BEIJING (AP) — China began its most important political event of the year Thursday, bringing together 2,000 delegates in surgical masks, after a two-month delay because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The opening of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body, will be followed Friday by the start of the 3,000-member National People's Congress, China's largely ceremonial legislature.
The holding of the “two sessions,” as the annual meetings are known, is a further sign of what the ruling Communist Party says is its success in bringing the outbreak under control, though clusters of cases are still popping up in some parts of the country.
Members of the Consultative Conference will “tell the world about how China, as a responsible major country, has taken firm action and contributed to international cooperation in the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic,” Wang Yang, the chairman of the body, said in a report to the opening session.
Wang’s comments were in the prepared text distributed to journalists, although he skipped over them in his delivery, apparently to save time.
Rank-and-file members wore masks in the vast auditorium inside the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing. Other top officials, including Wang and President Xi Jinping, did not.
Premier Li Keqiang will deliver a keynote speech outlining economic and social goals for the year at Friday's opening of the National People’s Congress.
It remains unclear whether Li will issue the usual economic growth target for the world’s second-largest economy. Given the economic devastation caused so far this year by the pandemic, any target would likely be considerably lower than last year’s 6.0% to 6.5%.
Tens of millions of Chinese have been thrown out of work and it’s unclear how many jobs will return. Not only have domestic production and demand been hammered, but key export markets such as the United States and Europe have collapsed as the outbreak spreads worldwide.
This year’s meeting of the two bodies is being shortened to one week from the usual two as part of virus-control measures. Media access has been largely reduced and only a limited number of reporters, diplomats and observers were permitted into the meeting hall.
Backed by massive state propaganda support, Xi has received plaudits at home for having contained the virus, even while the U.S. and others question China’s handling of the initial outbreak.
The Chinese public is also largely seen as backing Xi's tough approach to foreign policy challenges, including criticism from the U.S., Australia and others.
Abroad, however, that policy has further bolstered concerns about China’s intentions. The Trump administration issued a 20-page report Wednesday attacking what it called Beijing’s predatory economic policies, military buildup, disinformation campaigns and human rights violations.
That may ultimately add to Xi’s difficulties in reviving economic growth and jobs at a time when global markets are partly shut and skepticism toward China runs high.
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