BEIJING — China sent a forceful message on Friday advancing the top leader Xi Jinping’s sweeping agenda for the country’s economic and political ascent while drawing a hard line against challenges to Communist Party rule.
China’s leaders used the opening of the annual legislative assembly, the National People’s Congress, to unveil proposals that would drastically weaken the pro-democratic opposition in Hong Kong. They set a goal of at least 6 percent economic growth for this year along with announcing a robust rise in military spending. And they released a long-term plan that promised to ease China’s dependence on foreign energy, technology and markets.
The volley of actions reflected Mr. Xi’s conviction that momentum is in China’s favor as much of the world struggles with the pandemic and its economic and political aftershocks. After initially failing to contain the coronavirus last year, China imposed strict controls that all but wiped out the virus within its borders. That success has allowed for a relatively quick economic rebound and has bolstered the Chinese Communist Party’s belief that its authoritarian system has worked while the United States’ democratic system has faltered.
In the months leading up to the legislative meeting, Mr. Xi has sought to emphasize confidence in China’s authoritarian path. “The East is rising and the West is declining,” he said at a closed-door meeting last year to discuss China’s next long-term development plan, which was released at the Congress.
The signs suggest that “having emerged triumphantly from the pandemic, Xi will look to further centralize his power,” said Lynette H. Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto.
By pushing through new rules for Hong Kong, Mr. Xi is taking aim at a thorn in his party’s side: opposition to Chinese rule that erupted in monthslong demonstrations in 2019.
The proposed election overhaul would effectively lock the beleaguered democratic camp out of election contests in the city. A Politburo member who introduced the draft rules said that they would help root out people who Beijing deemed not loyal to the country.
Opposition forces in the city had coalesced into a “severe threat to national sovereignty, security and development interests,” the Politburo official, Wang Chen, told the nearly 3,000 delegates seated in neat rows. “This must be met with staunch opposition and forceful measures to contain and defuse the risks.”
He said that Beijing would overhaul the membership of the territory’s Election Committee, a body that chooses the chief executive, whose approximately 1,200 members are selected by groups that have typically been loyal to Beijing and the city’s business elite. China will also set up a new, separate procedure to vet candidates for various levels of elective office in Hong Kong.
“Ensure that control is firmly in the hands of forces that love their country and love Hong Kong,” Mr. Wang told the congress.
As Hong Kong’s electoral system gradually and slightly liberalized over the past two decades, allowing more popular participation in elections, the number of opposition figures rose. That was proof that the system was due for an overhaul, according to Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing legislator in Hong Kong and a member of the chief executive’s cabinet.
“Mass participation has been strengthened, but the outcomes have been unsatisfactory,” Mrs. Ip said. “The wrong people have been elected.”
Mrs. Ip denied that the opposition’s growing share in elected office represented the people’s will. Instead, she said, extremists had poisoned Hong Kong society, swaying voters toward the wrong camp. “Some young people have been brainwashed,” she said.
The rules are expected to make it very hard for democracy advocates to hold — or even contest — any positions of power. Willy Lam, a professor of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the move could mean not a single pro-democracy candidate would be elected to Hong Kong’s legislature.
“This is a very ominous development for Hong Kong, because in the Basic Law there was a clear-cut pledge that Hong Kong would incrementally proceed toward democracy,” he said, referring to the city’s mini-constitution. “Now this is rolling back the clock.”
In doubling down on its crackdown on Hong Kong, China has signaled that, buoyed by an economic recovery, it will not be deterred by international rebukes. Even last year, it drove through the security law for the territory while the coronavirus crisis had barely passed.
China’s premier, Li Keqiang, on Friday promised a robust return to economic growth of more than 6 percent, a signal that China is ready to do what it takes to keep the world’s second-largest economy running strongly. He highlighted China’s plans to sustain its recovery from the pandemic, which just over a year ago threw the country into its worst crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Economic weakness last year should make this year’s target easy to meet. Western economists have already been forecasting growth of around 8 percent this year. That means the Chinese economy will continue to buy much of what the rest of the world produces, including iron ore and computer chips.
The growth target for this year indicates that China expects a striking bounce-back after last year, when the uncertainties of the pandemic led the government to abandon setting an annual growth target for the first time in many years. China ended up recording growth of 2.3 percent in 2020, much slower than the usual pace of 6 percent or higher in recent years, but by far the best performance of any major economy.
But China’s growth last year was even more unbalanced than usual. The country lost ground on its goal of shifting from its addiction to exports and debt-fueled infrastructure investments, and toward a more sustainable reliance on domestic consumption. As in most countries during the pandemic, travel and leisure spending plummeted in China last year.
Mr. Li warned of risks ahead.
“As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, instability and uncertainty are mounting on the international landscape, and the global economy continues to face grave challenges,” Mr. Li said as he delivered his annual report on the government’s work.
Mr. Li pledged to cut taxes for the smallest businesses, many of which are tiny shops in towns and villages. He promised to step up efforts to increase consumption but also indicated that infrastructure spending would continue at a very fast pace.
He forecast a slight narrowing of the central government’s budget deficit this year. That is to be achieved through limits on social spending, even as military spending continues to surge by nearly 7 percent a year. His government also released a draft plan for long-term development, setting out goals to transform the country into a technologically advanced and environmentally clean power over the next five years and beyond.
“Although remarkable achievements have been made in China’s economic and social development, we still have quite a way to go and a lot of hard work to do before we can achieve modernization in all respects,” Mr. Li said.
Keith Bradsher reported from Beijing, Chris Buckley from Sydney, Australia, and Vivian Wang from Hong Kong. Austin Ramzy contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Albee Zhang, Claire Fu and Liu Yi contributed research.