BEIJING – The installation of new leaders and the need to shore up a flagging economy will dominate the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp parliament that kicks off Sunday.
The nearly 3,000 delegates attending the meeting of the largely powerless National People's Congress will hear reports on the work of government that lay out the ruling Communist Party’s priorities.
Don’t expect open debates or criticism. All documents, decisions and appointments are expected to receive unanimous support.
Below are some of the issues surrounding the roughly 10-day event.
WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT THIS YEAR?
This year’s gathering comes at the start of China’s latest five-year political cycle, as an addendum to the ruling Communist Party’s 20th annual congress in October.
That event saw the appointment of a new Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China, led by Secretary General Xi Jinping, China’s president who has eliminated term limits to allow him to rule for life.
The congress will see Xi renamed head of state along with the replacement of Li Keqiang as premier and the appointment of other top members of the State Council, China’s Cabinet.
China’s economy was battered by pandemic-related lockdowns, quarantines and other harsh measures imposed under the “zero-COVID” strategy, adding to the woes of a hugely indebted real estate sector and the precarious state of local government finances.
Despite optimistic talk from Beijing, many analysts say the economy is in serious trouble.
At the same time, China’s assertive, often adventurous foreign policy has put it at odds with the U.S. and its allies over issues from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to threats against Taiwan and even the banning of the Chinese short video app TikTok by foreign governments on national security grounds.
WHAT ARE SOME OTHER THEMES?
The gathering is expected to pick up on a move to increase centralization — always a key priority for communist states — by shifting responsibilities from government bodies to those directly under the party’s Central Committee.
That could be most pronounced in the security field, where the responsibilities of the Ministry of Public Security in charge of the police, and the Ministry of State Security that handles foreign and domestic intelligence, could by taken over by party commissions.
Similar moves have been proposed for the semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong, where the party has steadily ratcheted up control since months of anti-government protests in 2019 and a subsequent crackdown on civil liberties and political opposition.
Measures to boost a flagging birthrate are also expected to be discussed, following the abandonment of the much-criticized and highly punitive one-child policy in 2016. That followed the announcement in January that the population fell by 850,000 last year as a result of a cratering birthrate and aging population, the first decline in 61 years.
Local governments are offering subsidized childcare, cash payments of 5,000 yuan ($700) or more and even free apartments to couples who decide to start families, especially if they’re having more than one child.
In Sichuan province, authorities this year moved to legally recognize children born to unwed mothers. More localities are expected to follow. Previously, women were not banned from having children on their own, but faced bureaucratic hurdles making it almost impossible to register them for school and other social services. IVF services are being expanded, although surrogacy remains illegal.
The issue of Taiwan, which split from the mainland in 1949 and has never been governed by the Communist Party, is also seen as growing more pressing, especially given heightened tensions with Taiwan’s top ally, the United States.
Since the NPC’s passage in 2005 of an “anti-secession law,” leaders have debated enacting tougher measures to back up Beijing’s threat to use force to annex the island it considers its own territory.
“Now, of course, some people may think (the NPC) is more conservative. That’s true,” said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics and leadership issues at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C.
Xi has shifted policy so that “the top priority is state security. It’s national security at a time that war becomes more likely,” Cheng said.
WHAT IS THE NPC AND WHAT DOES IT DO?
Made up of regional delegations and one from the People's Liberation Army, the National People’s Congress is technically the highest law-making body in China, although the vast majority of its legislative work is performed by its 175-member Standing Committee that meets year-round.
Its annual gathering at the hulking Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing is the main public forum for communicating the government’s priorities and goals, both economic and political.
A key document is the premier’s work report that will set the GDP growth target and the defense budget.
There is also a limited opportunity for feedback, as top officials meet with the various delegation heads, but there is none of the open discussion or tabling of bills typical of other legislatures. That is also the case with the congress’ advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which meets concurrently.
“The purpose of the annual session is a signaling exercise of what the leadership’s goals are and what they want everyone to think about going forward,” said Scott Kennedy, an expert on the Chinese economy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
WHAT’S IT SAY ABOUT CHINA’S POLITICAL SYSTEM?
NPC delegates almost all belong to the ruling Communist Party, which has brooked no opposition and very little criticism since seizing power amid civil war in 1949.
Delegates are generally far better traveled, better educated and more politically astute than in the past. Yet, that hasn’t produced any apparent desire to turn the NPC into a more representative body that could act as a check on government and the ruling party. With few exceptions, the NPC has been a loyal adjunct to the party leadership, offering a patina of democracy to an increasingly authoritarian one-party police state.
And in case there is any question, the party routinely issues decrees and takes real steps to quash any push for reform smacking of Western-style liberalism. Dissidents have been imprisoned, exiled or intimidated into silence, while human rights lawyers and legal activists have been under massive pressure since a sweeping 2015 roundup.
Just days before the NPC’s opening, the party’s General Office issued a directive telling law professors and their students to “oppose and resist Western erroneous views such as ‘constitutional government,’ ‘separation of three powers,’ and ’independence of the judiciary.'”