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Xi vows ‘reunification’ ahead of Taiwan polls

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his annual New Year’s Eve address, reiterated his claim that Taiwan would “surely be reunified” with China.

His message comes ahead of Taiwan’s crucial 13 January elections that will determine the island’s cross-strait policy for the next four years.

He also struck a stronger tone than last year’s message, where he spoke of Taiwan being part of the “same family”.

China has ramped up military pressure on Taiwan ahead of the elections.

It sees the self-ruled island of 23 million as a breakaway province that will eventually be under Beijing’s control. Taiwan considers itself distinct from the Chinese mainland, with its own constitution and democratically elected leaders.

Separately, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said in her New Year’s address that the island’s relations with China must be decided by the “will of the Taiwanese people”. Her government has repeatedly warned that Beijing is trying to interfere in the election, where a new president and government will be chosen.

Taiwan’s Kuomintang party (KMT) has traditionally favoured warmer ties with Beijing – though it denies being pro-China. The KMT’s main rival, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has ruled Taiwan for the past eight years and takes a stronger line towards China – insisting it is sovereign and not a part of China.

Xi’s latest comments are in line with China’s long-standing policy towards unification, but the message struck a more strident tone than the one Xi gave last year, where he called “people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait… members of one and the same family”.

Meanwhile, China’s businesses are struggling and job seekers have trouble finding work, President Xi acknowledged during his Sunday New Year’s Eve speech.

This is the first time Xi has mentioned economic challenges in his annual New Year’s messages since he started giving them in 2013. It comes at a critical juncture for the world’s second largest economy, which is grappling with a structural slowdown marked by weak demand, rising unemployment and battered business confidence.

Acknowledging the “headwinds” facing the country, Xi admitted in the televised speech: “Some enterprises had a tough time. Some people had difficulty finding jobs and meeting basic needs.”

“All these remain at the forefront of my mind,” Xi saidin remarks which were also widely circulated by state media.“We will consolidate and strengthen the momentum of economic recovery.”

Hours before Xi spoke, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) published its monthly Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) survey, which showed that factory activity declined in December to the lowest level in six months.

The official manufacturing PMI dropped to 49 last month, down from 49.4 in November, according to a statement from the NBS.

A PMI reading above 50 indicates expansion, while any reading below represents a contraction. December also marked the third straight month the manufacturing PMI has contracted.

The country’s massive manufacturing sector had been weak for most of 2023. After a brief pickup in economic activity in the first quarter of last year, the official manufacturing PMI contracted for five months until September. Then it dipped below 50 again.

China’s economy has been plagued by a set of problems this year, including a prolonged property downturn, record high youth unemployment, stubbornly weak prices and mounting financial stress at local governments.

Beijing is scrambling to revive growth and spur employment, having rolled out a flurry of supportive measures last year and vowed to step up fiscal and monetary policy in 2024.

But its increasingly statist approach to the economy, which emphasises the party-state’s control of economic and social affairs at the expense of the private sector, has spooked entrepreneurs. The government’s crackdown on businesses in the name of national security has also scared away international investors.

On Saturday, the People’s Bank of China announced that it had approved an application to remove controlling shareholders at Alipay, the ubiquitous digital payment platform run by Jack Ma’s Ant Group. The move means Ma has officially ceded control of the company that he co-founded.

Ma, who also co-founded Alibaba Group, said last January that he would relinquish control of Ant, as part of his withdrawal from his online businesses. His companies were the early targets of Beijing’s unprecedented crackdown on Big Tech which were perceived to have become overly powerful in the eyes of the Communist Party.

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