All eyes on economy at legislative sessions in Beijing

A public security volunteer and a security guard in Beijing yesterday. Security has been beefed up in the Chinese capital ahead of the country's annual parliamentary and consultative sessions.
A public security volunteer and a security guard in Beijing yesterday. Security has been beefed up in the Chinese capital ahead of the country's annual parliamentary and consultative sessions.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

But Chinese public more concerned with bread-and-butter issues like property prices

Economic targets and reforms in a slowing economy will be a focus of China's annual parliamentary and consultative sessions, but for the Chinese people, bread-and-butter issues such as property prices will be of greater concern.

The National People's Congress (NPC), or national Parliament, begins on Sunday and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the meeting of the top political advisory body, starts tomorrow. Both are taking place ahead of a crucial leadership reshuffling that will happen towards the end of the year.

The emphasis of these sessions, which are centred on debate of the Premier's annual government work report, is therefore likely to be on stability. Policies to maintain economic progress and improve people's lives will be discussed.

Foreign and domestic observers will be closely watching the growth target that Premier Li Keqiang will announce in his work report on Sunday.

China's economy has been slowing, registering its lowest growth in 26 years last year at 6.7 per cent. This year, the target is likely to be around 6.5 per cent.

Foreign and domestic observers will be closely watching the growth target that Premier Li Keqiang will announce in his work report on Sunday. China's economy has been slowing, registering its lowest growth in 26 years last year at 6.7 per cent. This year, the target is likely to be around 6.5 per cent.

  • About the two sessions

  • WHAT

    The annual meetings of the National People's Congress (NPC), or China's national Parliament, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country's top political advisory body.

    The two events are collectively known as "liang hui", or two meetings in Chinese.

    WHEN

    This year's "liang hui" kicks off with the CPPCC's opening tomorrow and the NPC's opening on Sunday.

    The sessions are held in Beijing and will last about 10 days each.

    SIGNIFICANCE

    "Liang hui" is one of the biggest events on China's calendar. Nearly 3,000 lawmakers and 2,000 members of the CPPCC will gather in Beijing, together with top national and provincial leaders.

    The NPC reviews the annual work report of the government as well as its plans and budgets for the year ahead.

    The CPPCC discusses important political, social and economic issues, and makes proposals.

    ON THE AGENDA

    • Economic target and reforms: Growth will likely be set at 6.5 per cent but will likely not be a hard target. Supply side structural reforms will be deepened with an emphasis on agriculture. Overcapacity will be addressed.

    • Poverty alleviation: With the 2020 deadline for achieving a moderately prosperous society looming, there is urgency in alleviating poverty, especially in rural areas.

    • Environment: Frustrated with the frequency with which their cities are enveloped in smog, the Chinese will be looking at the kinds of measures the government will adopt to address this.

    • Socio-economic issues: With property prices continuing to rise in first-tier and popular second-tier cities, people will be looking for more effective measures to make housing more affordable. Healthcare and social security are also concerns.

    Goh Sui Noi

But, unlike in years past, this will not be a hard target, said Professor Yang Dali, a China expert from the University of Chicago, who is also the founding faculty director of the UChicago Centre in Beijing.

"Even if you don't reach 6.5 per cent, that's not as big a deal as it used to be," he said. "Instead, actually, the leadership wants to have quality growth, to have growth that (for instance) is less of an expense on the environment, especially in terms of air quality."

The environment is a key concern for Chinese people, with smog often enveloping industrial areas and big cities such as Beijing, and it will likely be a topic of discussion at this year's sessions as well.

On the economic front, deepening of the supply-side structural reforms - which are meant to reduce overcapacity in the short term and cultivate growth engines in the long term - will be discussed. This year, the focus of reforms will be the agricultural sector.

Reducing overcapacity, particularly in coal and steel, is continuing.

"This year will be our toughest for capacity reduction," Mr Zhang Qingwei, the governor of Hebei province, told Xinhua news agency.

Hebei, which produces a quarter of the country's iron and steel, intends to slash its steel capacity by 32 million tonnes - the same as last year - the agency reported.

With the deadline of 2020 for achieving a "moderately prosperous" society looming, poverty alleviation is also of great importance, and President Xi Jinping last month emphasised the need to ensure that the rural poor shook off poverty as planned. He called for greater policy support for poverty relief, including fiscal, land, financial, education and health policies.

The legislature will also be reviewing the draft of the general provisions for a Civil Code to protect the people's rights and property. It will likely pass it.

The Chinese people, however, are more concerned about issues such as property prices, which have been spiking - particularly in first-tier cities, including Beijing and Shanghai - despite cooling measures. There are likely to be more targeted measures, in keeping with a new slogan that houses are for living in and not for speculation.

But while there might be reference made to a property tax, "the leadership will be pushing it away as it will not want to roil the market" at a time like this, said Prof Yang.

Beyond the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong will be in focus, given that Taiwan now has a pro-independence government and Hong Kong is electing a new chief executive later this month. The vote is being held after growing, and at times violent, demands for greater democracy in Hong Kong.

In diplomacy, after some early hiccups following the election of US President Donald Trump, the Chinese have managed to bring relations with the United States to a firmer footing. But what Foreign Minister Wang Yi has to say on Sino-US ties will be watched.

Although the sessions are a formal affair, they are often livened up by NPC delegates, who come from all parts of China, speaking in their myriad accents and dressed in their colourful ethnic clothing, as well as the celebrity delegates of the CPPCC, such as actor Jackie Chan, veteran basketball player Yao Ming and industry captain Jack Ma.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2017, with the headline 'All eyes on economy at legislative sessions'. Print Edition | Subscribe