Surprises at this year's liang hui? It's anyone's guess

BEIJING – China’s national parliament and political advisory body meet once every March, which gives them plenty of time to prepare and manage their meetings carefully according to script.

Similarly, almost nothing is left to chance at its ongoing “two meetings” or liang hui,  which refer to the sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Candidates for top government and state positions are already chosen and  pre-approved by the ruling Communist Party, whose iron-clad control over the near-3,000 NPC delegates will prevent any surprise outcome.

Security is also tight to prevent any protestors from disrupting the two-week proceedings, which began on Sunday and will wrap up on March 17.

But still, the two meetings in recent years have come to be associated with surprises that at times have overshadowed the Communist Party’s preferred agenda.

In 2008, anti-government protests in Tibet spiralled out of control and embarrassed the leadership amid its political season that year.

Hundreds of monks and Tibetan locals staged what was the worst anti-government demonstrations in over 20 years, by smashing and burning buildings and cars in capital Lhasa. At least 16 people were reportedly killed.

But some liang hui surprises have been the doing of the Communist Party.

Think last year when outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao launched a rare rebuke on Chongqing municipality’s leaders at a press conference wrapping up the NPC.

Mr Wen told the southwestern city’s leaders to reflect and learn from what had  happened and poured scorn over its Maoist-revival policies, saying China had suffered enough during the Cultural Revolution.

His attack sparked speculation on the fate of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, whose right-hand man Wang Lijun had attracted global headlines with an asylum-seeking flight to the United States consulate in neighbouring Chengdu.

A day later, Mr Wen’s attack made sense as China dropped a bombshell by sacking Mr Bo from his Chongqing post.

No wonder Nottingham University analyst Steve Tsang said the key highlight of the liang hui is to look out for is any surprises.

“The two conferences are meant to be tightly scripted and carefully stage-managed events. Even minor ‘surprises’ are often scripted,” said Prof Tsang.

“But if real or major surprises should happen, that is something to examine and to draw out the implications from.”

Chances of surprise appear higher this time, given Communist Party chief Xi Jinping’s record so far since taking over as China’s top leader last November.

In late December, he sprang a surprise by releasing details of his family background, which was taboo subject and even considered state secret in China.

Other leaders in the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee have followed suit.

Mr Xi has also surprised others with his drive to connect better with the people, with a high-profile frugality drive and fight against corruption.

Observers are also raising eyebrows with his stronger-than-expected rhetoric aimed at fanning nationalism among the people.

So far, a surprise – albeit a mini-one – has taken place at this year’s liang hui.

For the first time in eight years, China did not reveal its new defence spending during the pre-NPC press conference on Monday.

Vice-Foreign Minister Fu Ying, who is the new NPC spokesman, declined to give the figure when asked by a foreign reporter, hinting that there was no need for China to have to explain its military expansion.

As the liang hui goes into full swing from Tuesday, the question to ask is: what other surprises, if any, will there be this time?