There will be two reasons why the convening of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC) will be unique this year. The first is that it will be the first time this meeting has been delayed from its March slot since the 1980s, when it started to be held with something like regularity as part of the Deng era institution building reforms. The second is that it will be the first that might turn out to be genuinely revealing and information. The cause for both of these happens to be the same: COVID-19.
Usually, the whole point of a NPC meeting is to ensure that there are no surprises. Demonstration of control is the order of the day. Delegates largely agree with what is put before them. Votes are passed with immense supportive majorities. In the past, even the most contentious issues like the Three Gorges dam in the early 1990s were passed, despite a third of the votes being against them. In China, this sort of opposition is unprecedented. Announcements that are made about the economy and growth are largely devoid of any true shock value and confirm what has already been said. Consolidation, reassurance, and coherence – these are the key qualities that a NPC has had to embody.
This year, though, the COVID-19 impact on society, and the economy, and on domestic politics, will overshadow everything else. Here China is not alone. The rest of the world is in the same situation. And Chinese leaders from Xi Jinping downwards are going to have to navigate a number of hard, sharp issues.
The first is to decide what explanatory narrative to impose on COVID-19. Triumphalism will be the order of the day, no doubt. But too much of this and it will risk antagonising groups inside and outside the country. In the outside world, many feel that China is the blame for the crisis that they are now facing and needs to be held to account. A NPC trumpeting the country’s great success will only serve to add fire to their anger, and isolate China further. For the domestic audience too, to much self-praise by the Party state is not wholly straightforward. It will sound as though it was compensating for something, and raise questions amongst many which, while unlikely to be uttered aloud, will worryingly linger there. Why was the government so slow at the start of the problem to spot it; why did local officials act the way they did; why did people who originally noticed the issue in Wuhan, the epicentre of the problem, get treated the way they did by police and others? Explaining how the problems happened, and why it happened, will be one aspect of the NPC function. But overexplaining might end up as problematic as saying too little. Getting the right balance between sounding competent and confident or sounding shrill and secretly uneasy will not be easy. But in his government word report, this will the sort of task that Premier Li Keqiang will need to achieve.
Beyond this, there will loom the economy. The battleground for China has now shifted from fighting the immediate public health crisis to looking at how to restore to health growth, industrial output, and a heap of other indicators that at the moment look like they are on life support. During SARS almost two decades ago, the country took a huge economic pounding for one quarter, but then restored things to where they were before the whole catastrophe happened. This time, however, things are certainly going to be far harder. The figures for the first quarter of 2020 released late last month were terrible – far deeper than people expected, with 6.8 per cent in the red. Getting to something approaching parity will be a gargantuan task. Hauling the country to somewhere approaching the 5 per cent target to ensure the economy doubled in the decade 2010 to 2020 till not be easy. The Communist Party under Xi has aimed to not live or die just because of simple data like GDP figures. It wants to be judged on more complex measures. Now is the time that this aspiration will be put to the test as never before.
The Chinese government faces this vast task at a time when it looks like its economy is only operating on 90 per cent. And in China, 90 per cent is not nearly enough. In fact, sometimes it seems like 100 per cent is underdoing it. The aspirations of the Chinese middle class, on which the Xi leadership depend so much, have not suddenly become more amenable to flat or negative growth. They will want to see some announcements at this NPC that, prompted by the unique circumstances of the pandemic, show real responsiveness, and actually mean something for them. For sure, they can’t vote the Party out. But they will need to be motivated and mobilised, and a flat, business as usual message will not be enough. They will want to be inspired, and made to feel that the Xi government has a plan to get out of the morass they are currently in, and that this plan is something they can take a part in.
Let’s face it. For China’s global role, too, how it handles this economic part matters more than any other. If China can be the first to restore itself, it stands the real chance of seeing an outside world from the US, to Europe, reeling from the impact of COVID-19, but not able to respond as fast, or as well. In that situation, China really enjoys a win-win – winning in turning fortunes round in China, but also winning in improving its power and status in the world outside. At the NPC this year we shall see if the Xi leadership really do believe that socialism with Chinese characteristics supplies answers other approaches simply cannot. It will either be that, or a moment of stark exposure. For once, this year, the NPC really does have the potential to be significant, and dramatic, event.