Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

China's National People's Congress wraps up annual session amid clampdown on information

by Tomoyuki Tachikawa

Kyodo

The annual session of China’s parliament ended Friday with stronger information control and a consideration toward the United States, which has been putting pressure on Beijing to rectify its alleged unfair trade practices.

The National People’s Congress kicked off on March 5 at a time when many analysts say President Xi Jinping has faced one of the most challenging years since he came to power in 2013, with a trade dispute with the United States hurting the economy.

In a work report mapping out policy direction for this year, the government of the world’s second-largest economy downgraded its gross domestic product growth target to 6.0 to 6.5 percent for 2019 from last year’s target of about 6.5 percent.

Recently, some ruling party officials, scholars and journalists in Beijing have started to rap Xi’s China-centered policies for complicating relations with the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump and jeopardizing solid economic expansion.

Amid mounting fears that foreign media will report news critical of China’s one-party political system, the country’s authorities have stepped up efforts to crack down on internet freedom around the time of the parliamentary session.

In a bid to prevent its citizens from seeing and obtaining information that would disadvantage the nation’s ruling Communist Party and government, China has blocked access to many overseas websites like Google search, YouTube and Facebook.

Virtual private networks enable internet users in China, especially foreigners, to visit such websites in circumvention of the so-called Great Firewall, which blocks flows of information inconvenient for the country’s authorities.

But since earlier this month, VPN connections have apparently stopped working regularly in China, internet users said.

“I believe that the last major blocking was in autumn 2017,” said an engineer of Express VPN, one of the most popular VPN providers.

In October 2017, the Communist Party held its twice-a-decade congress, where it amended its constitution to enshrine Xi’s political “thought” with his name in order to make his status comparable to Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China.

The move was lambasted by democratic and capitalist nations, including the United States and Japan, as fostering a cult of personality and a dictatorship.

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics at International Christian University in Tokyo, warns that China will continue to bolster its internet censorship to “limit Western influences from the outside.”

“There is growing insecurity in China associated with a decelerating economy, tangible increases in social control, and perceived shifts towards Mao-like power being accumulated by President Xi,” he said.

“The leadership needs not only to control these perceptions to maintain their leadership but also to prevent social unrest and dissatisfaction with the leadership from achieving a critical mass,” added Nagy, a fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

In a separate process, the Communist Party has developed and called on its members to use a new smartphone app, named Xuexi Qiangguo (Study Powerful Country), aiming to raise the profile of Xi’s ideology at home.

While “xuexi” means “study” in English, the app’s name contains a pun on the president’s surname, implicitly urging users to “study Xi,” a source familiar with the political situation in China said. The leader has actively promoted his “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

Using the app released in January, two months before the National People’s Congress convened, users can get points by watching state-run media news reporting and guessing right on quizzes about Xi’s speeches or movements.

With disapproval of his policies growing, “Xi may be jumping at his own shadow,” said a source working at Peking University in Beijing.

To consolidate information control, Xi’s leadership also limited access by foreign journalists to ruling party and government officials during the opening of the latest parliamentary session.

“We were not allowed to interview Communist Party and government officials at all this year,” one of the journalists said.

China, meanwhile, showed its consideration for the United States at the National People’s Congress, with Premier Li Keqiang emphasizing in his speech on the first day that Beijing will proceed with its “reform and opening-up” policy.

Li also made no mention of the “Made in China 2025” technology blueprint, under which China has been attempting to create global leaders in advanced technologies at the state’s initiative — one of the causes that prompted the United States to wage a trade war.

Trump, who ran his presidential campaign with the “Make America Great Again” slogan, has frowned on the plan, with the U.S. government having targeted Chinese goods containing technology related to it in the tit-for-tat tariff spat.

At their summit in Argentina in December, Xi and Trump agreed to a truce in which both promised to refrain from imposing further tariffs on each other’s imports for 90 days while trying to complete trade negotiations.

As talks continue, Washington has extended the March 1 deadline, but the world’s two largest economies have remained divided over what Washington calls Beijing’s “unfair” trade practices, such as alleged intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer.

“China has become very sensitive ahead of a possible summit between Xi and Trump in the not-so-distant future. At the National People’s Congress, Xi was forced to be careful about trade and business issues,” a diplomatic source in Beijing said.