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China Proposes Postponement of Its 'Two Sessions' in March

A masked paramilitary policeman stands guard at a deserted Tiananmen Gate following the coronavirus outbreak, in Beijing, Feb. 16, 2020. China said Monday it may postpone its annual congress in March, its biggest political meeting of the year.

China has proposed postponing its annual "Two Sessions" meetings in March of the national legislature and top political advisory body pending a final decision next Monday, according to state media Xinhua News.

Observers say the call, once finalized, will highlight the Chinese government's priority in fighting the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Deliberations of the nation's major policy issues, including its annual military budget and future economic outlook, will also be delayed.

Challenging year ahead

The delays suggest a challenging year ahead politically and economically for China's top leadership, analysts say.

"Now is a critical moment for China to fight the epidemic and stop the spread of the virus. (We) have to stay focused and make all-out efforts," Zang Tiewei, a spokesperson for China's National People's Congress (NPC), told Xinhua News after the close of an NPC standing committee meeting.

Commuters ride in a quiet subway train during the morning rush hour in Beijing, Feb. 17, 2020.
Commuters ride in a quiet subway train during the morning rush hour in Beijing, Feb. 17, 2020.

Zang added that NPC delegates in one-third of Chinese provinces are playing a leading role on the front line fighting the deadly virus.

Thus, it is necessary to consider postponing March's meetings — a proposal to be discussed later this month, he added.

Risky political gatherings

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, agreed, saying it is only practical for China to push back the meetings, as disrupted transportation will make it difficult for delegates from across the country to travel to Beijing.

Cabestan said it is too dangerous to gather some 5,000 members of the nation's political elites without exposing them to the risk of cross-infection. The postponement, he said, will also send a message.

"What it says is that there's a clear priority given by the leadership to fight against the virus and epidemic. It transcends everything, including Two Sessions, but also putting the economy in place and resuming economic activities," he told VOA.

Cabestan said Chinese authorities are now doubling down on restrictive measures to contain the health crisis, although there remains public discontent with the way Chinese governments at all levels managed the outbreak and how they still fail to effectively contain it. Dissidents who refuse to be silent about the outbreak risk being jailed.

Xi's power unshaken?

The fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping still manages to install some of his protégés to handle the crisis in Hubei province shows that his authority isn't weakened, according to Cabestan.

On Thursday, Ying Yong, the former mayor of Shanghai, was appointed to replace Hubei Party secretary Jiang Chaoliang. Wang Zhonglin, former party secretary of Jinan in Shangdong province, replaced Ma Guoqiang, the party leader of Wuhan.

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, is where the virus first surfaced.

Jiang and Ma were fired because of their botched responses to the outbreak, although the two had previously said it wasn't within their power to disclose the outbreak.

A woman wearing a protective mask cycles past a graffiti-painted wall at a construction site in Shanghai, China, as the country is hit by coronavirus outbreak, Feb. 17, 2020.
A woman wearing a protective mask cycles past a graffiti-painted wall at a construction site in Shanghai, China, as the country is hit by coronavirus outbreak, Feb. 17, 2020.

"(Xi) is being contested, for sure, within the society, (and) probably also in the party itself," Cabestan said. "But his opponents seem to be weak and divided, including within the party. So, I don't see any evidence that he has been weakened as the top of the party."

Although it is not likely that Xi will be openly challenged, now presents a time for him to consider decentralizing his power to avoid a similar crisis in the future, said Arthur Ding, an adjunct research fellow at National Chengchi University's Institute of International Relations in Taipei.

"Since 2008, he has so tightly consolidated his own power and that of the party. He should soon give it a thought about whether he should release some of those powers back to leaders at the provincial or city levels" so they will be empowered to take swift action against a future outbreak as fast-spreading as the COVID-19.

Also, Xi may have to find ways to address the side effects of his earlier anti-corruption campaign, which has intimidated local officials who are now passive and prefer inaction, Ding added.

Economy suffers

Meanwhile, the health crisis is expected to take a huge toll on the Chinese economy. Ding said multinationals facing difficulty resuming factory operations in China may prepare to transfer their assembly lines outside the country.

In the wake of its Phase One deal with China taking effect last week, the U.S. may follow up to soon enter the next phase of trade negotiations with China. Some observers, however, suggest China should use the health crisis as an excuse to delay the talks.

"It now looks that (U.S. President Donald) Trump stands a pretty good chance of being reelected. Under such circumstances, Trump may roll out Phase Two (of) U.S.-China trade negotiations. That may be another bigger headache for China," Ding said.