WASHINGTON DC – China’s annual parliamentary session started on Sunday (5 March) in Beijing. The National People’s Congress (NPC) is often described as a “rubber stamp” legislature because the body has yet to vote down a single bill. But this doesn’t mean that nothing significant will take place inside the Great Hall of the People over the next eight days. Indeed, Xi Jinping has already made, according to state media reports, an uncharacteristically direct attack on the US. “Western countries – led by the US – have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development,” he said on 6 March.
The NPC, which is attended by around 3,000 delegates, is part of what is known in China as the Two Sessions, together with the awkwardly named Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The latter, which began on 4 March, includes a number of prominent businesspeople and Chinese celebrities, such as the former basketball star Yao Ming – who at 7-foot 6in is generally easy to spot among the delegates – and the filmmaker Jackie Chan.
The assembled delegates attending the meetings will nominally consider changes to legislation and government policies, with the NPC voting to confirm the appointment of top officials, including the president and premier, as well as the plan to drive China’s economic recovery in the year ahead. In reality, however, the most important decisions have already been made, and the parliament’s main goal will be to ratify Xi’s consolidation of power.
As I have written about before, if Xi had been following the example of his predecessor Hu Jintao, he would have stepped down as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission at the 20th Party Congress in October, then handed over the presidency at this NPC. (Xi holds three roles as China’s leader, with the presidency generally considered to be the least important.) Instead, not only did he secure a third term in the first two roles in October, but he unveiled a new leadership committee – formally known as the Politburo Standing Committee – stacked with loyalists.
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The NPC will mark the culmination of this process as Xi is “elected” for a third term as China’s president on 10 March. There is little doubt that he will be confirmed in the role. Xi presided over the revision of the constitution in 2018 to remove the previous two-term limit on the presidency, the only one of his titles that was subject to limits (I wrote more about this here), meaning there is no legal bar to him remaining in power indefinitely. In his address to the party congress in October, Xi warned that China was facing “dangerous storms” ahead, and emphasised the importance of strong central leadership and party control to ensure the country’s continued security and development.
Meanwhile his new foreign minister Qin Gang, who is known for his tough-talking pronouncements, held his first press conference since taking on the role. He told reporters that “the US side’s so-called competition is all-out containment and suppression, a zero-sum game where you die and I live”. He added: “If the US does not hit the brakes but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guard rail can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation.”
Another key function of this parliamentary session is to confirm who has the top roles in government over the next five years. Xi is elevating more of his allies to senior positions. Li Qiang, the former party secretary of Shanghai and a long-time associate of Xi, is expected to be confirmed as the country’s new premier, replacing Li Keqiang. The latter rose to power through a rival faction and was once seen as a possible leader of China, but is now stepping down after serving two five-year terms. (When the term limits on the presidency were removed, the restrictions on the premiership were left in place.)
Li Keqiang’s departure as premier, a role that has traditionally been charged with managing the economy, marks the end of any plausible opposition to Xi from within the party’s top ranks. In his final speech as premier on 5 March, however, Li showed no sign of breaking with Xi, reinforcing the leader’s warnings that “external attempts to suppress and contain China are escalating”, and calling for the armed forces to “intensify military training and preparedness across the board”. The NPC will also appoint a new vice-premier to replace the Harvard-educated Liu He as China’s economic tsar – expected to be He Lifeng, another of Xi’s confidantes – and a new central bank governor.
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On Sunday, Li Keqiang set the GDP growth target for the year ahead at “around 5 per cent”, the lowest target in decades, as Beijing attempts to jump-start the faltering Chinese economy after almost three years of strict pandemic controls. Consumer demand, which Beijing hoped would drive that recovery after the reversal of the “zero Covid” policy ended most restrictions in December, has so far remained weak, as has demand from export markets in a slowing global economy. Meanwhile, China’s military spending is set to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, with an increase of 7.2 per cent this year, according to a draft budget released at the NPC.
Perhaps most importantly, this congress will be used to implement what Xi has vowed will be a “forceful” restructuring of the government, including “far-reaching” changes that will bring the financial and technology sectors under firmer party control. The result will have a “profound influence” on the country’s economy and society, Xi told senior officials at a meeting in February. In a closed-door meeting during the congress on 6 March, Xi reportedly urged private companies to be “rich and responsible” as well as “patriotic” in pursuit of his quest to achieve “common prosperity” for all for all citizens, which some analysts fear could augur a further crackdown and greater state intervention in the private sector.
The NPC has never been an exercise in genuine democracy, but Xi seems determined to use this year’s parliamentary session to further cement the party’s authority over China, and also his own. Confronted with an array of challenges – from resurrecting economic growth to worsening relations with the US – Xi appears to view increasing central control and elevating more of his acolytes as the first step towards a solution. Instead, the danger is that he is merely compounding the problem and removing the last restraints on his power.