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China People's Congress

What to watch at China's coronavirus-delayed congress

Growth target less certain than ever as delegates gather in Beijing

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Communist Party see maintaining stability as job No. 1. (Nikkei Montage/Source photos by AP and Reuters) 

SHANGHAI -- China's biggest annual political gatherings opened on May 21, signaling the government's confidence that it has the coronavirus under control but also, perhaps, concern about mounting economic and diplomatic pressures.

The Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference started on Thursday, followed by the National People's Congress on Friday. In a normal year, both would have convened in early March.

Some 5,000 delegates -- politicians, businesspeople and prominent civilians -- from across the country, including Hong Kong and Macao, gathered at Beijing's Great Hall of the People for the two meetings, also known as lianghui. The gatherings come under a cloud of international criticism over China's handling of the outbreak, and amid a flare-up in the trade war with the U.S., which has tightened restrictions on Huawei Technologies.

There is also the persistent threat of another coronavirus wave. The government is promoting "normalization" -- standing guard for sporadic outbreaks while getting businesses and society back on their feet. But arguably the biggest surprise this year was Thursday's announcement of proposed security legislation for Hong Kong that reignited demonstrations in the territory on Sunday.

Here is what to expect at the proceedings in Beijing.

An unusual schedule

Already delayed by about two months, the meetings will also be shorter than usual -- about one week, rather than two. The authorities shortened the time frame as part of their health precautions. Social distancing measures are also in place: Only selected media personnel based in Beijing will be allowed into the Great Hall, shutting out most of the 3,000 Chinese and foreign reporters who applied for accreditation.

Delegates will not be available for face-to-face interviews. Even some meetings between delegates and government officials will be conducted via video conferencing or telephone.

Hong Kong delegates made a stopover in Shenzhen for tests to ensure they are coronavirus-free before arriving in Beijing, according to state media outlet Xinhua. While in the capital, they stay in sealed-off accommodations and dine "alone."

Delegates from elsewhere go through similar requirements.

Growth target drama

Premier Li Keqiang omitted a growth target for 2020 when presiding over the congress on Friday, citing uncertainties.

Countrywide lockdowns plunged the economy into a 6.8% contraction in the first quarter, a far cry from the 6% annual growth reported in recent years. Analysts at Fitch Ratings forecast annual growth at 0.7%.

In the fiscal budget for 2020, Li projected the deficit to swell to over 3.6% -- up from 2.8% -- due to a special bond issuance of 1 trillion yuan ($140 billion) to combat the coronavirus. An additional 3.75 trillion yuan of bonds will be issued by provincial governments to sustain economic development and social stability through infrastructure development and other programs.

The quest for stability

Maintaining stability has always been a priority under China's one-party rule, but there may be an extra sense of urgency this time.

Urban unemployment affected 2.29 million people, or 5.9%, at the end of March -- lower than February's 6.2% but still above the 5% mark officials hoped to maintain. Fitch Ratings deemed the apparently modest employment pressure a "statistical artefact" detached from reality.

The ratings agency thinks the true ratio could be as high as 30%. The figures, Fitch noted, do not include migrant workers who are classified as rural due to their household registrations, even though they make up nearly a third of the employed population in urban areas.

Meanwhile, 2020 is supposed to be the year when the Communist Party eliminates rural poverty before celebrating China's ascent to a "moderately prosperous society" at the party's centennial in 2021. The goal was to lift a final 5.51 million out of poverty, down from nearly 100 million in 2012.

But obstacles stand in Beijing's way as it looks to continue its economic rise and catch up with the West in technology through its "Made in China 2025" blueprint -- not least because of the latest U.S. clampdown on Huawei.

Recently, President Xi Jinping told key leaders to enhance supply-side structural reforms, taking advantage of the country's huge domestic market. This could be taken as an acknowledgment of disruptions in foreign demand for Chinese products.

Health care priorities

Health issues are likely to dominate the discussions as China grapples with new clusters of coronavirus infections, as seen recently in the initial epicenter -- Wuhan -- along with the northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin.

The country recorded seven new cases on Monday. It has so far accumulated 82,992 cases and 4,634 deaths.

Seventeen legislative bills on health are to be written or revised over the next two years, according to Xinhua, in order to strengthen public health. These include regulations on hazardous waste, animal epidemic prevention and biosecurity.

Delegates will deliberate and approve the security legislation for Hong Kong that critics say would erode civil liberties.

Foreign policy questions

Delegates will be looking to rally the nation behind Beijing's success at containing the epidemic -- and to deflect criticism that the authorities failed to respond fast enough, allowing the movement of people that led to the global pandemic.

Beijing has stressed that it, too, is a victim, and has sought to cast doubt on the virus' origins in the country. Chinese diplomats have been working around the clock to coordinate the distribution of emergency aid and reschedule repayment of debts owed by some developing countries.

Aside from the coronavirus' impact on foreign policy, observers will be watching for signals related to recent tensions over maritime territory, military budget allocations, and any developments related to civil liberties in Hong Kong or cross-strait relations with Taiwan.

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