The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China just held its National People’s Congress. Here are three key points.

A man looks at souvenir plates bearing images of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and late Chairman Mao Zedong near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, March 2016. (Andy Wong/AP)

For decades, China’s “Two Sessions” (lianghui) each spring have offered a glimpse into the policies and priorities of China’s Communist Party (CCP). In March, there were signs that President Xi Jinping is consolidating his power — and a strong statement on the “One China principle.” The government also announced a lower economic growth target.

The National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s parliament, runs each March for about two weeks and brings about 3,000 delegates to Beijing. Because of its unwieldy size and the fact that CCP-member delegates generally approve all legislation with a near-unanimous vote, the NPC is generally considered a rubber-stamp parliament. In some aspects, it works more like party conventions in the United States.

The second gathering, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) also takes place every March. The 2,000 or so delegates, most of whom are not CCP members, include a number of entrepreneurs, celebrities and intellectuals. It is an advisory body that allows the government to assemble expert opinions and views about topical issues. It also consists of members from other political parties — providing the Chinese state with the facade of a multiparty government.

Here’s what happened this month:

1) There were further signs that Xi was consolidating his power.

The key focus of attention this year is whether Xi intends to stay in power as general secretary of the CCP beyond the usual two-term limit. This informal rule has been in place since the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, and was designed to allow for smooth transitions of the top leadership positions. It creates a degree of predictability that any paramount leader, no matter how powerful, will have to pass the baton on to a successor at the end of the second five-year term.

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Evidence of Xi consolidating his power surfaced much earlier, when he launched an anti-corruption campaign in 2012, when he first came to power. Although some saw the crackdown as an effort to improve governance, other seasoned observers of Chinese politics argue that it was as much an attempt to wipe out his rival factions, given the lack of transparency of the corruption investigations.

In an article in Foreign Affairs, I argue that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign may actually destabilize the patronage network that holds the CCP together. The verdict, however, may not be out for a number of years.

An official party document in late 2016 affirmed Xi’s status as the “core” of the CCP leadership — one sign that Xi is likely to bend the two-term rule and stay in power beyond the end of his term in 2022. Another sign is that anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan, Xi’s right-hand man, is staying on in his position despite having reached the age of 68, the conventional retirement age of CCP leaders. Wang, a trusted Xi ally, is someone who could help the president consolidate his grip on power.

2) The government set a lower-than-usual growth target — but one that may still be out of reach.

At the NPC, Premier Li Keqiang announced an economic growth target of 6.5 percent for next year, the lowest growth target in two decades. Although this figure may pale compared with the nearly double-digit growth in past years, some observers argue that the target remains too high given the country’s growing debt problem, industrial overcapacity and economic maturing.

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When Beijing sets high growth rates, local governments have to stimulate economic activity by borrowing from banks or other financial sources. The economic slowdown in recent years has made it increasingly challenging for local governments to meet their debt-servicing obligations.

Further wasteful investment probably will exacerbate the problem of industrial overcapacity. The roots of this problem date back to the 2008-2009 global financial crisis when the Hu-Wen administration launched a RMB 4 trillion ($570 billion) stimulus package — with much of the funds coming from local sources, not Beijing. Many local governments remain heavily indebted from the borrowing they did nearly a decade ago.

3) The CCP is taking a tougher stance on Taiwan and Hong Kong independence.

Premier Li’s annual report mentioned for the first time the danger of “Hong Kong independence.” Hong Kong has been a “Special Administrative Region” governed under the “one country, two systems” principle since June 1997, when Britain’s 99-year lease on the territory ended.

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In recent months, Beijing has stepped up its rhetoric and interference in Hong Kong affairs, particularly over the upcoming election of the Hong Kong chief executive on March 26. Pro-Beijing candidates Carrie Lam and John Tsang are considered the top candidates.

Li’s report also upheld the One China Principle, a sign that the Chinese leadership is irritated by Taiwan-related events of recent months. Cross-strait ties have been strained since Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party came to power in Taiwan last year. President Trump’s controversial phone call in December created further tensions between Beijing and Taipei.

These are three things to watch as the 19th Communist Party National Congress approaches in the fall. The Party Congress will lay out the top leadership positions for the next five years, and there is likely to be intense behind-the-scenes political jockeying ahead of the Party Congress for coveted positions in the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest echelons of power in the CCP. There may well be a major party leadership shake-up — but it appears likely that Xi will remain in power beyond the two-term limit that has bounded all of China’s leaders since Mao Zedong.

Lynette H. Ong is associate professor of political science at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @onglynette.