China’s leaders are set to use a gathering of the top legislature starting Sunday to outline plans to restore public confidence and bolster economic growth after a year of uncertainty, disruption and discontent around the government’s COVID restrictions.
The annual session of the largely ceremonial National People’s Congress is aimed at conveying the ruling Communist Party’s confidence and inspiring national unity. For the country’s top leader, Xi Jinping, this year’s event will also be key to reinforcing his authority after his signature “zero COVID” policy, now abandoned, drew widespread protests in November and worsened an economic slowdown.
The leadership will lay out its agenda for addressing challenges such as mounting local government debt, unemployment, a housing slump, weak exports and a shrinking population. Delegates are expected to rubber-stamp decisions made in advance, behind closed doors, by leaders of the party who hold ultimate authority.
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At the end of the gathering, which runs for nine days, Xi is all but assured to be appointed to another five-year term as president after securing a groundbreaking third term as party leader in October. He is also expected to appoint his loyalists and allies to key government positions.
Here’s what to expect from the legislative gathering.
The party will probably defend its handling of COVID.
The gathering will be the first since China abruptly lifted “zero COVID,” a deeply unpopular policy of lockdowns and quarantines.
In the lead-up to the congress, China’s propaganda apparatus has pushed a triumphant narrative declaring that under Xi’s leadership, the party’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was a “miracle in human history” and “completely correct.” It has emphasized the importance of unity behind the party’s leaders.
“As long as the party and the people always stand together, think together, and work together, no storm can shake our steel will, and no difficulty can stop our resolute steps,” the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, said Friday.
Security around the city will be heavy, and traffic will probably be congested as roughly 3,000 delegates from around the country hand-picked by the party descend on the capital and convene at the cavernous Great Hall of the People.
In recent years, delegates had to take COVID tests and wear masks during gatherings. It is unclear how many such restrictions will remain. Despite the nationwide lifting of most COVID limits, foreign journalists invited to cover the congress were told that they had to quarantine overnight to attend some news conferences.
China will show that it once again cares about growth.
When the meeting opens, the outgoing premier, Li Keqiang, will deliver a government work report that is expected to include a target of roughly 5% in economic growth for the year.
China’s economy had its weakest performance in decades last year, dragged down by lockdowns and then widespread COVID outbreaks in December. Businesses have been rattled in recent years by crackdowns on Big Tech and other sectors, and developers ran out of money as regulators reined in excessive debt.
In recent weeks, local officials confronted protesters in multiple cities after some municipalities cut health insurance to alleviate a debt crisis. Youth unemployment is high, and the birthrate is at a record low. In January, the country announced its first population decline in six decades.
To juice economic growth, a major pillar of the party’s legitimacy, the party is expected to pledge to boost middle-class spending, restore confidence to investors and create new jobs.
In a sign of concerns about the fragility of the economy, Chinese officials have adopted business-friendly language that marks a shift from its emphasis on developing a more state-controlled economy. China analysts will be watching for how the work report balances Xi’s statist direction with pro-growth rhetoric.
China is bracing for a world more wary of Beijing’s ambitions.
The premier’s report will likely reflect Xi’s long-term vision of China’s leading role in a more multipolar world, replacing the United States-led international order. Xi has declared that China’s success proved that modernization did not equal Westernization.
For Xi, this entails reducing the country’s reliance on the West for key technologies, building a world-class military, increasing the party’s control over the security apparatus, steering the economy and curbing financial risks.
China is facing scrutiny over allegations by the United States that it is considering providing arms and ammunition to Russia in its war in Ukraine. The United States has imposed sweeping limits on semiconductor exports to China. Many economies are bracing for recession, which will further dampen demand for Chinese exports.
As the dispute over a Chinese spy balloon demonstrated last month, relations with the United States are more volatile than ever, especially as China takes a more confrontational stance on Taiwan — the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its territory. Observers will watch the congress for any legislation or subtle signs of shifts in Taiwan policy.
Xi’s allies are expected to take top jobs in the government reshuffle.
The National People’s Congress also finalizes personnel decisions for the premier, vice premiers, state councilors and dozens of ministry-level departments. Some of these were set at a previous Party Congress, and others have been decided in closed-door sessions before the event.
Xi’s close ally, Li Qiang, currently No. 2 in the party’s top body, the Politburo Standing Committee, is set to take over as premier. As is customary for the premier, the incoming Li will hold a news conference at the end of the congress, in which reporters’ questions are usually vetted beforehand.
Analysts are also looking for other appointments to the leadership of China’s economy and financial sectors. They include Ding Xuexiang, who is expected to be executive vice premier. He Lifeng, another close ally to Xi and head of China’s powerful economic policy planning body, is expected to become vice premier; and Zhu Hexin, a veteran banker, might be tapped to run China’s central bank.
“They are all people who really are party people, first and foremost, and, of course, close associates of Xi Jinping,” said Tony Saich, a China specialist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. “It’s really a departure of the whole Western-educated, globally integrated officials, who basically are all timed out and retired.”
Female leaders have become more scarce under Xi’s tenure. For the first time in decades, the top 24 members of the party are all men. Shen Yiqin, a former party chief of the southwestern province of Guizhou, may be named a state councilor.
The party has also signaled a major institutional shake-up that will help carry out Xi’s agenda by entrenching the party deeper into state ministries and Chinese society by extension.
Few details have been released so far, but at a meeting of national leaders on Tuesday, Xi called for “deepening reform of the party and state institutions.” China watchers are discussing changes that could see China’s sprawling security apparatus and financial watchdogs fall under closer supervision by Xi and the party.
“Xi Jinping has a pretty sizable set of goals he wants the party-state to achieve between now and 2035,” said Jude Blanchette, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. Frustrations with a sprawling Chinese bureaucracy are “driving these heavy-handed interventions,” he said.
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