BEIJING -- The coronavirus outbreak in China has prompted over two dozen cities and provinces to postpone local assembly meetings, raising questions as to whether the National People's Congress will meet in March as planned.
Provincial and municipal congresses typically meet around the same time in January or February to prepare for the annual gathering of China's parliament, scheduled to begin March 5 this year. They set local economic growth targets and choose delegations to attend group meetings at the national congress to deliberate bills and government work reports.
But 25 cities and two southwestern provinces -- Yunnan and Sichuan -- had delayed their local congress meetings as of Thursday, media reports indicate. China even is considering postponing the National People's Congress itself, Reuters reported Thursday, citing five sources familiar with the situation.
The Yunnan Province meeting, originally slated for Monday, was pushed back due to the risk of spreading the deadly coronavirus. Six provincial capitals have done the same, including Xi'an in Shaanxi Province and Zhengzhou in Henan Province.
The list also includes the southeastern coastal city of Wenzhou, which has tightly restricted the movement of residents in an effort to contain the largest outbreak outside of Hubei Province, where the virus is believed to have originated.
Hubei's congress met as planned in mid-January, but the virus was not discussed.
The delays fit with the demands by President Xi Jinping's government for an all-out effort to combat the outbreak. The Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body, in a meeting Monday called for "prompt and resolute actions," with severe punishments for those who fail to cooperate.
But some Communist Party members question whether the National People's Congress can take place if the local meetings do not.
The annual meeting of the national assembly -- constitutionally positioned as the "highest organ of state power" -- is a major event, used to announce policies and economic growth targets for the year. China watchers also look for specific measures aimed at fulfilling the government's pledge to create a "moderately prosperous society."
The congress in Beijing unites 3,000 representatives from China's 31 province-level divisions, as well as bodies such as the People's Liberation Army. It takes place alongside a meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which itself has thousands of members.
All told, tens of thousands of people come together in the capital for what are known as the "two sessions."
But the gathering clashes with the recent Communist Party directives to avoid going outside and to steer clear of crowds, while local measures aimed at curbing the epidemic present logistical challenges.
Beijing urges any outsiders entering the city to stay in quarantine for two weeks. If that applies to the two sessions, attendees would have to arrive around Feb. 18.
Postponing the congress until the outbreak is contained would represent a huge loss of face for Xi's government, which already has drawn skepticism about its ability to handle the virus. The congress has met as scheduled every year since 1995, even in the middle of the 2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.