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China's National People's Congress meeting needs substance, not slogans

Gloating over pandemic containment will not please business or public

| China
The closing session of last year's NPC, pictured in March 2019: the CCP's priorities do not necessarily overlap with those of China.   © Reuters

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The annual sessions of the Chinese National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the so-called lianghui, are elaborately staged but substantively light political rituals. The NPC delegates attending the annual session rubber-stamp the policies and legislative proposals of the ruling Chinese Communist Party without much debate.

Although not much will change at this year's NPC session, which will start on May 22 after the coronavirus forced it to be rescheduled, the pandemic that has taken a heavy toll on the Chinese economy and is devastating the rest of the world may compel Chinese leaders to add a bit more substance to the agenda.

President Xi Jinping and his colleagues are keenly aware that China is in uncharted territory as a result of the pandemic. Even though Beijing managed to contain the outbreak relatively quickly after a faltering start in January, it has paid a heavy price.

Besides taking more than 4,600 lives, the outbreak ended China's streak of four decades of economic growth and is expected to depress economic activity for years to come. In the eyes of the world, China should be held accountable for the worst pandemic in a century because of the reported cover-up by local authorities in Wuhan, the initial center of the outbreak.

The consequent geopolitical fallout from the pandemic could lead to deteriorating relations with key trading partners, the accelerated relocation of supply chains from China and a further escalation of the Sino-American strategic conflict.

Xi and Premier Li Keqiang will have their work cut out for them during the 10-day session. Their overriding objective will be instilling confidence in their ability to steer China through the treacherous economic and geopolitical environment. Delegates attending lianghui, and more importantly the Chinese public, will be anxious for concrete policy initiatives addressing the most pressing economic and foreign policy challenges, not the empty sloganeering which past sessions of lianghui have produced in abundance.

Since the CCP's priorities do not necessarily overlap with those of China, the central theme of the upcoming lianghui sessions is set to be an unabashed celebration of the party's success in containing the pandemic. In particular, senior officials will be outdoing each other to praise Xi for his leadership while no mention will be made of the government's early missteps, especially the deception and censorship by local authorities in Wuhan.

Chinese officials will not resist the temptation to boast of the superiority of one-party rule by pointing to the much higher human toll in Western democracies, especially the U.S.

However, since Chinese leaders know that such self-congratulatory exertions will not reassure Chinese business elites or a public anxious to see whether the party knows what it is doing, they will also provide greater clarity and details on their policies to revive the economy and manage a worsening external environment.

There is little doubt that Beijing's plans for stimulating the economy will be the real focus during lianghui. The Chinese economy shrank by 6.8% during the first quarter and the number of unemployed workers, including migrant laborers, could surpass 70 million.

Migrant workers at Guangzhou South Railway Station, pictured on Mar. 19: the number of the unemployed could surpass 70 million.   © China Daily/Reuters

Despite the grim economic picture, the Chinese government has so far adopted tepid policies in response. While the People's Bank of China has injected more liquidity into the financial system and cut a key lending rate, the central government has not rolled out aggressive fiscal measures comparable to those adopted by the U.S. and European countries.

Beijing has vowed to boost investment in infrastructure and authorize local governments to increase their borrowing to fund fixed-asset investment projects. By early May, Beijing had raised the borrowing limit for local governments to 2.29 trillion yuan ($322 billion), exceeding the full-year amount of 2.15 trillion yuan in 2019.

Notably, the Chinese government has not unveiled any substantial programs to help the private sector, the main driver of growth, and support household consumption despite the Politburo's announcement in early April that the government's top two priorities were the protection of employment and people's livelihoods.

If Li announces a more robust stimulus program next week, it could be a shot in the arm for both the Chinese economy and public confidence.

Besides a near-term stimulus program, the Chinese government will need to demonstrate that it is also giving up its obsession with its annual growth target. A public declaration by Li that China will no longer set a fixed growth target for the coming years will be a welcome sign that Beijing is finally ready to place greater value on the quality, not the quantity, of economic growth.

Despite the self-confidence the party tries to project with the convening of this year's lianghui, a dark shadow will be hovering over the 5,000 delegates gathered in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. This is, obviously, the fear of the coronavirus.

A single confirmed case of infection among these delegates will be a humiliation for the government, so it may be a good idea for the party to go easy on self-glorification and focus exclusively on policy substance during lianghui.

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