Asia Pacific / Politics

Xi’s annual political pageant to start in late May after virus-caused delay

Bloomberg

China’s plan to resume annual parliamentary sessions delayed by the coronavirus outbreak next month could be seen as a statement of the country’s commitment to get back to normal. The actual gathering may end up showing how much has changed.

The National People’s Congress will start its annual session May 22, the official Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday, citing a decision by the body’s Standing Committee. The initial state media reports, which also said the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference planned to meet May 21, made no mention of the length or format of the sessions.

Still, the pandemic has upended the usual pageantry of the National People’s Congress, in which 3,000 deputies — and thousands more officials, political advisers and journalists — crowd into Beijing meeting halls for two weeks. The virus has turned the platform for projecting power into a dangerous infection risk for Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top Communist Party leaders.

Measures to ease those concerns will likely dilute the symbolic value of the so-called Two Sessions, which includes a massive advisory body called the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

The Standing Committee is conducting its own discussions by videoconference, in a sign the bigger gatherings could also go virtual. Some provincial legislatures have already done the same. The Standing Committee’s plans are expected to be announced after its meeting wraps up Wednesday.

“Convening the Two Sessions in their old forms would be a sign that the country is returning to normal,” Gu Su, a professor of philosophy and law at Nanjing University. “But a virtual gathering could send a signal that fighting COVID-19 will be a prolonged battle.”

Like most countries, China is struggling to adapt its government to a disease that landed U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the hospital and has infected or killed ministers and lawmakers around the world. Although some legislatures, such as the U.S. Congress and the Diet, have continued to meet, China took a cautious approach with its own rubber-stamp parliament, postponing annual sessions just days before their planned start in March.

As they move forward with the meeting, Chinese leaders may also be forced to confront doubts about the country’s economic stability. One question is whether Premier Li Keqiang will announce an economic growth target for 2020, a ritual that has for decades been the most closely watched event during a legislative session that involves little real debate.

The coronavirus and resulting lockdowns have wreaked havoc with growth projections, reducing gross domestic product in the first three months of the year by 6.8 percent. Reducing or eliminating the target could raise questions about Xi’s goal to double GDP in the ten years to the end of 2020, while reaffirming it could increase market expectations for costly stimulus measures.

China’s leaders were apparently determined to hold the NPC to further demonstrate their success in containing the virus after lifting the most severe travel restrictions in hard-hit Wuhan. Despite continuing criticism of China’s initial response to the virus, Xi has sent expert teams around the world to advise countries on managing their own struggles with the disease.

“The upside would be to show that things are returning to normal,” said Charles Liu, a former Chinese diplomat and founder of Hao Capital, said before the rescheduled session was announced. “It would restore some confidence in the leadership, showing that it knows what it’s doing unlike other leaders in the world.”

Still, the government doesn’t want anything to go wrong. “The downside to holding it would be the risk of having a major flareup,” Liu said.

The meeting’s location in the center of Beijing, a sprawling city of more than 20 million people at the center of Chinese political power, makes it particularly sensitive. Xi typically presides over the NPC in the Great Hall of the People, a vast complex of meeting halls near to the secure leadership compound of Zhongnanhai.

Beijing continues to be under some of the nation’s most severe quarantine restrictions, after Xi warned that “security and stability of the capital city have a direct bearing on the overall work of the party and the country.” The city has strict screening rules for visitors including COVID-19 tests and 14-day quarantines.

Public places such as parks and shopping malls in Beijing mandate mask-wearing and temperature checks. Restaurants require guests sit at least 1 meter (3 feet) apart and large group gatherings are still discouraged.

That’s why videoconferencing has caught on. Early on in the outbreak, Xi hosted a video meeting reportedly attended by 170,000 cadres, suggesting the NPC’s size would pose no obstacle.

Some 47 members of the NPC’s Standing Committee dialed into the body’s meeting this week by video, compared with 123 who attended physically, the official Xinhua News Agency said. In recent days, provincial legislatures in places including Shanxi and Zhejiang have been held at various locations connected by video link.

Whatever the format, it will likely have little effect on the actions of a body that does little actual legislating, said Gu, of Nanjing University. “Even if the meetings are to be held online, there isn’t likely to be a real impact on the work of a rubber-stamp parliament,” he said.

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