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In a sign the virus is contained, China schedules big political meetings for late May

Chinese paramilitary police officers march in Beijing on Wednesday. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
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China signaled its confidence that its novel coronavirus epidemic has finally been brought under control, scheduling for next month its highest-profile annual legislative meetings, which had been postponed at the height of the outbreak.

Known as the “Two Sessions,” the meetings are always a piece of important political theater for China’s ruling Communist Party, a venue for the leaders to trumpet their achievements of the past year and lay out their plans and targets for the year ahead.

But that will be particularly tricky this year, with China still emerging from a coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan at the end of last year, killing 4,643 people and sickening almost 85,000 in the country.

“A big part of these meetings is to be an accountability mechanism,” said Ryan Manuel, managing director of Official China, a consultancy specializing in China’s domestic political environment.

He predicted a lot of pushback this year if the party’s leaders try to set overly ambitious growth targets or move aggressively to centralize power. “That will result in a lot of squealing,” Manuel said.

The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a mostly ceremonial advisory body, is to start meeting on May 21, and the National People’s Congress, the rubber-stamp parliament, will convene the following day, China’s official Xinhua News Agency announced Wednesday. The NPC usually sits for at least 10 days, but no end date was reported.

The meetings had been scheduled to begin on March 5 but were postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak. Ironically, it was because Wuhan was holding its municipal meeting, a precursor to the national congress, in mid-January that authorities decided against alerting the public to a potential outbreak and risk upsetting the political calendar.

“The COVID-19 epidemic prevention and control situation in China is improving steadily, and the normal economic and social life is gradually resuming,” the NPC Standing Committee said in a statement cited by Xinhua.

The meeting would “unite the thoughts” of the deputies on China’s challenges and consider the “progress” of its poverty eradication program, Tam Yiu-chung, a Hong Kong representative on the Standing Committee, quoted Li Zhanshu, the committee chairman, as saying.

The annual meetings bring more than 5,000 delegates from all over the country to Beijing and to the main event: a huge NPC meeting in the majestic Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. There, the delegates listen as President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang review the past year and lay out the government’s targets for the year ahead.

The NPC has made “special arrangements” to protect the deputies against the coronavirus this time around, Tam told reporters, according to the South China Morning Post.

Chinese citizens abroad seek refuge from the coronavirus pandemic — at home

It wasn’t clear whether that meant the meetings would use video conferencing rather than going ahead in person, as usual. The Standing Committee meeting held this week was a mixture of the two, with Beijing members attending in person and those outside the capital joining remotely.

The Global Times, a nationalist newspaper linked to the Communist Party, suggested last week that the Two Sessions meetings might be held in a similar way, noting that it has “become a trend to have video conferences.”

While most of China is returning to life as normal — some areas faster than others — the capital, Beijing, continues to be under tight restrictions ahead of the politically significant meetings.

All people arriving in Beijing must undergo a quarantine per­iod of as long as 21 days, and the national borders remain closed to foreign citizens.

Even after declaring victory over the virus, which began at the end of last year in the central province of Hubei, China has experienced secondary waves of infection as its citizens have returned from countries hit by the epidemic, especially from Iran, Italy and, most recently, Russia.

But now, with hospitals and quarantine centers set up on the northern border with Russia, authorities appear confident that they can manage the contagion.

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