Xi Jinping the focus as China’s annual parliament gathers

National People’s Congress to give indication as to China’s future direction and policy

Delegates leave the Great Hall of the People. President Xi Jinping will swear an oath to uphold China’s constitution. But first, he will remake it in his own image, legally formalising his almost limitless mandate. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty

Delegates leave the Great Hall of the People. President Xi Jinping will swear an oath to uphold China’s constitution. But first, he will remake it in his own image, legally formalising his almost limitless mandate. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty

 

The red flags are flying outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, soldiers stand guard along the Avenue of Eternal Peace, and thousands of delegates, mostly Communist Party cadres, are gathered for China’s annual parliament.

The two sessions – lianghui in Chinese – begin on Saturday with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) advisory body, followed by the National People’s Congress, which rubber-stamps various policies presented by the Communist Party leadership.

The event has always been more about style than substance, as delegates dutifully applaud and approve policies laid out by the Communist Party elite, and analysts read between the lines of the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric for insights into what China’s secretive core leadership really thinks.

This year’s event has taken on a fresh significance because of a bombshell proposal to amend the Chinese constitution to remove term limits on leadership, paving the way for President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely.

“Clearly the constitutional change will be the major development,” said Alexander Dukalskis, assistant professor in the school of politics and international relations at University College Dublin, who specialises in authoritarian states and Asian politics. “The NPC . . . will be expected to fall in line,” he said.

Ho-Fung Hung, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, reckons approval of the constitutional change would be a major victory for Xi.

“If it is realised, Xi will be the most powerful leader of China since Deng Xiaoping, despite the fact that his achievements are minute compared to Deng and Mao [Zedong] and Deng.

“Xi sees himself as a transformative leader. If Mao liberated China and Deng made China rich, Xi wants to make China powerful,” said Dukalskis.

Indefinite rule

While the proposal to end fixed-term presidencies will have a big impact on proceedings, the presidency is not the key power position in China. Xi Jinping’s true power derives from his role as general secretary of the Communist Party, and the guidelines there are only that a leader cannot rule indefinitely.

“Xi could have wielded power even without holding the presidency. In many ways this makes the state constitutional change an audacious move. It is perhaps the clearest signal yet that Xi intends to be around for a long time,” said Dukalskis.

As well as the proposed amendments of the Chinese constitution, other big events at the NPC could include the announcement of a new economic team, as well as the approval of a law establishing a new anti-corruption body.

With China’s relations to its neighbours suffering from territorial disputes in the South China Sea, monitoring the country’s military budget is always of international interest and more spending is expected on the People’s Liberation Army.

Anti-corruption czar

And analysts will be closely watching to see if the rumours prove true that former anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan will assume the vice presidency, with the brief of special envoy to the Trump administration.

Wang stepped down last year from the standing committee of the politburo as he reached the age of 69. If he is indeed appointed as vice-president, it removes obstacles to Xi, who is 64, from staying in his current positions beyond 2022.

While some see Wang as an ally of Xi, Hung believes the relationship is not as close as many believe, because Wang is a protege of former leader Zhu Rongji, whose faction has commanded the financial system since the 1990s.

“Nobody can claim to have supreme power without assuming control of the financial system,” said Hung.

“If Wang ascends to the vice-presidency, the two-terms limit of which was also ditched, he will continue to be an indispensable leader. As such, the relation between Xi and Wang will be very interesting to watch,” said Hung.

The prospects of the gathering taking place under blue skies are good, as great advances have been made in efforts to combat smog in the capital, although the early part of last week was very polluted.

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