China considers delaying Parliament meeting over coronavirus concerns

Officials sing the national anthem at the closing session of last year's National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 15, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China is considering delaying its most high-profile annual political meeting for the first time in decades, as the government attempts to contain an outbreak of a deadly new strain of coronavirus.

The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress will meet on Feb 24 to consider a delay of the annual meeting of the full parliament planned to convene on March 5, the official Xinhua News Agency said on Monday (Feb 17).

The Standing Committee will also consider measures to curb practices that may have contributed to the deadly strain of virus jump to humans, including a ban on the wildlife trade and the consumption of wild game.

Some 3,000 members of China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), were expected to convene in Beijing for about two weeks of meetings attended by President Xi Jinping and other top leaders.

The annual political pageant also includes meetings by the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body made up of around 2,000 representatives from companies, ethnic minorities, cultural organisations and other groups.

While the decision was widely expected, it represented an acknowledgment by the Communist Party that the health crisis that began in the central province of Hubei had disrupted basic mechanisms of government.

China has held its so-called Two Sessions in March every year since 1985, when then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping formalised the legislative calendar as part of his reforms after Mao Zedong's turbulent rule.

China unveils its annual economic targets, defence spending projections and other key policy decisions during the NPC meetings.

The party has also used the occasion to announce major policy changes and personnel reshuffles, like Xi's 2018 decision to scrap term limits, which paved the way for him to rule indefinitely.

Still, officials faced the risk that some attendees could unintentionally transmit a virus that has already sickened more than 70,000 and killed almost 1,800 in China. And gathering political leaders at great expense in the capital while many Chinese remain cooped at home could also prompt public criticism.

The municipal government of Beijing has instituted rules requiring 14-day self-quarantines for new arrivals in the capital, meaning deputies would've had to arrive by this week to attend the meeting without a special exception.

Although the NPC is China's legal parliament, the party ensures that important decisions are made long before proposals reach the floor.

Xi has ordered "all-out" efforts to contain the crisis, which has already proved more deadly than the Sars epidemic that killed almost 800 people across Asia 17 years ago and led to widespread criticism of China's response.

Beijing has taken unprecedented steps to slow the latest outbreak, including banning travel from the hardest-hit areas in central China.

On Feb 13, China abruptly replaced the top leaders of Hubei and its capital Wuhan. Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong was named to replace Jiang Chaoliang as provincial party secretary, in a rare political shakeup.

A flurry of municipal legislatures across China had delayed their annual meetings in recent weeks, including the cities of Jinan, Qingdao, Wenzhou and Zhengzhou. The provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan also postponed their legislative meetings.

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