China “stands on the right side of history,” the country's leader Xi Jinping said Saturday in a New Year’s address that came as questions swirl over his government’s handling of COVID-19 and economic and political challenges at home and abroad.
Speaking on national television from behind a desk in a wood-paneled office, Xi largely avoided directly addressing issues confronting the country, pointing instead to successes in agricultural production, poverty elimination and its hosting of the Winter Olympics in February.
However, he later turned somewhat obliquely to the challenges facing the world's most populous country and second-largest economy, saying, “The world is not at peace.”
China will “always steadfastly advocate for peace and development ... and unswervingly stands on the right side of history,” he said.
Recent weeks have seen street protests against Xi's government, the first facing the ruling Communist Party in more than three decades.
Xi’s speech follows a stunning U-turn on China’s hard-line COVID-19 containment policy that has sparked a massive surge in infections and demands from the U.S. and others for travelers from China to prove they aren't infected.
Meanwhile, the economy is fighting its way out of the doldrums, spurring rising unemployment, while ties with the U.S. and other major nations are at historic lows.
Setting aside their uncertainty, people in Beijing and other cities have returned to work, shopping areas and restaurants, with consumers preparing for January's Lunar New Year holiday, the most significant in the Chinese calendar.
Xi, who is also head of the increasingly powerful armed forces, was in October given a third five-year term as head of the almost 97 million-member Communist Party.
Having sidelined potential rivals and eliminated all limits on his terms in office, he could potentially serve as China’s leader for the rest of his life.
China has also come under pressure for its continued support for Russia, and on Friday, Xi held a virtual meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which he was quoted as describing the events in Ukraine as a “crisis.”
The term marked a departure from China’s usual references to the “Ukraine situation,” and the change may reflect growing Chinese concern about the direction of the conflict.
Still, in his remarks to Putin, Xi was careful to reiterate Chinese support for Moscow. China has pledged a “no limits” friendship with Russia and hasn't blamed Putin for the conflict, while attacking the U.S. and NATO and condemning punishing economic sanctions imposed on Russia.