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Residents wearing masks pass by the Communist party logo and the slogan 'Party building leadership' in Beijing on Oct. 29, 2020.

Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

For more than four decades, China’s economic planners, factory owners and internet entrepreneurs alike have marched beneath a common banner. “Reform and opening up” was the byword of a national economic awakening unmatched in history.

Now, as they unveil a new five-year plan, China’s central planners are amending the formulation. It’s time, they say, for an era of “reform, opening up and innovation” – a new slogan for a new age, one in which China races to leverage the ingenuity of its designers and engineers to eclipse Silicon Valley and Stuttgart as it sees the West stumbling.

Undergirding it all is an even more prominent and powerful Communist Party, "the compass that guides direction, the backbone that draws the nation together and the anchor that ensures social stability,” Jiang Jinquan, director of the policy research office of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, said Friday.

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Since the founding of modern China, five-year plans have guided the development of a new superpower that boasts the world’s second-biggest economy and a growing number of the most important global companies.

But the newest plan, which was endorsed by the Central Committee this week but will not be released in draft form until next month, comes at a unique moment in Chinese history.

Emboldened by what it sees as self-destructive vacillation in Western democracies and its own success in tamping down the pandemic, Beijing for the first time sees the prospect of a shift in the global balance of power – what Wang Zhigang, the Minister of Science and Technology, called “once-in-a-century changes.”

The 14th five-year plan is China’s blueprint for an ascendant Beijing that believes Washington is on the wane.

At its heart, it’s a plan to change the central vision of Chinese economic ambition. No longer will growth rely on smelters, construction cranes and assembly lines. Taking their place will be laboratories, patents and artificial intelligence. It will elevate science, technology and innovation above “all other sectoral plans,” said Mr. Wang, making it the “primary driving force.”

He described a sweeping approach that will use legislation, policy, research funds and talent cultivation to “make China the place of choice for innovators and entrepreneurs the world over.”

Though relations between China and the United States have become fraught, “complete decoupling is not realistic at all,” said Han Wenxiu, deputy director of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission.

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But Beijing is dedicated to weaning itself off the rest of the world when it comes to core elements of technology. A new Chinese mantra of self-reliance stands to create a less certain future for companies around the world that have made China a key focus for growth. Still, Beijing’s new five-year plan includes improvements in medical resources, care for the elderly and social security, areas in which foreign companies have begun to find new opportunities in China.

It’s not clear how China, which under President Xi Jinping has emphasized the need for unity and a much firmer hand from the Communist Party, can succeed in inspiring a national outburst of innovation, which involves challenging preconceptions and tends to be messy.

Chinese companies have already demonstrated a capacity for world-beating innovation in the mobile economy. China’s central bank is pursuing the creation of a digital currency that could modernize the core of commercial transactions. But Beijing is intent on creating a country where creativity co-exists with conformity.

That means adhering to a new vocabulary, as Beijing redefines its ambitions. Satisfied that it has achieved its goal of creating a “moderately prosperous society,” China is now embarking “on a new journey toward building a modern socialist country,” Mr. Han said.

That’s a 15-year roadmap. The next five years will lay the foundation, with the subsequent decade used to “accelerate development” toward reaching that goal in 2035, said Huang Weiping, a professor of economics at Renmin University.

“A modern socialist China will be a country with the standard of a moderately developed nation,” he said. “Or you could say that China aims to exceed the U.S. in its overall economy by 2035” in terms of GDP. Chinese thinkers define a “modern socialist country” as one that achieves a per-capita income of about US$30,000 a year, triple China’s current level.

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But Prof. Huang rejects the idea that Beijing is seeking to supplant Washington.

China, he explained, believes “international co-operation will always outrank competition. All of our efforts have been made to maximize and strengthen our own advantages in an age filled with change and uncertainty.”

Inherent in that view, however, is the belief that as China’s economy ascends, so too should its position in the world. Intellectuals believe China’s single-party authoritarian system, not merely its GDP, is also gaining respectability.

“In recent years, we’ve seen that China’s level of societal governance has reached the forefront of the globe, surpassing that of Western developed countries in many ways,” said Mei Xinyu, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Co-operation, a research body under the Ministry of Commerce.

He pointed to China’s success in largely bringing COVID-19 under control. “This has also given us confidence to step toward the 2035 goal,” he said. “For a very long time, the world has grown accustomed to using Western criteria to gauge a country’s ability to govern society. But it’s been proven that many of their popular theories are nothing but daydreams.”

With reporting from Alexandra Li

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