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Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds during the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 5, 2018.

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

In the minutes before China's annual state of the union address, financial markets await the country's forecast for economic growth – about 6.5 per cent this year – and Chinese celebrity politicians lean into the cameras to deliver their own thoughts on the country.

This year they included China's second woman in space and Pony Ma, the internet magnate who is China's richest man. He came to lend the proceedings of the country's rubber-stamp parliament an air of astuteness and acumen.

Instead, he may have done more than anyone else to distill the direction of a country led by a President who is abolishing term limits as he seeks a new position of global leadership for himself, and China.

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Mr. Ma, a formal delegate to the National People's Congress that meets this week, began by praising President Xi Jinping's achievements. Chinese companies, including the one he founded, Tencent, now make up four of the 10 largest internet companies on earth, he said.

And "in the development process of Chinese society, a new concept has been born," he said. It's called the "'new four great inventions,' which refers to high-speed rail, online shopping, mobile payment and shared bicycles."

None of those were, in fact, first created in China. Japan's Shinkansen bullet trains began construction in 1959, when China was still putting steam trains into service. A British inventor made the first online commerce transaction in 1979, a year when more than a third of China's rural households still had no electricity. Coca-Cola allowed customers in Helsinki to buy a vending-machine soda with a text message as far back as 1997, a year before Tencent was founded. Amsterdam's Witte Fietsen shared-bicycles scheme first rolled out in 1965, a full half-century before China's modern bike-sharing companies took shape.

But in ascribing these four technological developments to China – where each has flourished in ways unseen anywhere else – Mr. Ma nonetheless cast new light on the changing political environment in Beijing, at a time when Mr. Xi has sought to enhance his own dominance among the country's elite, the dominance of the Communist Party in the life of Chinese people and businesses, and China's dominance in global industry.

The idea that China has invented modern analogues to gunpowder, paper making, printing and the compass "is, of course, party propaganda," said Willy Lam, a political economist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

But it "jibes with the overall atmospherics of the National People's Congress, which is to generate national unity. So Pony Ma and the other CEOs of tech giants, I think, have been told to paint a very rosy picture of Chinese innovation."

Mr. Ma's comments matched language used by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang himself in his work report, which was delivered after Mr. Ma spoke.

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"In high-speed rail, e-commerce, mobile payments and the sharing economy, China is leading the world," Mr. Li said. His report mentioned "innovation" 38 times, up from 34 last year – and more than double the mentions of Mr. Xi, who is expected to have his name inscribed in the constitution and his term limit as president abolished with amendments that will be put to a vote in the next week.

Mr. Ma, in other words, was delivering party talking points.

It was the latest indication of Mr. Xi's push to reinvigorate Communist Party influence, including on private corporations that are being obligated to provide ownership stakes to state entities and publicly acknowledge that party committees are playing an important role in decision making.

"It seems like Tencent is being soft-nationalized, and Pony Ma is making a deal that, 'I do what Xi tells me or I get shoved out,'" said Christopher Balding, an associate professor with the HSBC School of Business at Peking University.

At the same time, claiming a series of inventions as Chinese matches with a broader theme under Mr. Xi, an ardent proponent of "national rejuvenation."

He has sought to match and eclipse Western countries, even as he attempts to wrest China from its sooty era of heavy industrialization. Doing that has not been easy for an economy that has grown by building power plants and new cities atop mountains of easy credit; Mr. Li on Monday said the "proactive direction of our fiscal policy will remain the same."

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But innovation has become a rallying cry for Chinese leadership seeking to give assurance that things are changing.

"Rapidly emerging new growth drivers are reshaping China's growth model, are profoundly changing the way we live and work and have become a new hallmark of China's innovation-driven development," Mr. Li said Monday.

It's a national priority, said Victor Gao, vice-president of the Center for China and Globalization.

"While traditional manufacturing will remain important for many years, if not decades, China needs to come up with smashing success records in terms of innovation, in terms of invention, in terms of creativity, in terms of new ways of making and doing things," he said.

Claiming the invention of high-speed rail may be "laughable," Prof. Balding said, but it's also "political chest-banging." China's authoritarian leaders "do very validly feel very real pressure to deliver results." Think of the "new four great inventions" like an executive pumping a company's achievements to shareholders, he said.

At the same time, the changes sweeping China are real. Its 25,000 kilometres of high-speed rail now constitute two-thirds of the global total. Its online shopping market is the biggest in the world. Its mobile payment systems have, in a time better measured in months than years, largely displaced cash for many urbanites. And its shared bicycles program has mushroomed to make China global leaders, pioneering digital location and smartphone unlocking systems far more convenient than anything on offer elsewhere. Chinese company Mobike, for example, has some 30 patents for its bicycles, a spokesman said.

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Promoting China's "invention" of those technologies may not be literally true, but it has figurative value, said Gao Yuning, a researcher with the Institute for Contemporary Chinese Studies at Tsinghua University.

It is "an iconic marker for us to discuss and further discover the road China is going to walk in the coming dozens of years," he said. "This is a critical moment, a turning point for China to get into the new phase of socialist modernization," he added. "It's not strange to promote this concept right now."

With a report from Alexandra Li

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