Focus on reform at China’s National People’s Congress

Largely ceremonial event offers insight into future political direction


Delegates in the red-draped Great Hall of the People in central Beijing for China’s tightly choreographed annual parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), are expected to approve efforts to keep President Xi Jinping’s reform plans on track.

The NPC is a largely ceremonial affair, which gives rubber-stamp approval to policy drafts that have already been hammered out and approved by the Communist Party’s senior leadership in closed-door meetings.

Mr Xi marks his first year as president this week, and the NPC will focus on pushing through the package of reforms decided at the Third Plenum meeting in November.

The event is characterised by synchronised rounds of applause and lots of promises to “unswervingly” follow Marxist Leninist diktats and promote the party.

The press corps has been told to not expect too much from the event, with a guide saying “no new laws or major law amendments are expected to be put before the legislators this year, and there will be no outstanding personnel changes for voting”.

But the gathering can give vital clues as to the direction of the world’s second biggest economy. Politically, it can also give insights into which way the wind is blowing.

How the wind blows
Purged one-time rising Communist Party star Bo Xilai was once a hero of the NPC, but at his last appearance two years ago he looked a shadow of his former self, and it was clear that his days among the political elite were numbered. Sure enough, within months of the NPC he was out.

This year there is speculation a similar fate could await China’s former security czar Zhou Yongkang.

The Global Times , the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, took the unusual step of running a story that relatives of Mr Zhou, a former member of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo, had been caught up in a corruption investigation.

This suggests an announcement could be imminent.

The parliamentary gathering is also one of the wealthiest in the world – there are over 80 dollar billionaires among its 5,000 delegates. The parliament is likely to reveal China’s economic growth target for this year, expected to be 7.5 per cent. The announcement will be accompanied by debate about how to keep the economy on track as it matures after decades of double-digit expansion.

The event is actually two political summits: the “liang hui”, which combines the annual sessions of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which began on Monday, and the National People’s Congress which meets today.

These days, austerity is the watchword. There are no luxury dishes on the menu at the NPC, as the crackdown on corruption continues, and only one bottle of water per participant, with no seconds until you finish the first bottle. Gone are the days when restaurants geared up their special menus for the visiting delegates, and prepared for a run on shark’s fin soup and abalone.

Ethnic tensions will overshadow proceedings after the knife rampage attack in Kunming in southwestern China, in which 29 civilians were killed.

Uighur separatists from the restive western province of Xinjiang have been blamed for the attack.

Mr Xi said China would work to preserve “ethnic unity”.

“We will build a ‘wall of bronze and iron’ for ethnic unity, social stability and national unity,” he said during a panel discussion with members from the minority ethnic groups of the CPPCC.

He said the tradition of all ethnic groups in the country “breathing the same air and sharing the same fate” should be handed down from generation to generation.

“Unity and stability are blessings, while secession and turmoil are disasters,” he said. “People of all ethnic groups of the country should cherish ethnic unity.” Already delegates at the CPPCC advisory board meeting held a silent tribute to the victims of the attack.

Premier Li Keqiang stressed that China must deepen reforms and maintain stable, sound economic growth as the country was still facing a complicated situation. Quoted by Xinhua, Mr Li urged economic restructuring and transformation of the growth model to improve the quality and efficiency of the economy.

Internet security is on the agenda too. Mr Xi has set up a steering group to oversee internet security and IT development, which he will head. It is a further step in Mr Xi’s consolidation of power after he became head of a new security commission in January.

Defence spending will be discussed as tensions intensify with China’s neighbours, especially Japan. The military spend rose 10.7 per cent last year.

NPC spokeswoman Fu Ying said China as a major power was responsible for regional peace and security. But “based on our history and experience, we believe that peace can only be maintained by strength”.

The skies over Beijing were clear and sunny yesterday, and last week’s hideous smog seems like a dim memory, but dealing with the potentially destabilising effects of pollution are on the agenda this year.

The legislature would “continue to review the environmental protection law draft amendment and plan for laws on water and soil pollution prevention and control”, Ms Fu said.

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