The eyes of much of the world were focused on Beijing during the last week of May. That was because China had scheduled for that time-perod what is generally collectively termed “Two Sessions” or Lianghui in Mandarin. These are back-to-back annual parliamentary meetings of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC). The event usually take place in March, but this year had to be pushed back to May because of the COVID virus. Again, ordinarily, these last ten days, but this year, for the same reason, the period was compressed to a week.
The first, the CCPPC, which has 2000 representatives drawn from different segments of society is considered the country’s foremost political advisory body, is mandated to make proposals and advance policy suggestions to the government. At this meeting they offered hundreds of proposals on public health security. This session, which kicks of the Liangui, was followed as is wont, by the session of the NPC, which, with its 3000 delegates is usually considered the nation’s legislative organ. It is tasked to review and endorse the government’s immediate past and future work, adopt fresh legislation, approve the budget and ratify senior administrative appointments. Unsurprisingly, of the two sessions, that of the NPC is more keenly watched.
In the past China’s “Two sessions” had rarely not gripped the global media. These did not feature the lively debates of the British House of Commons, or the hullaballoo of the Indian Lok Sabha. But currently the attention has grown enormously. This is in tandem of the perceptible rise of China, not only as the world’s second largest economy, but also as a superpower peer. Behind the veneer of apparently staid rubber stamp Chinese bodies, the international media and global powers are now aware that huge politics are at play, and they are at pains to discern their intricacies. The speeches made there are seriously parsed and the body-language of the key participants carefully noted and analyzed. For all are aware that what happens during these deliberations in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, do not remain in Beijing but have a huge impact on the world beyond.
A major event in the NPC, as is always the case, was the presentation of the Annual work Report by Premier Li Keqiang. In this session stabilizing employment, ensuring living standards and eliminating poverty were the key themes. Li announced fiscal and monetary policies to stimulate the economy, but with a modicum of restraint. He noted the challenges in the external environment posed by the China-United states strategic rivalry, the global recession, and the anti-globalization sentiments. He made known that domestic consumption, and advances in high technology, would be the key components of China’s response.
Economists and financial analysts waited with bated breath to see if Li would declare a growth target in this pandemic year. He did not. Last year he had set it at between 6 to 6.5 percent of the GDP, a modest one by Chinese standards, and it did grow by 6.1 per cent, in the midst of a fierce trade war with the US. Showing prudence, this year he eschewed naming a growth figure number. He attributed this to “the COVID-19 and the world economic and trade environment”. To spur the economy, China would raise the budget deficit target from 2.8 per cent of the GDP last year to3.6 per cent, breaching the self-imposed traditional ceiling of 3 per cent. Also, a 1 trillion yuan special government bond was to be issued. A logical take-away of the observers was that China was adjusting to realities of the situation, but confident of a recovery, and indeed of leading the way in this regard.
The main outcome, that dominated overseas commentary, came with the decision to impose national security legislation in Hong Kong. Such an attempt was made in the past in 2003, but withdrawn after half a million protesters took to the streets in Hong Kong .Since Hon Kong’s return to China in 1997, the former British Colony had been governed under a “one country, two systems” principle , guaranteeing a high degree of autonomy for 50 years, with Beijing controlling defence and foreign affairs. This also facilitated special trade privileges from the US, upon certification of the State Department of the continuation of such autonomy. The legislation, likely to be implemented this summer would allow for “relevant security organs” to set up units in Hong Kong, raising fears among some Hong Kongers that the “two systems” principle would be eroded, though Beijing denied it , citing the narrow and specific focus of the law.
Unconvinced by Beijing’s explanation, thousands of demonstrators hit the streets. Scenes created brought back memories of the chaos of last year’s anti-government protests. But the fact that after seventeen years Beijing had resurrected the legislation displayed confidence in their capabilities this time round. This, despite their full awareness that the US and the West would react adversely. China obviously believes it has come a long way since 2003. The United Kingdom immediately made an offer of the possibilities of citizenship to Hong Kongers choosing to make such application. The US State Department denied the ‘autonomy ‘certification that was necessary for continued trade privileges. President Donald Trump, already making his anti-China agenda a key plank of his re-election campaign, immediately revoked Hong Kong’s trade privileges, stating that the island would be treated at par with China.
Ironically, this may be exactly what China wants; that Hong Kong is organically its part! Beijing must have calculated that it has sufficient fiscal wherewithal to counter major dents to Honk Kong’s economy by US actions. Though it appears to deny it , it may actually have other options as economic hubs, should Hong Kong fail to retain this status, though it is difficult to see, at least at this time, how the western system would accept such alternatives. However, one never knows. There is another irony in these developments. Criticizing civil rights violations, as she perceived it, the US Congressional Speaker, Nancy Pelosi had described the earlier chaotic demonstrations in Hong Kong as “a beautiful sight”. Then, in Minneapolis in the US, a black man George Floyd, died, not in the hands, but by the knee of a white policeman, pressed against his neck , till life slowly ebbed away from him , in full view of onlookers. Violent rioting ensued as a result, from coast to coast in America, led by black minorities, still raging at the time of writing, causing huge destruction in their trail. China’s media pointed to this, and simply repeated Pelosi’s remarks that it was “a beautiful sight”!
Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh.