China’s Two sessions | What is it and key highlights of this year’s event

The story so far: China held its annual parliamentary meetings known as ‘Two Sessions’ last week from March 4 to 11 to vote on legislations pre-approved by its ruling party, the Communist Party of China (CPC). The ‘Two Sessions’ event, which lasted for a week and comprised Beijing’s top political advisory body Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and its unicameral legislature the National People’s Congress (NPC), saw Beijing set the CPC’s agenda for the next year – a push for technology innovation, 5% economic growth and concentrating more power into Xi Jinping’s hands.

While the passage of the laws is a given in the nation’s single-party system, the ‘Two Sessions’ event offers a rare view of China’s top leadership, particularly the Chinese Premier – the CPC’s second-in-command – via his press conference at the end of the session. However, this annual event has been scrapped in the latest edition. This year, the NPC also amended the State Council Organic Law, directing the State Council to ‘faithfully implement the CPC’s directives’.

Hit with an economic crisis and loss of investment, China has set an ambitious 5% growth target for next year but did not announce any major policy changes to reach this figure. It has also not announced any new appointments to the State Council headed by Chinese Premier Li Qiang, leaving the posts of Foreign Minister and Defence Minister vacant since last year.

 Here’s a look at the ‘Two Sessions’ event and key outcomes this year

What are the ‘Two Sessions’ ?

Lianghui or ‘Two Sessions’ is the collective term used for the annual event held by the Chinese Parliament, called the National People’s Congress (NPC), and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). As per the NPC Observer, the NPC, China’s topmost legislative body, with 2977 delegates elected for a five year term, meets only once every year in early March. This was the second session of the 14th NPC and 14th CPPCC – kicking off on March 5 and 4 respectively.

 14th National People’s Congress

In its session, the NPC deliberates on the government’s work report, reviews Central and local budgets, debates and passes laws pre-approved by the CCP, deliberates on annual work reports of the NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) — the permanent standing committee of the NPC, Supreme People’s Court (SPC) – China’s apex court, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) – Beijing’s top public prosecutor to investigate and prosecute crimes.

Every year, in March, the NPC holds three plenary sessions at the Great Hall of the People on the west side of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. In the first session, held on March 5 this year, the delegates reviewed reports and development plans for 2024 and were briefed on the government’s work report by Chinese Premier Li Qiang, and on the revision to the State Council Organic Law by NPCSPC Vice-Chairman Li Hongzhong.

In the second session, on March 8, delegates were briefed on the work reports of the NPCSC by its chairman Zhao Leji, the work of SPC by its President Zhang Jun and that of the SPP by the Procurator-General Ying Yong. In the last session, held on March 11, the delegates voted on resolutions pertaining to the work reports and the draft of the revised State Council Organic Law. Changes to the reports, legislations or any new delegate bills were proposed during deliberations in smaller groups on days between the sessions. The three work reports were then adopted via resolutions and the revised State Council Organic Law was passed.

14th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference

This year’s CPPCC kicked off with an opening session on March 4 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, with President Xi Jinping in attendance along with Premier Li Qiang and other top CPC leaders like Zhao Leji, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang, Li Xi and Han Zheng. In the opening session, also attended by several foreign envoys and foreign media, CPPCC National Committee’s chairman Wang Huning read the work report of the Standing Committee of the CPPCC National Committee. Later, the National committee’s members held group meetings to deliberate on the report on political proposals.

The closing meeting of the second session of the 14th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) is held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, March 10, 2024

On March 5, members of the CPPCC National committee attended the NPC’s opening plenary session as non-voting members to listen to the Government Work report. Apart from CCP leaders, the CPPCC also comprises of businessmen, celebrities, and military officials and has a national-level committee and regional committees which advise the government/NPC on social and political issues. The body works in a purely advisory capacity and wields no legislative power, unlike the NPC.

Key moments and outcomes

Premier’s press conference scrapped

On March 4, NPC spokesperson Lou Qinjian announced that the annual press conference by Premier Li Qiang, customarily held at the end of the event, had been scrapped by the NPC. He said that Mr. Li wouldn’t hold the annual press conferences for the remainder of the term, which ends in 2027, barring “special circumstances,” without mentioning what those were. Three other press conferences on the Chinese economy, foreign relations, and Chinese livelihoods were held by various other ministers.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang delivers the work report at the opening session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China March 5, 2024.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang delivers the work report at the opening session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China March 5, 2024.
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

The cancellation of the Premier’s press conference, a tradition since 1993, has deprived international media of an opportunity to question the nation’s second-in-command. With access to Mr. Li cut-off, China’s policymakers remain completely insulated from the world.

5% economic growth, no change in policy

Delivering his maiden government work report at the opening day of the NPC, Premier Li Qiang set an economic growth target of 5% for 2024, vowing to push China’s ‘growth model’, make structural adjustments and enhance performance.


Also Read | Explained | On China’s economic slowdown

Hit with a property crisis due to the collapse of developer Evergrande, Chinese real estate developers have been struggling to remain solvent, leading to a slump in new home sales. Refusing to bail out developers, the government has urged companies to file for bankruptcy instead. Since the onset of COVID-19 leading to a total lockdown of the nation — multiple times due to the recurring COVID-19 waves — China has lost many of its investments. With low demand, consumer prices too have fallen in China, bringing the nation to the brink of deflation. All these issues have also wreaked havoc to the Chinese stock market, with many domestic and foreign investors losing confidence in what is the world’s largest market.

A view of an unfinished residential compound developed by China Evergrande Group in the outskirts of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, China February 1, 2024. A court ordered the liquidation of the property developer who has plunged China into a real estate crisis.

A view of an unfinished residential compound developed by China Evergrande Group in the outskirts of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, China February 1, 2024. A court ordered the liquidation of the property developer who has plunged China into a real estate crisis.
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

Despite myriad sectors facing issues, Mr. Li announced no new stimulus or policy change to achieve the targeted 5% growth rate. Setting a fiscal budget deficit target of 3%, China seeks to stave off deflation and control its rising debt. Admitting that achieving 5% growth with 2023’s base of 5.2% ‘will not be easy’, Mr. Li said that the need to boost employment and incomes must be taken into account. His statement was met with scepticism, with many economists terming the growth target ‘ambitious’ due to the lack of any major stimulus.

Mr. Li also announced a 7.2% rise in defence spending — the same as last year— indicating no additional push to enhance its defence capabilities, acquisition or manufacturing. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index (HSI) fell by 2.6% in response to the Premier’s growth target announcement, CNN has reported.

Technology push

China’s biggest focus currently is ‘shifting to future industries,’ as announced by the Premier. Highlighting new areas of focus in technology such as electric vehicles, artificial intelligence (AI), renewable energy, biomanufacturing, and commercial space fights, he announced a 10% increase in the annual budget for science and technology, bringing it to 370.8 billion yuan ($51.5 billion). Emphasizing ‘self-reliance and strength in science and technology,’ Mr. Li critiqued the ‘external environment’ impacting China’s development – alluding to the US tightening its hold over the export of cutting-edge technologies to China.

The technology push was also highlighted in the 2024 development plan, which called for a comprehensive approach to modernise China’s industrial system through innovation. It suggested the pooling of resources to achieve scientific breakthroughs, nurturing of emerging industrial clusters and more support for basic research— allocating 98 billion yuan ($13.62 billion) for the same, according to South China Morning Post. Total expenditure on research and development in 2023 had increased by 8.1% and accounted for 2.64% of the GDP.

In October 2023, the US Commerce department announced new export controls to limit China’s ability to acquire advanced computer chips to manufacture high-level semiconductors used in hypersonic missiles and artificial intelligence. It also announced restrictions on chip exports to companies in Macao, a Chinese territory, and other countries where the sale of US arms is embargoed. In a press conference on the sidelines of the NPC, Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused Washington of using ‘tactics to suppress China,’ terming the controls on chip sales ‘unfathomable absurdity’.

