China’s annual congress to focus on ‘shortcomings’ in health laws

Rescheduled general assembly to take place next month against backdrop of coronavirus

China’s top legislature has announced it will hold its annual meeting next month after postponing it for the first time in decades due to the spread of coronavirus, with a key focus of the session to be fixing the “shortcomings and deficiencies” in the public health legislation exposed by the pandemic.

The standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) said on Wednesday the annual general assembly rescheduled from March would begin on May 22nd – a move that signals the Communist Party believes the outbreak is finally under control domestically.

China’s rate of new infections has reduced dramatically over the past month, with health officials reporting 22 cases on Wednesday – all but one an imported infection – bringing its total to 82,858. The death toll stands at 4,633, with no new fatalities reported for the past two weeks.

Thousands of delegates from across the country convene in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing each year to vote on legislation, adopt budgets, and discuss work reports, economic targets and policy objectives.

Global interest

A rigidly choreographed gathering, it is widely seen as a rubber-stamping session to publicly endorse the decisions already made by the party’s top leadership, but it generates global interest as a key opportunity to gauge China’s priorities for the year ahead.

An NPC spokesman said on Wednesday that in addition to the five-year legislative plan already in place, the congress had developed plans to revise or write 17 health-related laws “in view of the shortcomings and deficiencies exposed in epidemic prevention and control”.

China’s public health laws had played an important role in controlling the epidemic, he said, “however, this epidemic response also revealed that there are still gaps, weaknesses, and shortcomings in the relevant laws, which need to be formulated and revised accordingly”.

He did not elaborate on the shortcomings in the current legal structure, but said the legislation under discussion would include a revision to the animal epidemic prevention law and a draft biosecurity law. New laws aimed at prohibiting the trade and consumption of wildlife were already in the pipeline, he said.

Chinese scientists have said the coronavirus originated in a market in Wuhan which sold wild animals alongside standard meat, fish, vegetable and fruit stalls. They believe a bat was the original host and the virus likely passed via an intermediary host, possibly a pangolin, before jumping to humans. Their search for the original "patient zero" is ongoing.

Unfounded speculation

Some US media and politicians have put forward unfounded speculation the virus may have originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where they claim it may have been manufactured or purposefully manipulated – an allegation that is widely rejected by international scientists.

The World Health Organisation said available evidence indicates the virus originated in animals and was not manipulated or produced in a laboratory, and a statement in the Lancet medical journal by public health officials said they "overwhelmingly conclude" the virus originated in wildlife.

But the possibility the virus was naturally occurring and had accidently leaked from a Chinese research facility due to a security lapse was “certainly an option”, according to one western diplomat in Beijing.

“We have no evidence to prove or disprove that at this point, but that is certainly something we are not ruling out,” he said. “We are not sure if we should be pleased to see new biosecurity laws being introduced now or be concerned about that.”

Peter Goff

Peter Goff

Peter Goff, a contributor to The Irish Times, formerly reported from China