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Haunted by virus, China gears up for annual congress
[BEIJING] China's biggest political event of the year opens Friday after months of delay over coronavirus fears, with President Xi Jinping determined to project strength and control over the outbreak despite international criticism and a wounded economy.
The 3,000 members of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's legislature, will gather in Beijing this week in highly choreographed meetings to rubber-stamp bills, budgets and personnel moves.
The annual gatherings have been occasions for the Communist Party to tout its achievements, set the country's economic agenda and consolidate Mr Xi's power.
But this year's congress comes on the back of the biggest challenge of Mr Xi's political life, with a virus that has killed thousands of people, paralysed the world's second-biggest economy and sparked a bout of online criticism of the government.
The Communist Party put off the "Two Sessions", originally scheduled for March, for the first time since the Cultural Revolution as the country battled the coronavirus, which surfaced in the central city of Wuhan late last year.
Since then, China's official case numbers have dwindled even as millions were infected abroad, with Beijing now positioning itself as a success story and potential saviour for the world, offering billions of dollars in aid to fight the virus.
"This year's Two Sessions will likely be an occasion for Xi Jinping to declare complete victory in the 'people's war' over the virus," Diana Fu, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told AFP.
But the atmosphere will continue to be "solemn and tense" amid fears of new infections, Gu Su, a professor of law and philosophy at Nanjing University, said.
The congress is expected to span seven days this year instead of the usual two weeks, state media reported.
Government officials who are not NPC representatives have been ordered to use video links and conference calls to observe the meetings instead of attending them in person, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Journalists have been asked to follow most meetings via online video, while those living outside China have not been invited to report on the sessions.
Beijing has sought to turn the pandemic into a propaganda victory despite earlier public discontent about the government's handling of the crisis, with Mr Xi declaring in March that the virus had been "basically curbed".
The central government has focused the blame for the pandemic's early spread on local officials in the hardest-hit Hubei province, while state media has played up the contrast between China's gradual return to normal life and continued chaos abroad in recent weeks.
But economic uncertainty exacerbated by virus shutdowns poses a longer-term threat to the party's legitimacy, analysts said.
"I hope the country can support the employment of college students," Feng Anni, a 20-year-old university student in Wuhan, told AFP.
"A large number of people of different ages are facing unemployment."
China's economy contracted for the first time in decades in the first quarter.
"Delivering on basic subsistence rights is central to the Party's political legitimacy," Prof Fu told AFP.
All eyes will be on Premier Li Keqiang's annual work report, in which he is expected to announce the country's economic growth targets and stimulus measures.
"I predict that the premier's political work report will not clearly define this year's development target number, but may instead be a principled formulation or wider range, something that has never happened in the past few decades," Prof Gu told AFP.
The NPC may also discuss a biosecurity law and a revision to the animal epidemic prevention law - key legislation in response to the pandemic that is believed to have emerged at a market that sold wildlife.
In addition, the NPC is expected to vote on a new civil code set to replace a patchwork of existing rules on property, family and individual rights.
GLOBAL IMAGE, CIVIL CODE
Beijing also faces suffering a blow to its international image, with the US seeking to point fingers at China for the pandemic that has infected nearly five million people around the world.
Addressing the World Health Organization's annual assembly on Monday, Mr Xi defended China's handling of the crisis and said Beijing supported a WHO-led "comprehensive evaluation" of the global response after the pandemic is brought under control.
Beijing-backed crackdowns on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the mass internment of Muslim minorities in the western Xinjiang region have also sparked an international backlash.
"China's rise in the past 40 years was enabled by its integration with the world economy, which in turn rested on relatively amicable relations between China and its trade partners," Yuen Yuen Ang, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, told AFP.
"With this order now in question, the Chinese leadership would have to reorient its sources of economic growth."