China's 2020 National People’s Congress and challenges ahead

Postponed at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak, China’s annual legislative assembly is set to take place in the imminent future. The meeting of almost 3000 delegates will signal a return to normalcy and be a chance for the Chinese leadership to reinforce its message of victory over Covid-19. However, rhetoric aside, it will have to confront serious social and economic challenges after the pandemic.
This file photo taken on March 8, 2019 shows a general view of the second plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Greg Baker/AFP)
This file photo taken on March 8, 2019 shows a general view of the second plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Greg Baker/AFP)

Chinese media reported that the lockdown of Wuhan City was lifted on 8 April 2020. However, this is not a full-scale lifting of the lockdown, but a limited and temporary measure. Chinese society has not escaped the threat of the Covid-19 coronavirus, an emerging infectious disease. The Communist Party has yet to succeed in pushing back the peril. 

There has been little visible movement towards holding the postponed National People’s Congress (NPC), usually held annually with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The Standing Committee of the NPC convened on 24 February 2020, and decided to postpone the NPC scheduled to be held on 5 March 2020.

The Committee explained that the postponement was aimed at prioritising operations to contain the emerging coronavirus that originated in the city of Wuhan, followed by its explosive proliferation in other parts of China. They believe the postponement was necessary to prevent the Covid-19 coronavirus from significantly impacting people’s lives and health (Note).

The spread of this coronavirus is not just an issue of people’s health and hygiene. It is a problem of public security and is deeply related to issues surrounding the legitimacy of the administration.   

The holding of the NPC carries with it the implication of a state declaration of safety. China claims that it has contained the epidemic at an early stage, and has started to actively support foreign nations in difficult situations. Certainly, this is a positive development.

At the same time, however, China is attempting to develop its position as a responsible great power, heeding its mantra to build “a community with a shared future for mankind” (人类命运共同体, a catchphrase of the Chinese Communist Party). It wants to play a leading role in the formation of an international cooperative network for the implementation of infection control measures. A resurgence of the Covid-19 coronavirus epidemic after the declaration of safety would adversely affect its aggressive efforts to strengthen its discursive power to achieve objectives in the international community.

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This file photo taken on March 5, 2019 shows Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) and Premier Li Keqiang (2nd R) singing the national anthem during the opening session of the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Greg Baker/AFP)

The holding of the NPC will also be important in the context of domestic politics in China. The spread of this coronavirus is not just an issue of people’s health and hygiene. It is a problem of public security and is deeply related to issues surrounding the legitimacy of the administration.   

Members of the Xi Jinping administration spoke, at an early stage, of the necessity of the prompt recovery of the economy from the damage inflicted by the epidemic. As of February, the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau (Politburo Standing Committee or PSC) and the Standing Committee of the State Council officially recognised the necessity of infection control measures, as well as the need to resume business operations and production at plants which had been suspended, and that of dealing with employment (unemployment) problems.

At the end of February, a national meeting to coordinate China's epidemic control and economic and social development was held, attended by all PSC members. Xi Jinping visited Zhejiang Province at the end of March to inspect the economic situation.

...the issues surrounding the employment of university graduates, military veterans and migrant workers (from the countryside) have been a longstanding challenge for Chinese society.

Building a “moderately affluent society” (小康社会)  is an actual accomplishment sought by the ruling Communist Party to win support from society and to reinforce regime legitimacy. The limiting of economic activities brought about by Covid-19 has damaged the party’s reputation. People’s jobs have become unstable, as seen in the case of migrant workers from the countryside who had been working in factories until operations were suspended, and service industry workers from companies that had lost business and customers due to the government’s lockdown restrictions. Guaranteeing employment opportunities for these workers is an urgent challenge that must be addressed for the Communist Party to rebuild their damaged reputation.

This summer, approximately 8.7 million students will graduate from university. Securing employment for them is also a vexing problem for the Chinese government. Li Keqiang, Premier of the State Council of China, pointed out in the government activity report submitted to the NPC in March 2019, that the issues surrounding the employment of university graduates, military veterans and migrant workers from the countryside have been a longstanding challenge for Chinese society. (NB: These challenges may not get any easier with latest statistics released a few days ago that China’s first-quarter GDP has shrunk for the first time in decades, recording a 6.8% dip.)

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Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting a village in Zhejiang, March 30, 2020. (Xinhua)

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS), which is in charge of social stability issues, takes part in the Leading Group of the CPC Central Committee for Covid-19 Prevention and Control established on January 25 2020 under Xi’s leadership. The MPS was also a member of the infection control team when SARS became a threat in 2003. This indicates the hidden nature of the social issues surrounding emerging infectious diseases.

The spread of an emerging infectious disease damages the Communist Party’s reputation which is built on sustaining an economy that supports the legitimacy of its control. The epidemic also impairs the safety of society, rather than simply damaging the health of the Chinese people. Xi is responding sensitively to the social criticism generated by this damage.

The leadership in China is noticeably seen as being driven into a passive position amid a diversifying society in its effort to win political legitimacy.

The government apparatus has been emphasising the appropriate and timely handling of the coronavirus epidemic to the people in China, in a bid to highlight the great wisdom of the Xi administration. It has announced that China’s expertise and the measures they have implemented have been highly regarded by overseas media. In addition, Chinese media are portraying the strength of Xi’s leadership, saying, “party, government, military, civilian and academic; east, west, south, north, and centre ⁠— the party leads everything”. However, in reality, Xi’s leadership is perceived in a different way in Chinese society.

Since the 1980s, successive Chinese administrations have been treading the path of a conversion to a market economy in order to respond to the people’s desire to enjoy an affluent lifestyle. As a result, Chinese leaders have to manage the challenge of maintaining centralised control of an increasingly diversified society. As China deals with this emerging infectious disease, this difficulty has persisted. The leadership in China is noticeably seen as being driven into a passive position amid a diversifying society in its effort to win political legitimacy. Deng Xiaoping once stated, “A revolutionary party does not fear the people’s cries of protest; what it fears most is their silence.” The Xi administration possesses that same anxiety.

Note:

According to China's state media, China's national "two sessions" (两会), the NPC and the CPPCC, could be postponed to May or even early June. China has also announced on 17 April that the 17th session of the Standing Committee of the 13th NPC, will be held in Beijing from April 26 to 29. It is said that this year's two sessions will focus on the impact of the pandemic and on China's development in the next five years. 

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