The Chinese Communist Party puts on a brave face

The Chinese Communist Party puts on a brave face

China's President Xi Jinping (top C) attends the second plenary session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 25, 2020. (Credit: AFP Photo)

The National People’s Congress (NPC) of China meets every year at the end of  March. The NPC is the highest legislative and representative body of China and it has the power to make and implement laws. The 2020 NPC meetings were delayed by two months this time because of COVID-19 pandemic that originated from Wuhan in China. 

The third session of the 13th NPC began on May 21, 2020, and the discussions carried on for just one week, less than the usual schedule. The successful completion of the meetings will be seen as one of the major symbols of going back to normalcy within Chinese domestic politics. It will also be regarded as a show of strength and belief by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and leadership and position of Xi Jinping. 

The NPC has been a platform which the CCP uses to express its future plans as well as an opportunity to discuss the achievements of the past year. This year, NPC can be regarded as pretty interesting from this point of view. 

The Chinese handling of COVID-19 outbreak has been continuously criticised globally. The Chinese government has used the pandemic to increase domestic monitoring and surveillance. Even though the CCP will be projecting an image of success, there are debates regarding the outbreak of a second wave of COVID-19. In addition to this, the slowdown of the economy will further restrict the CCP’s space for future projections of growth and development.

China-US ties in the backdrop

The NPC was also held in the backdrop of the ongoing China-US trade war, which is further intensified because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The constant push by the United States to term the virus as the ‘Wuhan virus’ and the resistance from Beijing has harmed the already fragile relationship. 

The pandemic has also aggravated anti-China and anti-Chinese sentiments within the United States. Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, speaking during the NPC about China-US relations said: “The US has made up so many lies and brewed so many plots about China that they can be compiled into a collection”. He further asserted that Washington was pushing for a ‘new Cold War’ which will not be beneficial for anyone. 

Such accusations and mistrust will only harm their relationship and will adversely affect the existing global economic structure. If the Chinese government wants to achieve its goal of increasing domestic growth figures there will be an urgent need to restore broken trade links. With the global economy suffering, the impact of the Chinese economy on this is going to be further harming. Even though Beijing has been showing its intent to accept some demands of changes put forth by the United States, it may not be enough in the post-COVID-19 environment.

Focus on Chinese economy

In his speech, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang acknowledged that domestic consumption within China was on a decline and there was also rising unemployment. He further accepted that the challenges before China and the current leadership are unprecedented. Such challenges call for faith in the system and leadership. The speech focussed on some major areas which need the government’s attention in the coming year: Increasing domestic demand, maintaining social stability, reducing poverty, stabilising the domestic economy, fulfilling the promise of a moderately prosperous economy. However, no growth rate and figure were identified for the coming year. 

Another important point would be Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). BRI has been Xi’s pet project and the Chinese government has made huge investments with partner nations, totalling up to $100 billion at the end of 2019. No doubt that this will be a cause of concern keeping in view the slowing growth rates. 

In his speech, Li Keqiang mentioned: “The joint efforts to pursue the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) yielded fresh results. Regulations for the implementation of the Foreign Investment Law were adopted, and the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone Lin'gang New Area was established”. However, countries which were heavily integrated within the BRI have faced a major brunt of the pandemic. The economies of these countries will not be stable anytime soon and Beijing may find it difficult to earn returns on investments already made.

All this aside, the major focus of NPC was to project the government’s stance on domestic disease and control. China has been faced with a number of such issues in the last two decades. Thus no surprise that Xi Jinping in his speech at the NPC asserted the need for the establishment of a proper mechanism. As per the China Daily, Xi said: “...the system of surveillance for unknown diseases and abnormal health incidents should be reformed and risks should be analysed at an early stage. He also instructed authorities to strengthen capacity building in the response to outbreaks”.

Hong Kong remains a headache

Another major point which gained attention is the situation in Hong Kong. There have been major domestic protests within Hong Kong since June 2019. There is a growing unease among the citizens of Hong Kong towards the CCP and the intention of Beijing to reduce the already limited democratic space within Hong Kong. The victory of the pro-democracy supporters in the September 2019 local council elections has further upset Beijing. 

During the NPC, the Chinese government implemented the National Security Law in Hong Kong. While discussing this, Wang Yi had asserted that this law will not affect the general population of Hong Kong. He added that, however, it “aims to punish the small minority of people who jeopardise the national security…it will not influence the high autonomy of the SAR, the rights and freedom of Hong Kong residents as well as the legitimate rights and interests of the foreign investors”. 

The situation on the ground contradicts such claims as the Chinese government is monitoring people’s Twitter accounts and other social media debates. Recent reports suggest that there has been an increase in the demand for VPNs in Hong Kong as people fear that the CCP will start to censor social media.

The third session of the 13th NPC has raised more questions than it has managed to answer. The Chinese government has made a number of promises but has not provided any proper roadmap to achieve these. It appears that the major achievement of this year’s NPC is that the CCP was able to organise the meetings.

It wanted to send a message of resilience to both the domestic and international audiences. The promises of better health care and the government’s commitment to resolve poverty and unemployment will appeal to the masses. However, add this with its approach towards Hong Kong and the United States and there is also a hint of rallying domestic nationalistic feelings behind the CCP at a time of a major legitimacy crisis.

(Dr Gunjan Singh is an assistant professor at the Jindal Global Law School. She has 10 years of experience in research pertaining to China Studies)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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