 Foreign relations

In a press meet on the sidelines of the NPC, Foreign Minister Wang Yi fielded questions on China’s relations with the U.S., Taiwan, Russia, and Israel. Mr. Wang said U.S.-China relations had improved since Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met in San Francisco last year. Accusing the U.S. of suppressing China via ‘unilateral sanctions,’ he said that the U.S. had an ‘erroneous perception about China. However, he. added that Mr. Biden had assured that the U.S. would not seek a new Cold War, seek to change the Chinese system or back Taiwan’s independence.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress (NPC), in Beijing, China March 7, 2024

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress (NPC), in Beijing, China March 7, 2024
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

With two wars being fought at the western end of Asia, China termed its relations with Russia a ‘strategic choice’, asserting that major countries should not seek conflicts. Noting that bilateral trade between the two nations had reached $240 billion in 2023, he highlighted that new opportunities lay ahead for the two nations. Weighing in on the Israeli bombing of Gaza, he called for an immediate ceasefire and said that China would back Palestine’s full membership in the United Nations.

CPC’s tightening hold in the Chinese government

On the final day, the NPC passed the amended State Council Organic Law, with 2883 delegates voting for, eight against and nine opposing. The law, which has been amended for the first time since 1982, adds articles which mandate that the State Council ‘resolutely uphold the Party Central Committee’s authority and its centralised and unified leadership.’ The law was reportedly amended to deepen reform of party and state institutions to fully implement the Constitution, which was last amended in 2018.

Handing over more power to the President, the new law mandates that the Council ‘follow Xi Jinping Thought’ – CPC’s name for the President’s ideology setting a unified agenda for the Chinese people on socialism, discipline, diplomacy, policy, and culture. In 2023, the Chinese government had re-organised its structure, appointing a new CPC official to oversee certain ministries and giving additional monitoring power to the CPC in the government’s day-to-day working. Subsequently, the State Council amended its working rules to affirm that executive decision-making power lay with the CPC.

(L-R) Newly-elected Chinese state councilors Qin Gang, Wu Zhenglong and Li Shangfu swear an oath after they were elected during the fifth plenary session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 12, 2023.

(L-R) Newly-elected Chinese state councilors Qin Gang, Wu Zhenglong and Li Shangfu swear an oath after they were elected during the fifth plenary session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 12, 2023.
| Photo Credit:
AFP

Moreover, the NPC did not appoint a replacement for the vacant ministerial posts for Defence and Foreign Affairs in the State Council. On July 25, 2023, then foreign minister Qin Gang was abruptly replaced by his predecessor Wang Yi, after a month-long absence. Mr. Qin had last been seen on June 25, 2023 in public. Similarly, Defence Minister Li Shangfu was removed on October 24, 2023, from his ministerial post as well as from membership of the Central Military Commission – a body commanding the armed forces, and his position as one of the five state councillors in China. The NPCSC, which approved the move, did not name a successor to Mr. Li, who was last publicly seen in late August.

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‘Two Sessions’ congress: The economic goals in Chinese leaders’ coded language

China’s “Two Sessions” congress that began this week is the country’s most important political event of the year. To understand what’s at stake, it helps to have some fluency in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) parlance. Terms such as “new productive forces” and “new three” appear vague, but they speak volumes about the party’s agenda during the 10-day congress.

China’s annual political extravaganza has attained cruising speed. The “Two Sessions” congress of two of the country’s most important political bodies has already touched on economic recovery, the modernisation of the army, foreign relations and the question of Taiwan.

During the event, nearly 3,000 members of the National People’s Congress (NPC) – China’s parliament – meet to set the legislative agenda for the coming year. The 2023 session set the roadmap for more than 2,000 measures that were adopted, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Alongside the NPC meeting, the congress also hosts the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a body meant to give its opinion on the political priorities for the year. Some 2,000 members of the CCP and civil society debate under the watchful eye of Beijing.

The Two Sessions are framed by Chinese media as the best way for a foreign observer to understand how “Chinese democracy” works. They can thus offer a good reading of the political climate in China – provided one understands the CCP parlance in use. One of the best ways to build literacy is to spot the buzzwords that pop up again and again, as reported by Bloomberg News.

