China's rubber-stamp parliament to begin meetings, hand Xi third term

Matthew Walsh - Philstar.com
China's rubber-stamp parliament to begin meetings, hand Xi third term
China's President Xi Jinping applauds during the opening ceremony of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 4, 2023.
AFP / Noel Celis

BEIJING, China — China's rubber-stamp parliament kicks off nine days of meetings Sunday, with lawmakers set to hand Xi Jinping a third term as president as well as unveil fresh growth targets and an increase in defence spending.

There will be few surprises at the carefully choreographed National People's Congress, analysts say, with thousands of politicians flown in from across China to vote on laws and personnel changes pre-approved by the ruling Communist Party (CCP). 

Top of the agenda will be the norm-busting reappointment of Xi as president, after he locked in another five years as head of the party and the military -- the two more significant leadership positions in Chinese politics -- in an October congress.

Since then, the 69-year-old Xi's leadership has faced unexpected challenges and scrutiny, with mass protests over his zero-Covid policy and its subsequent abandonment that saw a deadly coronavirus surge.

But those issues are almost certain to be avoided at this week's Beijing conclave, which will also see the unveiling of a Xi confidant and former Shanghai party chief as the new premier.

Security was tighter than usual around the capital's centre on Saturday ahead of the meeting, with clusters of guards and armed police stationed along major roads and at junctions and bridges.

No challengers

Xi enjoys a "pretty strong" position at the top of the party that makes him virtually unchallengeable, Alfred Muluan Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told AFP.

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said Xi now had an opportunity to flaunt his response to the pressure created by last year's unrest.

"He acted decisively when the protests included calls for him and the CCP to step down. He quashed them and removed the basic cause," he told AFP.

"He can present himself as leading from the front, rather than being pushed to react."

Also on the cards for lawmakers will be China's slowing economy, as well as an increase in the defence budget, the second-largest in the world.

"The increase in defence spending responds to the needs of complex security challenges and the need to carry out the obligations of a major country," NPC spokesperson Wang Chao told a press conference on Saturday.

Also expected among the first declarations is a target for GDP growth over the coming 12 months, announced by outgoing Premier Li Keqiang at Sunday's opening ceremony in the Great Hall of the People.

An AFP survey of analysts showed economists expect an average growth goal of 5.3 percent -- one of the party's lowest in decades.

Last year, the economy expanded just three percent, one of its weakest periods in decades on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdowns and a property crisis.

Delegates to the NPC -- and to the concurrent "political consultative conference" (CPPCC) which began on Saturday -- will also discuss a range of issues from the economic recovery to improved sex education in schools, according to state media reports.

The meetings serve as a forum for attendees to present pet projects, but they have little say in broader questions of how China is run.

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