China begins its most important political event of the year on Friday, following a two-month delay due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The National People’s Congress (NPC) will give Chinese leaders an opportunity to highlight their success in containing the virus and underscore the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, as it faces a growing international backlash over its initial handling of the crisis.
The annual gatherings will also reveal Beijing’s plans for how to revive an economy battered by the devastating pandemic, which has led to the country’s first economic contraction after decades of continuous growth.
Beijing is also looking to further tighten its grip on Hong Kong, preparing to pass a hugely controversial national security law that could deal a huge blow to the city’s freedoms and autonomy.
Like everything else disrupted by the pandemic, this year’s NPC meetings will not be the same as usual. Still cautious about a potential second wave of coronavirus infections, the Chinese government is not taking preventive measures lightly.
At the opening ceremony on Friday morning, all delegates donned face masks, except more than two dozen senior leaders sitting in the front two rows on stage – including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
The congress will be truncated to just a week – about half of the usual duration. There will also be fewer press conferences, all of which will be held online via video-conferencing.
Only a select group of reporters will be allowed to cover the opening and closing ceremonies from the Great Hall of the People – after they pass coronavirus tests. But even for them, no public interviews will be allowed.
The highly choreographed gatherings of the rubber-stamp parliament and its advisory body have for decades been an important stage of political performance for Beijing. Although the event is more muted this year, its attempted political message is no less clear: China, unlike much of the rest of the world, is back to normal, and the Chinese Communist Party is in full control.
Declaring victory over coronavirus
As nearly 3,000 delegates of the NPC descend in Beijing from around the country and prepare to gather for days inside the Great Hall of the People, many countries around the world are still under strict lockdown measures.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported the highest number of Covid-19 cases in a 24-hour period, with nearly two thirds of all cases coming from the United States, Russia, Brazil and India. Five million people have been infected across the globe, including more than 328,000 deaths.
In China, however, life has been slowly returning to normal since the virus was largely contained in March. The NPC gathering will be an opportunity for Beijing to remind citizens of that apparent victory and promote the narrative that the Communist Party – in particular its leader Xi Jinping – has saved the nation from the public health calamity, brushing aside criticism against its response to the initial outbreak in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected last December.
Back in late January and February, Chinese authorities faced roiling public anger at home for allegedly silencing medical workers who tried to sound the alarm on the virus and downplaying the severity of the outbreak.
But the Chinese government moved quickly to silence dissent, and public anger eventually subsided as the outbreak got under control. Chinese officials and state media have since sought to use the seemingly successful containment of the virus to rally national pride, hailing the country’s political system as its “biggest advantage” in overcoming the outbreak.
“The Covid-19 epidemic is the fastest-spreading, most extensive, and most challenging public health emergency China has encountered since the founding of the People’s Republic,” Li, the Chinese premier, said at the opening ceremony of the NPC meetings on Friday morning.
“Under the strong leadership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, and through the hard work and sacrifice of our entire nation, we have made major strategic achievements in our response to Covid-19,” Li said.
That message of success and unity will be amplified during the NPC meetings, as criticism from overseas intensifies. The spat between Beijing and Washington over the coronavirus has sent their already strained relations to a new low. Politicians in France, Australia and the UK have also questioned China’s handling of the outbreak. Facing increasing challenges abroad, Beijing is likely to work to consolidate control and leadership at home, as it seeks to restore its economy in the shadow of the pandemic.
Reviving the economy
In a major break with tradition, Premier Li Keqiang did not announce a growth target for the Chinese economy this year when he delivered the central government’s work report to the NPC delegates on Friday morning.
“I would like to point out that we have not set a specific target for economic growth this year. This is because our country will face some factors that are difficult to predict in its development due to the great uncertainty regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and the world economic and trade environment,” Li said.
The world’s second largest economy has taken a huge hit from the coronavirus outbreak, as lockdown measures brought much of the country to a halt from late January to March. China’s gross domestic product shrunk 6.8% in the first quarter this year – the worst plunge since quarterly records began in 1992.
The Chinese Communist Party has pledged to double the size of the economy from 2010 by the end of 2020 – a goal that could be difficult to reach in the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, as growth had already slowed due to a prolonged trade war with the United States.
Justin Lin Yifu, a Chinese economist and influential government adviser, estimates that China needs to achieve at least 5.6% growth this year in order to realize that goal. The Chinese economy grew 6.1% last year, according to Li’s report.
The year of 2020 is also the deadline for the Communist Party to eliminate poverty in China – a major policy goal of Xi’s.
Li also announced an urban unemployment rate target of around 6%, compared to 5.5 per cent last year. He pledged to create 9 million new urban jobs, compared to 11 million in 2019.
The Chinese government considers employment a key factor in maintaining social stability. Like elsewhere in the world, the pandemic has put many people out of work in China. The government’s official urban unemployment rate for March was 5.9%, meaning more than 27 million people were jobless. However, some analysts expect the real number to be as high as 80 million, if including migrant workers.
Controversial national security law for Hong Kong
The NPC will also move to pass a hugely controversial national security law for Hong Kong, in what could be the biggest blow to the city’s autonomy and civil liberties since its handover to Chinese rule in 1997.
The move is sure to fuel further anger in the city, which was rocked by over six months of increasingly violent anti-government unrest last year.
The law, which is expected to ban sedition, secession and subversion of the central government in Beijing, will be introduced through a rarely used constitutional method that could effectively bypass Hong Kong’s legislature.
News of the plans was met with immediate criticism by opposition lawmakers in Hong Kong.
“It is the end of ‘one country, two systems’,” said Dennis Kwok, a pro-democracy lawmaker, referring to the principle by which Hong Kong has retained limited democracy and civil liberties since coming under Chinese control in 1997. “(They are) completely destroying Hong Kong.”
However, Chinese officials and state media defended the law as vital to protecting national security in the wake of last year’s protests and a 17-year failure by the Hong Kong government to pass similar legislation, since the last effort was met with mass protests in 2003.
Defense budget up
China will increase its defense budget by 6.6% this year to 1.27 trillion yuan (US$178 billion), a smaller increase than last year’s 7.5%, according to the Chinese government’s draft budget report submitted Friday to the NPC for approval.
But the increase in military spending stands in stark contrast to the budget decreases in other areas. The budget for general public services is down 13.3%, while the spending on foreign affairs will decrease by 11.8%. The budget for education will also see a 7.5% drop, with science and technology spending down 9.1%.
The People’s Liberation Army is the world’s largest standing military. It has grown and modernized rapidly since China reopened to the world in the 1980s, but under Xi that pace has accelerated with a focus on fighting and winning future wars, churning out domestically-constructed aircraft carriers, stealth fighters and nuclear-powered submarines. Xi has also embarked on a massive internal reorganization of the PLA, streamlining the organization and bringing it firmly under his control.
CNN’s Steven Jiang in Beijing and Ben Westcott in Hong Kong contributed to reporting.