What to Watch at China's 2017 National People's Congress

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Here’s What to Expect at China's NPC

Some 3,000 lawmakers are descending on Beijing for the annual parliamentary pageant known as the National People’s Congress. Last year’s agenda was headlined by China’s five-year development plan. Next year’s gathering will see the formation of a new government. While the 2017 program may not be as momentous -- and is overshadowed by a Communist Party meeting later this year -- there’ll be plenty to follow when the action opens March 5 at the Great Hall of the People. Likely topics include Hong Kong politics, China’s economic outlook, the new U.S. president and the performance of some rising political stars.

1. What won’t we see?

The politicking goes on mostly behind the scenes. With a shakeup of the party’s top ranks expected at its congress in October or November, there will be forensic analysis by China-watchers of who-says-what and who-meets-whom. A slew of newly promoted officials, many of whom are President Xi Jinping’s associates, will be scrutinized for their prospects of reaching the innermost circle. Strong contenders for the party’s elite 25-member Politburo include Li Hongzhong (Tianjin’s new party chief) and Chen Quanguo (Xinjiang’s boss).

China’s top lawmakers are descending on Beijing for roughly 10 days of parliamentary pageantry and politicking

Source: Bloomberg

2. Will the new U.S. president be discussed?

Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s press conference will probably be dominated by the world’s most consequential relationship. U.S. President Donald Trump’s “lengthy” and “extremely cordial” phone conversation with Xi in February lowered the temperature after a series of declarations about the One-China policy, trade tariffs, currency manipulation and the South China Sea. While you shouldn’t expect detailed answers from the veteran diplomat Wang, his responses should highlight the government’s priorities.

3. Why the buzz about Hong Kong?

Less than two weeks after the NPC closes, Hong Kong will elect a new chief executive from candidates vetted by the Beijing government. With more than 30 deputies from the former British colony in town, there may be clearer signs whether Carrie Lam, the former Hong Kong chief secretary, will be the favored pick (as reportedly hinted by NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang). Also in the cards is a stipulation that future Hong Kong deputies to the NPC must declare allegiance to China, a move designed to root out pro-independence candidates.

4. What about economic news?

Watch the wording of the 2017 GDP growth target. There’s talk of it being “about 6.5 percent,” a potentially big deal since the “about” may signal tolerance for sub-6.5 percent growth. That could jeopardize a target of doubling per capita GDP from 2010 to 2020. Then there’s the budget deficit forecast. Many economists foresaw a jump to more than 3 percent in 2017 to increase government spending and bolster the economy. But there are signs, as Bloomberg reported, that authorities will hold the deficit at last year’s level of 3 percent. Central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan is a magnet at every NPC, and speculation that this may be his last in the position will add spice to what has become one of the meeting’s busiest press conferences.

5. Does the NPC carry any real weight?

The body is largely a rubber stamp. Although there have been moves to give it more oversight as part of Xi’s pledge to promote the “rule of law,” the NPC must “unswervingly adhere to the leadership” of the party. The national legislature largely serves to ratify decisions from elsewhere and has never turned down a bill put to a final vote. Still, this is the only time each year when some of the most powerful figures in the world’s second-largest economy face the press. It’s a rare opportunity to glean insight into their thinking.

6. How is the president involved?

All seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee -- including Xi -- are NPC deputies. Xi has in the past joined discussions involving the military group and provinces and cities where he has worked.

7. Anything else to watch out for?

The heads of almost all the big state-owned companies will be there, along with billionaire chairmen of private companies including Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s Pony Ma and Xiaomi Corp.’s Lei Jun. Fu Ying, the NPC spokeswoman, will host the opening news conference on the eve of the meeting. That’s likely to give the first indication of China’s annual military spending. Last year, the defense budget grew by the least in six years. The bets are on for a stronger uptick this time. 

8. And what about the finale?

The Chinese premier traditionally closes the NPC with a news briefing that has generated some of the most memorable moments. In 2015, Li Keqiang likened painful state sector reform to “wrist-slashing” and declared war on pollution. Li’s predecessor, Wen Jiabao, delivered a veiled rebuke to former party high-flyer Bo Xilai at the 2012 NPC, the day before Bo’s dismissal. In 1998, Zhu Rongji made a television journalist famous by saying he liked her programs. While the schedule isn’t fixed, the NPC usually runs one to two weeks.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg story on how NPC participants were cautioned against impromptu discussions with foreign media last year.
  • A QuickTake explainer on China’s pain points and a Q&A on China’s recent plenum.
  • A Bloomberg Brief on last year’s NPC.
  • A Bloomberg graphic explaining China’s influence over Hong Kong elections.
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