Most of them may seem obscure at first glance. What does Chinese President Xi Jinping mean by the “new productive forces”? What are the “new three” developments that participants in the Two Sessions often refer to? Knowing how to interpret these terms “enables us to understand the main developments in the economic and social policy of Xi Jinping and the government, beyond the official announcements”, says Marc Lanteigne, a Sinologist at the Arctic University of Norway.

These buzzwords are also a way to implicitly acknowledge mistakes. Chinese leaders “are never going to clearly say ‘no way’, but the coded language often heralds changes in direction, and thus a tacit acknowledgment that something wasn’t working anymore”, says Lanteigne.

To help make sense of it all, FRANCE 24 has examined three terms in use during these Two Sessions that can help clarify the CCP’s true perspective on China’s economic and social situation, a viewpoint that is not necessarily obvious in official media and public statements.

The ‘new productive forces’

Xi has been using this expression since at least September, but China’s president never specifies which forces he is invoking to rescue the country’s economy.

He referred to them again during the Two Sessions to affirm that they would enable China to reach a 5 percent growth target without any problems.

The “new productive forces” are “a modern version of expressions used by all Chinese leaders since Mao Zedong to designate the economic sectors that are going to be favoured”, explains Lanteigne.

The Sinologist is betting that Xi is referring to services – especially financial – and information technologies with the 2024 version of “productive forces”.

By invoking “new” forces, Xi also aims to sideline the “old” engines of Chinese growth. In other words, the president is indicating that it is time to stop “betting everything on investment in infrastructure and real estate”, says Lanteigne, who expects to see less construction of highways and railroads. Real estate developers, shaken by the fall of debt-laden Evergrande, have received confirmation that saving them is no longer a government priority, he adds.

‘AI plus’ 

Chinese Premier Li Qiang put the country’s “AI plus” initiative on the map. He made it the cornerstone of the “work report” published by the NPC on Tuesday.

Here again, “the contours of this concept are very vague”, says Lanteigne. The main idea is to support artificial intelligence in all sectors of the economy. But how, when, and where to begin? “We’ll have to wait for the details, but the ambition is clear: to make AI a driving force in the economy and boost artificial intelligence research”, he says.

China is far from the only country betting on AI: since the advent of ChatGPT, artificial intelligence has become the hot topic for everyone. But it’s the “plus” that is meant to distinguish China’s engagement.

“By adding a ‘plus’, the authorities want to give the impression that China is already at the next stage,” says Lanteigne.

The term suggests that Beijing has already mastered AI and is now looking for the best ways to use it. It also aims to counter the image of a country that is falling behind. Blame it on ChatGPT and its clones: all these tools come from the West, and a narrative has started to develop suggesting China is having trouble catching up.

Read moreChina, AI and a say on world order: Why the US rejoined UNESCO

The ‘new three’ 

The expression has gained popularity in the media and economic circles for over a year, as noted in a Citigroup bank report published in January 2024. During the recent debates in the NPC, Li expressed delight that “the new three have grown by 30 percent in one year”.

The term refers to solar panels, electric cars and batteries. “It’s not surprising that this term is being put forward at a time when China’s champion electric car maker – BYD – is displaying increasingly global ambitions,” says Lanteigne.

By using the term, the government is showing its support for a manufacturer whose commercial appetite is beginning to concern Western countries. In late February, US President Joe Biden described Chinese electric cars as a risk to American “national security”.

“It’s also a concept that complements the idea of ‘new productive forces’,” says Lanteigne. Once again, it’s a question of turning over a new leaf: these “new three” are opposed to the “old” sectors – textiles and cheap electronics – that were China’s international glory.

China aims to show countries that it intends to remain the “world’s factory”, but now for technological products with high added value.

These “new three” pillars have something in common: “They are meant to illustrate China’s ambition to move towards an eco-responsible economy,” says Lanteigne.

Solar panels represent renewable energy, while electric cars and the batteries that power them symbolise the decarbonisation of road traffic. The “new three” thus also serves as a new slogan for “green” China.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

Read moreAsia-Pacific region: A new cold war brewing

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