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China People's Congress

Xi out to remind China who's boss at year's biggest political event

President under pressure from economic slowdown and trade war

Chinese President Xi Jinping used last year's National People's Congress to cement his place as the country's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- At last year's National People's Congress, President Xi Jinping cemented his place as China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. This year, he has to convince his party and his country that he still has everything under control.

Thousands of delegates will convene in Beijing from this weekend for China's biggest political meetings of the year -- the NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The gathering comes as the nation of 1.4 billion people grapples with an economic slowdown and a prolonged battle with the U.S. over trade, tech and diplomacy.

Xi is expected to use the platforms to boost domestic confidence and -- more importantly -- shore up his power over the nation.

"It's going to be a confident boosting, calming down and reassuring congress without big moves," said Kerry Brown, director at the Lau China Institute of the King's College London, who expects a lot of rhetoric about China's commitment to continuing reform.

"The U.S. is demanding reforms in China. This is an indirect way to address that." The most important message that Xi is likely to promote, however, is the absolute centrality of the Communist Party to the reforms, Brown said.

Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Xi is struggling to cope with U.S. President Donald Trump's multipronged attacks. "The mood for Xi and his inner circle is much worse than last year," he said.

The Chinese leader gave himself a boost by persuading Trump to delay Friday's deadline for additional tariffs. The levies on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods would have increased to 25% from 10%, just days before the official start of the meetings -- the CPPCC begins on Sunday, while the NPC kicks off on Tuesday.

The temporary reconciliation offers Xi much-needed political capital, and buys him time to push his domestic agenda.

"Xi desperately wanted to have a deal before the NPC. He can't afford to look bad before the delegates," Lam said. "They are well-known and important people" despite having little political power.

A paramilitary officer stands guard in front of a portrait of the late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong.   © Reuters

Analysts expect Xi will emphasize the importance of maintaining stability at this year's meeting, while rolling out measures to stimulate the economy.

But Wu Qiang, a former political science professor at Tsinghua University, expects the president to adopt an even more highhanded approach to suppress dissent and any popular unrest.

"Xi has to maintain his sacred and inviolable image," Wu said, as any softness will be seen as a sign of weakness, especially when elite members of the Communist Party are criticizing him for the poor economic situation. "It's not easy for a strongman like Xi to bow down."

As part of the annual presentation of Beijing's achievements at the largely rubber-stamp parliament sessions, proposed legislation and work reports are expected to be passed by nearly unanimous votes.

The delegates will include some of the country's most high-profile business executives. The likes of Baidu chief executive Robin Li and Tencent Holdings founder Pony Ma will be among business leaders gathering in Beijing, and some of them will give staged media interviews to endorse the government's work and pledge loyalty to Xi.

But this may not be enough. Xi will also need to address issues that affect people's livelihoods to prevent any kind of social unrest.

"The most serious issue in China right now is employment," said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political commentator and scholar of modern Chinese history. He said a lot of low-skilled workers have lost their jobs because factories closed or relocated since last year as a result of the trade dispute with the U.S.

"Leaders' authority can't be built through words. They need real work achievements," Zhang said. "Otherwise people would think their ability does not match the degree of power they hold."

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet after the G20 in Buenos Aires.   © Reuters

The gathering will also be closely watched by international observers amid China's ongoing trade tussle with the U.S.

"Against this background, the NPC will be watched for signs that Xi is willing to bend to placate Trump and avert the ratcheting up to tariffs," Diana Choyleva, chief economist at London-based Enodo Economics wrote in a note.

She expects the NPC to approve a "fast-tracked" foreign investment law to address the U.S. complaints over the unfair treatment of multinational companies operating in China.

The proposed law will provide better protection of foreign investors' intellectual property rights, as well as scrap the requirement of technology transfer for foreign companies to do business in China.

However, Xi will not abandon China's ambition to keep climbing the high-tech ladder or water down his ideological determination to support state-owned enterprises," Choyleva said.

While the Communist Party always carefully orchestrates the annual gathering, there is still a chance that not everything will go according to plan.

Analysts said they will be closely watching when Zhou Qiang, chief justice and president of the Supreme People's Court, delivers his work report.

Zhou, the former party boss of Hunan Province, has been embroiled in a high-profile scandal which saw legal documents mysteriously vanish at the top court's compound. A judge at the court accused Zhou of interfering with the case, sparking a public outcry over suspected corruption and interference in the country's highest legal authority.

While the whistleblower judge later appeared on state television and confessed he stole the documents, there are still questions over Zhou's role.

"Zhou's work report might not get a high support rate," Zhang said. "The development of the scandal is very bad to state leaders' strategy of ruling the nation by law."

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