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Virus wrecks China’s Congress season

Beijing is set to postpone its annual parliamentary session and the plenary meeting of its top political advisory body, as the top leaders’ penchant for rituals gives way to caution and pragmatism.

This year’s sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – otherwise known as “the two sessions” – slated for early March, will be moved back indefinitely, as suggested by the two bodies’ standing committees. 

The decision to defer the two sessions marks a departure from the norm over the past 35 years of convening an assembly of the 3,000-plus NPC and CPPCC deputies in March for pro forma approval of a report on the central government’s work, as well as its budget for the new year.

Beijing did not put off the two sessions in 2003 despite the SARS epidemic, so delaying the events this year is an indication of the severity of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The ‘Wuhan virus’ has taken a considerable toll on society – with over 72,530 cases reported as of noon on Tuesday, including 1,895 new infections nationwide.

Xi, other top leaders and NPC deputies sit inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during 2019’s two sessions. Photos: Xinhua

Beijing has realized that since numerous representatives are party chiefs and heads of provincial and municipal governments – fighting the spread of the epidemic in their regions – summoning them to the Great Hall of the People may trigger a backlash and undermine work that they have already undertaken.

The risk of cross-infection is also there when an auditorium is packed full of the nation’s senior bureaucrats, generals and intellectuals, who matter most in the running of the party and the state. Those from Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province, where the outbreak originated, also pose significant threats to others. 

Meanwhile, Beijing’s municipal government has gazetted a sweeping 14-day quarantine order on anyone who enters the capital. Total cases there now number 387, with four deaths. 

Observers say the two sessions are mocked as “hurrah ceremonies” where representatives applaud the appearance of top leaders and rubber-stamp whatever bills are tabled on edicts from the party. So, postponing them will not have much impact, as real decisions are made by Xi Jinping and members of his coterie.

A NPC deputy in Hong Kong also told reporters that he would not fly to Beijing to attend a standing committee discussion next week, as it would be replaced by a video conference. 

There are concerns, however, over the central government’s coffers drying up, if there is a delay in the NPC approving a new budget. Yet, Beijing has a lot to choose from its toolbox, and has doled out aid to small- and mid-sized enterprises, notably those in the ailing hospitality and catering sectors. It has also ordered the People’s Bank of China to lift the floodgates for liquidity of at least 1.7 trillion yuan (US$242 billion) – a move that has been likened to a helicopter money drop.

President Xi Jinping, who presides over the two sessions each year, will have his schedule rearranged with the latest changes. He may face more calls to visit Wuhan, where streets and hospitals are crawling with the deadly pathogen, now that he no longer needs to oversee preparations for the two sessions. 

In fact, Xi has not been seen by the public since February 10, when he inspected hospitals and community service centers in Beijing. Questions are being asked if Xi, who has amassed virtually all power and become the most domineering leader since Deng Xiaoping, has the courage to visit Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, to show his care for the half a million or so people said to have the virus.

Xi’s most recent public appearance was on February 10, when he inspected hospitals in Beijing. Photos: Xinhua

Xi did convene two meetings on February 12 and 14 on the fight against the virus, yet state broadcaster China Central Television did not air footage of the meetings, hinting at Xi’s unease about the virus, and no reporters or photographers had been allowed into Zhongnanhai – to minimize any risk of infection. 

NPC deputies
Xi, other top leaders and NPC deputies sit inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during 2019's two sessions. Photos: Xinhua

A recent speech by Xi published in state media outlets on Saturday indicated for the first time that he had been leading the response to the health crisis from early on. Release of the speech was an apparent attempt to proclaim that he acted decisively from the beginning, when reports about a mysterious infectious disease in Wuhan were given to him in early January.

But the move also opened the top leader to criticism and why the public was not alerted until at the end of that month. 

In the speech, Xi said he gave instructions on fighting the virus on January 7 and ordered the shutdown of Wuhan – an order that was allegedly not implemented until January 23.


AF China Bond