Chinese leaders to claim victory over virus at parliament meeting

Thousands of delegates are set to convene next week at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People for the annual parliamentary session, where political elites will defend their tackling of the coronavirus crisis and announce ways to aid the struggling economy.

The coronavirus outbreak, which started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December before turning into a global pandemic, will tower over the most important political meeting of the year.

The National People’s Congress is set to begin May 22 after being postponed for more than two months due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Some 3,000 delegates are expected to gather for the meeting, which takes place around the same time as the annual session of a top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

The two events are known together as the Two Sessions.

The meetings’ priority will be to reinforce the narrative that China has done a good job handling the coronavirus crisis, observers say, at a time when Western leaders are seeking to hold Beijing accountable for the devastation the virus has caused in their countries.

US President Donald Trump said Thursday that Beijing’s failure to stop the virus at the source “was either stupidity, incompetence or it was deliberate,” as he mulled about cutting off the United States’ ties with China. 

Meanwhile, the European Union is demanding an investigation into the virus’ origin. China has pushed back against the inquiry and insists that countries should focus instead on fighting the pandemic.

“Under the current tremendous pressure at home and abroad, it is necessary to affirm the measures taken by local bureaucrats and political elites in fighting the epidemic during the Two Sessions,” said independent political analyst Wu Qiang.

China considers the virus largely contained. Authorities have announced only a handful of new coronavirus cases per day for the past few weeks, while some cities, including Beijing, are seen as virtually coronavirus-free.

“In general, there will be a lot of celebration of patriotism because China has succeeded in containing the epidemic whereas the US has not,” said Willy Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

Another important message, Lam said, will be a call to all sectors of the economy to make up for the time lost during coronavirus-related closures.

China’s economy plunged 6.8 per cent in the first quarter of the year, the first such decline since quarterly records began in 1992, according to official data. Economic indicators released Friday showed an uneven recovery in April, with industrial output growing 3.9 per cent year-on-year, while retail sales fell 7.5 per cent and fixed-asset investment dropped 10.3 per cent.

Usually, Premier Li Keqiang announces an economic growth target at the parliamentary session, but this year, the government might abstain from putting forward a number. If it does, it will probably be lower than 5 per cent, said economic analyst Ye Tan. This would make it the smallest such target in more than three decades.

The government is also rolling out a large stimulus package, with new projects already announced in the areas of infrastructure construction and investment in high tech industries such as 5G and data centres.

The strategy is reminiscent of China’s investment push to avoid the effects of the 2008 global recession, which ultimately led to ballooning public and private debt.  

President Xi Jinping has used the parliamentary sessions over the past few years to cement his grip on power. Xi, who has cleared the way for himself to rule indefinitely, is seen as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

A slew of crises over the last year – including the trade war with the US, protests in Hong Kong and the coronavirus outbreak – have caused Xi embarrassment but will not prevent the political elites from rallying around him as usual, Lam said. 

Read also: China’s Wuhan says tested almost a third of residents for coronavirus since April

“The outbreak of the coronavirus has made him lose face, has cast doubt on his ability to run the country,” Lam said. “But the fact that it has been contained and that things are much worse in the US, this will help him say that he is a competent leader and his power remains unchallenged.” (dpa)

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