China, Economy, Congress, Political, Coronavirus, Beijing

China, Economy

Delayed but not dropped: China's political Congress finally goes ahead

Delayed but not dropped: China's political Congress finally goes ahead

21/05/2020 11:20:00 PM

Delayed but not dropped: China 's political Congress finally goes ahead

Despite the lingering threat of coronavirus, China 's political representatives gather in Beijing for its most important political event of the year.

Strict measures in placeThose that are there have had to undergo hotel quarantine.Diplomats that would usually observe the opening work report by Premier Li Keqiang are only permitted in the Great Hall if they undergo COVID testing and isolation at a state guesthouse.

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Many are therefore not attending, including Australia's Ambassador to China Graham Fletcher.Journalists — who have long faced access barriers to those in power in China — now have an extra layer of distance.While some will be allowed in after undergoing testing, the vast majority of reporters are barred from the Congress venue and are restricted to asking (often pre-selected) questions to delegates via video link from a media centre in a different part of Beijing.

"The Congress has both a symbolic and practical significance this year", said Beijing-based independent political commentator Wu Qiang."Authorities couldn't indefinitely postpone it as they need to show they won the battle against the virus over the past few months."

The biggest change is that the normal 10-day program of provincial sessions and working groups has been whittled down to about a week.While the ceremony for the opening is likely to be dialled down in an emptier hall, there are many familiar aspects about this year's event.

In the lead up, the usual small army of retirees appeared on the streets clad in red armbands.These concerned citizens, many of them grandparents, are part of a vast government effort designed to suppress dissent and keep public order.(ABC News: Steve Wang

)The neighbourhood watch volunteers are part of a heavy-handed security effort in central Beijing each year designed to ensure nothing goes wrong."I think Chairman Xi's good health is our biggest wish — he's our leader and guides our country", said one of the retired volunteers who declined to give his name to the ABC.

"He must not fall ill."Economy in focusWhile the Congress is widely viewed outside China as a rubber stamp parliament that approves decisions largely made by the Communist Party's leadership, it does set the economic agenda for the year ahead.

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Usually the second-ranked leader Premier Li Keqiang would announce a GDP growth target range to signal how much China's Government will spend.Last year, it was 6-6.5 per cent.This year, with China's economy suffering an unprecedented first quarter official growth rate of minus 6.8 per cent (and some analysts suspecting it was even worse), it's not clear if he will announce a target.

"I don't think Premier Li will set up a definite GDP growth target for this year. It's not necessary", said Xiang Songzuo, an economics professor."From my observation, in the second half of this year, China's economy will have a positive growth rate, maybe 3 to 4 per cent, and overall for 2020, maybe it will be 1 per cent or 2."

Some others have suggested failing to declare a growth target would hurt confidence about China's ability to bounce back quickly from the crisis.Most commentators expect the government will use fiscal and monetary tools to try to get the economy chugging again, even though options are considerably more limited now than when Beijing spent $US575 billion ($873 billion) worth of stimulus during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Alleviating spiralling unemployment appears to be the main focus, with few factories in China's southern manufacturing heartland running at capacity amid an export slump."I expect Premier Li to launch… more infrastructure investments", said Professor Xiang.

If so, it could reassure Australian coal and iron ore exporters — who are jittery over reports that some power plants have been ordered to suspend Australian coking coal imports to protect local producers.Revised iron ore inspection procedures have also raised concerns, having been announced just days after new barley tariffs and bans on some Australian beef imports — which Chinese authorities have only half-heartedly claimed are not linked to strained diplomatic ties.

A China Iron Ore Association spokesman told the ABC the new customs inspection measures were aimed at streamlining imports, not holding them up. Read more: ABC News »

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