China’s leader Xi Jinping hit out at the United States with unusually direct comments as he called on the country’s private companies to “fight” alongside the Communist Party at a time of mounting challenges at home and abroad. “[In the past five years,] Western countries led by the United States have contained and suppressed us in an all-round way, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our development,” Xi told a group of government advisers representing private businesses during an annual legislative meeting in Beijing on Monday. China’s top leader usually avoids directly attacking the US in public even as relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated sharply in recent years. He generally refers only to “Western countries” or “some developed nations” when making critical comments about Washington. Speaking to business delegates from a top political advisory body, Xi expressed concerns about external and economic challenges facing the country, while urging Chinese people to “unite as one.” “In the coming period, the risks and challenges we face will only increase and become more severe. Only when all of the people think in one place, work hard in one place … can we continue to win new battles,” he said, according to a readout published by state-run Xinhua news agency. “We are in the same boat.” Ties between the world’s two biggest economies are at their worst in decades. Tensions soared further in February after a suspected Chinese spy balloon floated over North America and was then shot down by US fighter jets. Xi spoke during the annual meetings of China’s parliament and top political advisory body, together known as “Two Sessions.” The meetings, which feature more than 5,000 delegates, will confirm Xi’s third term as president and the biggest shakeup to China’s economic leadership in a decade. A crucial reform of the cabinet will also be unveiled during the meetings, which is expected to further strengthen Xi’s direct control of China’s government and economic system. ‘An important force’ During his speech Monday, Xi sought to reassure the private sector – which has been rattled by his statist policies in recent years – calling on them to play a role in boosting growth, jobs and tech innovation. “The private sector is an important force for our party to govern in the long term,” Xi said. “We always regard private enterprises and private entrepreneurs as people on our own side.” His exhortation comes after the Chinese economy posted its second worst annual growth rate in nearly half a century. Business confidence has plummeted following an unprecedented regulatory crackdown on the private sector and increasing uncertainties about China’s future path. On Tuesday, customs data showed China’s exports fell nearly 7% in the January-to-February period, extending a decline from previous months, as global demand weakened. Imports dropped 10.2%. China’s exports to the US plunged 15%. But imports increased about 3%. The US remains China’s single largest trading partner. Aligning China’s independent-minded private businesses with the party’s priorities could help speed the nation’s fragile recovery, while extending the control of Xi, the most powerful leader the country has seen in decades. Major contributor The private sector, despite being dwarfed in size by the state sector, contributes more than 60% to China’s GDP and over 80% of employment, according to official statistics. Xi urged the government to support private businesses and remove institutional barriers that restrict them from entering certain industries. It’s also necessary to protect the property rights of private companies and entrepreneurs and treat state firms and private companies equally, so as to “boost market expectations and confidence,” he said. “[We should] let private companies play an important role in stabilizing employment and increasing [government] income,” he said. In particular, the government must support internet companies “to shine” on the global stage, create jobs and expand consumption, he said. However, Xi also stressed the need to strengthen political and ideological control of private industry, saying entrepreneurs should be guided to “correctly understand” the principles and policies of the Communist Party, including his call for “common prosperity.” Private entrepreneurs should be “patriotic” and actively participate in social welfare and charitable undertakings, he said. “[You should be] rich with love,” he added. On Sunday, outgoing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced the lowest GDP target seen in decades, indicating the government is aware of the tough task ahead of delivering economic recovery.