China in the global spotlight as its annual political congress gets underway

All eyes are on China but little hope a major political gathering will yield internal reflection.
Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping (at podium) delivering a speech during the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivering a speech during the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2018.Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Adela Suliman, Dawn Liu and Eric Baculinao

The huge and highly choreographed set piece of the Chinese political calendar got underway Friday with around 3,000 Communist Party officials and military delegates descending on Beijing.

Officials who donned face masks and have been tested for the coronavirus filled the Great Hall of the People — built under Mao Zedong — as party leaders hold court amid the pandemic to pass major legislation for the year ahead.

The 13th National People's Congress is predominantly an economic affair, with China setting its target for gross domestic product growth in the coming year. But this year, it will also cast a spotlight on how China, vying for global influence, has dealt with its moment of international scrutiny as a result of the deadly pandemic.

China watchers will be looking for clues to how Beijing is handling the global economic slowdown, a possible second spike in infections and the growing war of words with Washington, which some have described as a new Cold War.

The annual political convention was set to take place in March but was delayed for the first time since the Cultural Revolution because of the outbreak. Normally lasting around two weeks, this year's legislative session will likely be cut short to protect public health, according to the state news agency Xinhua. And many, including reporters, will tune in virtually.

In the face of the pandemic, China will be trying hard to maintain business as usual, experts say. But don’t expect any big reveals on the open stage. The meeting is rarely substantive and is largely a forum for rubber-stamping party decisions.

Alongside the congress, a high-profile but mostly ceremonial advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, meets in parallel.

Made up of business people, artists, monks and representatives of broader society, it has no legislative power but offers a colorful sideshow to politics. The conference opened on Thursday and together with the People’s Congress is widely referred to as the "Two Sessions" or "lianghui" meetings.

The People’s Congress is "essentially a ritual meant for a captive political audience, it's not meant for open debate," said François Godement, a nonresident senior fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The ruling party will likely provide "no expression of doubt whatsoever on the management of the crisis," said Godement, noting President Xi Jinping’s swift desire to get "past the virus."

"I very much do not expect any kind of look back other than triumphantly of the crisis," Godement added.

A Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) officer practices conducting a military band in Beijing.Wang Zhao / AFP - Getty Images file

A major issue on the agenda will be China's economy, which came screeching to a halt in recent months after four decades of phenomenal growth and suffering its worst economic contraction since the 1970s.

Professor Chen Li, a specialist in China's political economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he believes the People’s Congress will "set the tone" for the country's macroeconomic policies. In particular, "to manage the shocks of the pandemic, strengthen the social safety net and stabilize economic growth" as the country recovers, he said.

"I think the NPC going ahead is definitely a key sign of China returning life back to normal," he added, as the world's economic powerhouse conveys that it has a handle on the crisis.

China's strong economy has for years underpinned the political stability of the single-party state.

China's GDP target has long been an important benchmark, although official figures have been treated with some skepticism, say economists.

This year, China's GDP shrank in the three months to March by 6.8 percent from a year ago, China's National Bureau of Statistics announced last month, after factories, shops and global trading partners shut down.

The numbers were the worst since the country began keeping track and create the risk that any prolonged downturn could fray trust between the government and its 1.4 billion citizens, with millions facing job losses.

This year, financial experts puzzle whether China will take the unusual step of not announcing a GDP target at all, or shift to setting a target to be met over the course of two years, a step that may not be so consequential, said Li, as China shifts to broader growth models.

As well as focusing on economic recovery, the People’s Congress will likely be a "signal of unity and confidence" in the ruling party, while Beijing will be "patting itself on the back for its handling of the coronavirus," said Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "A narrative made all the more convincing when compared to the mishandling by the United States."

Xi may also refer to the "challenging 'external environment,' which is code for the escalating rivalry with the United States," Blanchette added.

The latest bout in the feud between the two powers has centered on China’s handling of the pandemic.

Far from shying away from the tensions, China has asserted itself during the public health crisis, engaging the U.S. in a growing war of words, throwing its weight behind international institutions such as the United Nations and swooping in to deliver aid to hundreds of nations, not just in the developing world.

Much of the tension has been online, with China going on a Twitter offensive in the COVID-19 information war, more than doubling its number of official government tweets since January, according to data, and producing slick satirical videos heaping criticism on the United States.

Meanwhile, Washington has been making louder noise over its support of Taiwan’s leadership, including a potential $180 million arms sale announced this week, irritating China.

And a White House report due out this month also found Beijing’s lack of transparency a threat to U.S. interests, officials said, in a sign of ratcheting-up rivalry between the Trump administration and Beijing.

This week, Xi pledged an extra $2 billion to deal with the coronavirus crisis at the 73rd World Health Assembly. The move came as President Donald Trump threatened to permanently freeze U.S. funding for the World Health Organization in a scathing letter to its leader.

Trump accused the U.N. organization of an "alarming lack of independence from the People's Republic of China," during the summit.

The move to cut WHO funding was criticized by global leaders, while the WHO has strongly defended its response, saying it took urgent action at the first signs of the epidemic in Wuhan, China.

China has also vehemently denied that it concealed details about the outbreak.

But calls are growing for an inquiry into the origins of the disease.

This week, countries backed a resolution during the assembly calling for "an impartial, independent and comprehensive" evaluation of the WHO during the pandemic.

Although mass testing is underway in Wuhan, China has marked more than a month of no new coronavirus deaths, even as outbreaks in northeastern Jilin and Liaoning are creating fresh worries for Beijing. So far around 4,600 people have died of COVID-19 in the country, according to official data.

People's Liberation Army soldiers next to a poster of President Xi Jinping Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images

China’s defense budget is also expected to be unveiled on the opening day of the People’s Congress, and will offer a rare glimpse into China’s military priorities. Its presence in the hotly contested South China Sea continues to gain global attention. Last month, China's military said it had "expelled" a U.S. Navy vessel from the waters, an account U.S. officials disputed.

Simmering tensions between China and its Asian seafaring neighbors in the energy-rich stretch of water have intensified as China appears more confrontational.

Hong Kong, a growing flashpoint for U.S.-China tensions, will also be on the congress agenda. On Thursday, China proposed to introduce new security legislation that could limit opposition activity there, spokesperson Zhang Yesui told Xinhua, in a decision that will raise eyebrows abroad and could threaten the fragile "one country two systems" in place since British colonial rule ended in 1997.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month that the U.S. would delay a report assessing whether Hong Kong was sufficiently autonomous from China to warrant Washington’s special economic treatment.

The People’s Congress will also be an opportunity for Xi personally to showcase how China has successfully navigated the coronavirus crisis, said Kristine Lee, an associate fellow of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

"Xi ultimately made the decision to personalize the crisis," said Lee. That the People’s Congress is going ahead at all, as other countries still reel from the pandemic, "serves as a signal to both domestic and international audiences that Xi is in control and that deft crisis management by the CCP has turned the tide of the outbreak," Lee said.

Whether through a vocal diplomatic cadre of so-called wolf-warrior ambassadors — a spin on a popular 2015 Chinese movie of the same name — or leveraging U.S. distraction to advance operations in the South China Sea, the Chinese Communist Party has shown "remarkable ingenuity and nimbleness," Lee said.

"China has deftly and brazenly flipped the script," she added, "and is now trying to seamlessly integrate the current international crisis into its narrative about being a global leader."

Adela Suliman reported from London and Dawn Liu and Eric Baculinao from Beijing.