people, the eye roll has also come to represent a critique of the media dynamics in China … a feeling many netizens have with these type of rehearsed, stylized, safe and somewhat uninteresting questions."

Citizens also pushed back against the term-limit decision, a surprising public outcry in a largely apolitical society. Chinese students abroad reportedly papered campuses with a head shot of Xi and the phrase "Not My President." Censors in China quickly blocked words such as "emperor" and "I disagree." Winnie the Pooh, a favorite stand-in for Xi on social media, also disappeared.

Xi "is trying to exploit the constitution to fulfill his dictatorship purpose," said a Chinese college student who studies law and requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject.

State media stepped in to shift the narrative. The state-run broadcaster showed images of officials tearing up with joy as Xi took the oath Saturday for his second term.

The state-affiliated English-language China Daily said Xi was "steering China to greater prosperity."

It referred to him as the "helmsman," a title reserved for the republic's authoritarian founder, Mao Tse-tung.

In any other country, even one of the congressional changes would be far-reaching, said Xie, the Gavekal analyst. "Xi managed to accomplish all of them in five short years. And that takes a lot of skill and political capital."

Meyers is a special correspondent. Gaochao Zhang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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Twitter: @jessicameyers

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