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5 March 2021

What China’s Five-Year Plan means for the rest of the world

Post-pandemic China is roaring back, but its new proposals on environment and Hong Kong should concern the West.  

By Jeremy Cliffe

It has been almost exactly a year since China beat Covid-19. By early March 2020, daily new case numbers had fallen below 100. By the end of the month, even Wuhan was nearing the end of its lockdown. Since then the case numbers have remained low (but for a couple of subsequently contained regional outbreaks) and the country’s economy has roared back. Despite the intense lockdowns early in the year it grew overall by 2.3 per cent over 2020, the most of any major economy.

A recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research think-tank predicts that China will now overtake the US to become the world’s largest economy in 2028, five years earlier than previously expected. The New York Times reports on a recent speech by a regional Chinese official quoting Xi Jinping, the country’s president, observing behind closed doors that “the east is rising and the West is declining”.

Such is the backdrop to this year’s meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), which began this morning in Beijing and at which some 3,000 delegates (some present, others attending virtually) will over the coming days approve a draft, composed by the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October, of China’s next five-year plan. It will be the 14th since the the plans were introduced as a cornerstone of policy-making in 1953, and will cover the period to 2025.

In his speech opening the meeting this morning, premier Li Keqiang announced an economic growth goal this year of over 6 per cent. It was in fact a cautious target (the IMF estimates it will grow 8.1 per cent) but nonetheless a confirmation that the world’s second largest economy is enjoying a powerful recovery. The proposals presented to the NPC reflect that strength – and some of the sense of vulnerability that accompanies it.

Chinese military spending is to rise 6.8 per cent this year alone. Spending on research and development is to rise by 7 per cent every year to 2025, with a particular focus on geopolitically significant fields like next-generation artificial intelligence, semiconductors and quantum computing. Li described “technological self-reliance” as a “strategic support for national development”; an allusion to the rivalry between China and the US and the Chinese quest to end its dependence on the West for strategically important technology. (The reported Xi comments also include the claim that the US is “the biggest threat to our country’s development and security”). Also before the NPC are proposed changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system that would strip vestiges of independence out of the territory’s legislature.

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[See also: US-China economic integration shaped the world, but is now going into reverse]

All of which will concern observers in the West. But so too should the plan’s environmental proposals. China is the world’s biggest carbon emitter and without its cooperation global efforts to prevent runaway climate change are probably doomed. Many were heartened when, last September, Xi committed his country to a goal of falling emissions by 2030 and net-zero by 2060; ambitions that, if reached, could according to Carbon Action Tracker in and of itself curb global temperature rises by between 0.2 and 0.3 degrees.

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In his speech this morning, Li duly pledged that China would pursue “green development”. And the draft plan proposes increasing the share of non-fossil fuel energy generation from 15 per cent to 20 per cent. But it has disappointed climate campaigners nonetheless.

Li Shuo of Greenpeace East Asia tells me that he considers the targets “modest” and “indecisive”. “They will ensure the existing 2030 targets (China’s international commitments) are delivered,” he says: “But what is needed is more ambition.” He notes that the plan’s envisaged cut in carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 2025 of 18 per cent is the same as in its last five-year plan: “In other words, the government intends to maintain the same pace of decarbonisation. This is not acceptable when climate action should certainly be sped up.” And he notes that, as the plan does not include a GDP target for 2025, it puts off the question of how much emissions will rise in the next few years. That could defer the radical action to get Chinese emissions falling by the end of the decade to the next, 15th five-year plan in 2025.

That calls for international pressure to be put on the Chinese government, especially in the run-up to the crucial COP26 climate summit in November, to do more and faster. But in an age in which China is getting richer and more self-reliant, and where antagonism between the West and Beijing over its belligerence abroad and human rights abuses at home are becoming a feature of the international diplomatic landscape, other countries’ relative leverage over Beijing is declining.

What is more likely to move China to more ambitious action on climate change would be an appeal to self-interest. China’s size makes it hard to coerce. But it also means that it cannot externalise or duck the need to meet global decarbonisation targets: its heavy use of coal is causing public health and quality of life to suffer, record rainfall last year caused floods on the River Yangtze that killed hundreds, its reliance on oil and gas imports is a strategic vulnerability. China is growing, confident and in tension with the West; and that looks unlikely to change any time soon. Action on the climate cannot wait for it to do so.

[See also: The political consequences of China’s net-zero climate aim]