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Chinese leaders hike military spending despite struggling economy


The People’s Republic of China (PRC) will raise military spending 7.2% in 2024 — continuing 20-plus years of such increases — while forecasting 5% growth in the nation’s economy, a rate observers say is optimistic.

Premier Li Qiang, the PRC’s second in command, outlined the military spending plan and economic projection at the weeklong National People’s Congress (NPC) in early March 2024. Nearly 3,000 lawmakers and delegates from Chinese provinces and regions attended the annual meeting of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rubber-stamp legislature in Beijing.

The national security allocation is part of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s effort to strengthen the People’s Liberation Army with advanced weapons and technology, and it comes despite the PRC’s economic struggles. “Xi clearly believes that a stringent focus on security can fend off any threats to his power stemming from China’s current economic challenges,” Craig Singleton, the senior China expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told The Wall Street Journal newspaper in March.

The PRC is contending with looming deflation, falling exports and a real-estate slump. Efforts to revive the economy by building confidence among the nation’s institutions and its 1.4 billion people topped the NPC agenda, The Diplomat magazine reported. CCP leaders touted “worry-free consumption,” an initiative that encourages people to spend more. Households were asked to trade in possessions such as old cars and appliances and buy new ones, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

Li acknowledged that achieving 5% growth in the nation’s gross domestic product will be difficult. “The foundation for China’s sustained economic recovery is not yet stable, with insufficient effective demand, overcapacity in some industries, weak social expectations, and still many risks and hidden dangers,” he told the NPC. Among the hurdles: young people out of work, local authorities deep in debt and consumer confidence that has barely recovered from COVID-19 lockdowns, Time magazine noted.

The session ended without Li holding a closing news conference, an indication of his waning influence and Xi’s dominance of the CCP.

Xi steadily has amassed power, including a move at the NPC to revise the State Council, the government’s top executive body, to give the CCP more clout.

With little good news to report, the NPC was shorter than most sessions and largely uneventful — “carefully scripted to allow no surprises,” promote unity and elevate Xi, the AP reported. There were no opportunities for challenging questions.

The $231 billion in military spending for 2024 — second worldwide to the United States — marks the third consecutive year the NPC has approved a more than 7% hike in defense allocations and aligns with Xi’s goal of achieving a “world-class military” by 2049, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.

“Given the state of China’s economy now, it does appear that Beijing is bent on persisting with its buildup of the People’s Liberation Army despite the economic challenges,” Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told RFA.

Additionally, party leaders are not transparent about defense spending. In 2021, for example, the PRC’s military expenses might have been double the amount stated in the budget, the U.S. Defense Department noted. Related expenditures, such as science and technology outlays that bolster the military, are not included in the figures, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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