HONG KONG -- China has officially delayed its biggest political gatherings of the year and further restricted the trading and consumption of wild animal meat as the nation battles a deadly coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 2,400 people and infected over 77,000.
The National People's Congress had been set to convene its annual session, which usually lasts about two weeks, in Beijing on March 5 and the new date has yet to be decided. While the legislature is subordinate to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, it ratifies the national budget and annual economic targets.
A spokesman for the NPC Legislative Affairs Commission told state news agency Xinhua last week that delaying the session would help officials to concentrate on containing the spread of the virus as a third of the NPC's roughly 3,000 delegates were said to be involved with related tasks.
Most meetings and conferences in China have been canceled this month to reduce opportunities for the virus to spread and even many stores and other businesses have yet to resume regular operations since the Lunar New Year holiday in January.
Ahead of the expected announcement of the government's economic growth target for the year, economists have been speculating on just how much the Covid-19 outbreak will accelerate China's slowdown.
Investment bank Societe Generale, for example, said Monday that it expected gross domestic product growth to slow to 5.5% in its base case for the outbreak, but saw it potentially falling as low as 4% if Covid-19 evades control efforts. The annual budget would have also revealed how much deficit spending the government plans this year to offset the slowdown.
China last month reported GDP growth of 6.1% for 2019, the slowest expansion in 29 years.
The legislative session has never been delayed since its timing was fixed to early March in the 1990s. The postponement was announced through a video conference of the NPC Standing Committee on Monday, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported. A new date will be decided after further discussion.
The Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the nation's top political advisory body, was also to convene in Beijing on March 3 but CCTV said it too will be postponed.
The postponement of the annual China Development Forum, an official summit that brings together leaders from government and international business in Beijing each year after the NPC and CPPCC meetings, was reported three weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the NPC Standing Committee on Monday passed a proposal to ban the trading of wild animal meat with immediate effect. Scientists believe that the consumption of wild animals in China led to the spread of Covid-19, as previously occurred with SARS in 2003.
"In this critical time of epidemic controls, it's necessary and urgent for NPC to make a special decision to ban the consumption of wild animal meat before revising the law," CCTV reported.