With the country emerging from the devastating pandemic that began in the city of Wuhan, leader Xi Jinping will seek to show that China is getting back on track and to present the party in the best possible international light — while highlighting the West’s coronavirus failures.
“This is an occasion for him to reassert quite clearly that China is back to normal and the party-state and Xi Jinping are very much in control,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
“They will say that if China did not have Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, China would be more like the United States or the United Kingdom, so all Chinese should be very grateful to the party and the leadership of Xi Jinping for steering China through this.”
Xi has moved to consolidate his position over the past seven years, becoming the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. But the emergence of the virus in Wuhan late last year and the global devastation it has inflicted have threatened his position like nothing before.
Anger at the party’s initial coverups constituted the biggest challenge to its rule since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, analysts say.
With the Trump administration leading the charge against China and attempting to hold it to account for the pandemic, many policymakers in the United States suspect Xi is particularly vulnerable and view this moment as an opportunity to take aim at the party.
But that view could hardly be more different from the perspective inside China: Xi is emerging from this crisis not weaker, but stronger.
“My view is that he’s gotten nothing but stronger out of this situation, and he will probably use the [National People’s Congress] to bolster his power and influence in the system,” said Christopher Johnson, a former China analyst at the CIA who now runs the China Strategies Group consultancy.
“I think we’re going to see some horn-tooting because they can’t help themselves,” he said, referring to the party’s effort to contrast its coronavirus response with that of Western nations. With swift lockdowns, China contained the virus and kept its death toll under 5,000, according to its official count, compared with 92,000 in the United States and 35,000 in Britain.
“But there will be some somber Muzak playing in the background when [Premier] Li Keqiang delivers his speech,” Johnson said.
The National People’s Congress is focused on domestic issues and is usually used for announcing policy and personnel changes. At the opening on Friday, Li will deliver his “work report,” a long, dry speech that the party uses to set out its goals and applaud its successes.
A key part of it is the government’s economic growth forecast, which has edged lower in recent years to reflect China’s deceleration from the juggernaut days of the 2000s. Last year, Li set the target at 6 to 6.5 percent.
But the coronavirus is exacting a heavy toll on the economy, which contracted by 6.8 percent in the first quarter. With the domestic environment subdued and China’s export markets ravaged by the virus, the International Monetary Fund estimates that China’s economy will grow by a mere 1.2 percent this year.
Setting such a low number would be unconscionable for Xi, who pledged to double the size of the economy from 2010 levels by the end of this year.
As a result, many analysts expect Li to omit a growth target this time and instead to claim that the party has made more progress in its effort to eradicate poverty, a key goal of Xi.
The speech, and Xi’s closing address, are usually delivered in the Great Hall of the People before some 3,000 delegates who arrive from around the country, often in the traditional dress of their region. This leads to scenes of men in deer antler hats and women in elaborate silver headdresses crossing Tiananmen Square to enter the hall.
But in this time of pandemic, the format will be different, with some sessions using videoconferencing and the whole event shortened.
While this change can be attributed to epidemic-control measures, it may also be designed to limit chances for local cadres to complain to the seat of Communist Party power.
Xi’s tenure has been marked by increasing centralization, often to the chagrin of local officials. This trend has become more pronounced during the coronavirus outbreak, with Xi seizing the opportunity to promote his people into key positions — just as he installed close ally Ying Yong as party secretary in Hubei province during the coronavirus crisis.
Johnson, the former CIA analyst, expects Xi to continue in that vein and to double down on surveillance and other systems of control.
“At times like this, you certainly want your guy in charge of the police, especially if you’re somewhat worried about the aftereffects of this from a stability point of view,” he said.
China’s initial efforts to cover up the severity of the virus, and in particular the efforts to silence doctors who tried to sound the alarm, led to an outpouring of anger in Wuhan. Residents tried to circumvent censors by posting clips about the French Revolution from “Les Misérables” on Chinese social media.
While some of that anger remains, Chinese public sentiment has changed as people have seen the toll the virus has wreaked elsewhere, especially in the United States.
“Now most people in China think that their leadership has handled this crisis decently,” said Christian Göbel, professor of modern China studies at the University of Vienna. “If they compare China’s situation to the U.S. or Great Britain or the rest of Europe, they can see that it was not handled very well there.”
That is the comparison the Communist Party wants the people to draw. “Of course it’s propaganda, but it’s not a lie,” said Göbel, who studies public complaints and the Chinese government’s response.
Even normally critical intellectuals who access information from outside China’s Great Firewall express relief that they are in China and not the West during this pandemic.
Now, the bigger concern for the central authorities comes from the very officials who will descend on Beijing for the People’s Congress. They are the ones whose power has been crimped, and who remain annoyed.
“Local officials complain about overwork while they had to ensure the quarantine,” Göbel said. “Many officials slept in their offices, lots of young cadres have been dying from overwork, and they feel their efforts are not being fully appreciated.”
The overriding factor influencing public sentiment will be economic growth and the impact on personal finances. China has prioritized containing the virus over reopening the economy, to the extent that it locked down a northern region of 100 million people this week over a cluster of 34 infections.
Still, those critics, particularly in Washington, who assessed that this crisis would be China’s “Chernobyl moment” will almost certainly be disappointed.
“People keep looking at China and wondering how long will it last? When will the population have had enough?” Göbel said. “Previous waves of democratic change have happened when people have had good examples to look to abroad. I don’t see a reason why Chinese people should now stand up and ask what things could have been different.”