BEIJING (AP) — Thousands of delegates from across China are in Beijing for this year’s annual session of the country’s rubber-stamp legislature and its advisory body, meetings delayed by more than two months because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The National People’s Congress session is more a chance for the authoritarian ruling Communist Party leadership to directly communicate its message than an occasion to debate or pass laws. That’s especially important at a time when China is seeking to restart its economy as the epidemic wanes in the country and tensions are rising with its chief international rival, the United States.
Top leaders including President and party head Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang preside at the congress, with Li delivering a lengthy speech summarizing the past year’s achievements and laying out priorities for the coming 12 months. As in past years, economic growth is a key focus, with expectations for this year lowered considerably as a result of months of virus-related lockdowns and work stoppages.
The session, known as the “two meetings,” usually runs for about two weeks but will be cut in half this year due to concerns over a possible second wave of virus infections. Still, the session will include reports, speeches and media events, starting with Li’s Report on the Work of the Government, a sort of state of the nation address, that kicks off the session on Friday.
Li would normally reveal an economic growth target for the year, although speculation has grown that he will give only a vague figure or possibly none at all. The annual defense budget, now the world’s second largest after the United States, is also a center of focus.
Reports will also be issued on the work of the Supreme People’s Court and the state prosecutor, the budget and the latest plan for economic and social development. The premier traditionally caps off the session with his sole annual news conference broadcast live nationwide.
DELEGATE NUMBERS UNCHANGED
About 3,000 delegates are attending the meeting, gathering for plenary sessions in the vast auditorium of the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing, as well as in smaller break-out sessions. They represent cities, provinces and regions from across the country of 1.4 billion, along with the People’s Liberation Army, whose uniformed members form a conspicuous bloc.
They are joined by 2,057 members of the legislative advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which meets concurrently but has little bearing on events and no power of enforcement. CPPCC delegates are made up of retired government officials and representatives of social and professional groups, including farmers, workers and professionals in the sciences, technology, business, finance, education, agriculture, entertainment and even sports. Actor Jackie Chan and NBA all-star Yao Ming are among the best-known names internationally among the members.
LEGISLATIVE GOALS LIMITED
Most legislation is deliberated and passed by the NPC’s Standing Committee that meets bimonthly between the annual sessions. However, major laws have been passed by the whole body at its annual session, including a 2018 law in aid of Xi’s signature anti-graft campaign and a 2005 anti-secession law that defined the conditions under which China would attack Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy it claims as Chinese territory to be recovered by force if necessary.
On Thursday night, NPC spokesperson Zhang Yesui said the congress will consider a bill that could limit opposition activity in Hong Kong, appearing to confirm speculation that China will sidestep the semi-autonomous territory’s own lawmaking body in enacting legislation to crack down on activity Beijing considers subversive.
Zhang said the bill aimed at “establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard national security.”
Such a move has long been under consideration but was hastened by months of anti-government protests last year in the former British colony that was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997.
Discussion may be more limited this year by social distancing requirements, although it isn’t clear how strictly they are being enforced. At Thursday’s opening session of the CPPCC, rank-and-file members wore masks but sat in rows as usual with little space between them. Top leaders, including Chair Wang Yang, President Xi and Premier Li, wore no masks but maintained the usual generous space between them on the stage at the Great Hall.