China prepares to stage parliamentary meeting as leaders look to send message of national unity

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The National People’s Congress (NPC) will give Chinese leaders an opportunity to highlight their success in containing the virus and underscore the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, as it faces a growing international backlash over its initial handling of the crisis.

The annual gatherings will also reveal Beijing’s plans for how to revive an economy battered by the devastating pandemic, which has led to the country’s first economic contraction after decades of continuous growth.

Like everything else disrupted by the pandemic, this year’s NPC meetings will not be the same as usual. Still cautious about a potential second wave of coronavirus infections, the Chinese government is not taking preventive measures lightly.

The congress will be truncated to just a week — about half of the usual duration. There will also be fewer press conferences, all of which will be held online via video-conferencing.

Only a select group of reporters will be allowed to cover the opening and closing ceremonies from the Great Hall of the People — after they pass coronavirus tests. But even for them, no public interviews will be allowed.

The highly choreographed gatherings of the rubber-stamp parliament and its advisory body have for decades been an important stage of political performance for Beijing. Although the event is more muted this year, its attempted political message is no less clear: China, unlike much of the rest of the world, is back to normal.

A news program shows Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking via video link to the World Health Assembly on a giant screen beside a street in Beijing on May 18.

Declaring victory over coronavirus

As nearly 3,000 delegates of the NPC descend in Beijing from around the country and prepare to gather for days inside the Great Hall of the People, many countries around the world are still under strict lockdown measures.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported the highest number of Covid-19 cases in a 24-hour period, with nearly two thirds of all cases coming from the United States, Russia, Brazil and India. Five million people have been infected across the globe, including more than 328,000 deaths.

In China, however, life has been slowly returning to normal since the virus was largely contained in March. The NPC gathering will be an opportunity for Beijing to remind citizens of that apparent victory and promote the narrative that the Communist Party — in particular its leader Xi Jinping — has saved the nation from the public health calamity, brushing aside criticism against its response to the initial outbreak in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected last December.

Back in late January and February, Chinese authorities faced roiling public anger at home for allegedly silencing medical workers who tried to sound the alarm on the virus and downplaying the severity of the outbreak.

But the Chinese government moved quickly to silence dissent, and public anger eventually subsided as the outbreak got under control. Chinese officials and state media have since sought to use the seemingly successful containment of the virus to rally national pride, hailing the country’s political system as its “biggest advantage” in overcoming the outbreak.

A man wearing a face mask ride tricycles to transport iron nets in Wuhan on May 11.
“Facing the sudden arrival of the epidemic, the CCP central leadership has paid high attention…and taken a series of decisive measures to prevent, control and treat (the disease),” Xi said at a meeting earlier this month.

“(We) only spent more than a month to preliminarily curb the spread of the epidemic, about two months to limit the daily increase of local cases within the single digits, and three months to achieve decisive outcomes in the battle of defending Wuhan and Hubei. This is not an easy achievement for a big nation like us with a population of 1.4 billion,” Xi said.

That message of success and unity will be amplified during the NPC meetings, as criticism from overseas intensifies. The spat between Beijing and Washington over the coronavirus has sent their already strained relations to a new low. Politicians in France, Australia and the UK have also questioned China’s handling of the outbreak. Facing increasing challenges abroad, Beijing is likely to work to consolidate control and leadership at home, as it seeks to restore its economy in the shadow of the pandemic.

Reviving the economy

As Premier Li Keqiang delivers the central government’s work report to the NPC delegates on Friday morning, all eyes will be on whether he will announce a growth target for the Chinese economy this year.

The world’s second largest economy has taken a huge hit from the coronavirus outbreak, as lockdown measures brought much of the country to a halt from late January to March. China’s gross domestic product shrunk 6.8% in the first quarter this year — the worst plunge since quarterly records began in 1992.
80 million Chinese may already be out of work. 9 million more will soon be competing for jobs, too

The Chinese Communist Party has pledged to double the size of the economy from 2010 by the end of 2020 — a goal that could be difficult to reach in the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, as growth had already slowed due to a prolonged trade war with the United States.

Justin Lin Yifu, a Chinese economist and influential government adviser, estimates that China needs to achieve at least 5.6% growth this year in order to realize that goal.
The year of 2020 is also the deadline for the Communist Party to eliminate poverty in China — a major policy goal of Xi’s.

Li is also expected to announce this year’s target for unemployment rate — which the Chinese government considers a key factor in maintaining social stability. Like elsewhere in the world, the pandemic has put many people out of work in China. The government’s official unemployment rate for March was 5.9%, meaning more than 27 million people were jobless. However, some analysts expect the real number to be as high as 80 million, if including migrant workers.

CNN’s Steven Jiang in Beijing contributed to reporting.

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