The congress is also expected to ratify China’s first civil code, a cornerstone of Xi’s legal reforms, enshrining property and personal rights.
Stung by public criticism of his handling of the crisis at the height of the outbreak in February and March, Xi’s role fighting “the people’s war” against the virus has been boosted for weeks by the Politburo and state media ahead of the meeting of up to 3000 delegates.
China has now largely suppressed viral outbreaks outside of two northern provinces, providing the nation with its first opportunity to demonstrate political cohesion and might.
“They are drawing a line under the crisis,” says Lowy Institute senior fellow Richard McGregor. “It’s a symbolic return to normal while the US flounders.”
Yun Jiang and Adam Ni, from the China Policy Centre, said the assembly is little more than a political ritual, since neither the National People’s Congress nor the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference have much real power.
“In fact, most decisions are largely made by the CCP Party central ahead of time. But political ritual matters for legitimacy, in Xi’s new Red Empire, just as in dynastic China.”
Most observers’ attention will be focussed on one key number – the economic growth target located in the annual “work report”. The number guides both Australia’s export hopes and Xi’s signature goal – eliminating poverty in China.
Economic growth had slipped to 6 per cent in 2019 before the virus hit. The first three months of this year saw year-on-year economic growth fall by 6.8 per cent as lockdown measures shut factories and shops across China.
“Any numeric target below 3 per cent is likely to be politically unpalatable,” said Capital Economics analyst Julian Evans Pritchard. “So if officials anticipate a more drawn-out recovery, they may prefer to scrap the target altogether.”
A target below 3 per cent would also make it almost impossible for Xi to convincingly argue China can reach a historic milestone of eliminating poverty in China by next year – the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.
“The poverty target is the number one KPI that Xi has set for himself,” said McGregor. “If they can get up there and make an announcement that the Communist Party under the leadership of Xi has ended poverty in China and do so with a degree of credibility, then that is a big selling point in terms of party legitimacy.”
The push is well underway. On Wednesday, Xi urged the Maonan ethnic group, an autonomous clan of 100,000 people in southern China “to make persistent efforts to make their life more prosperous” according to state media. Similar demands have been made of 55 other ethnic groups across the mainland.
In Tiananmen Square where the congress will kick off at the Great Hall of the People, locals are less worried about the bigger picture and more about their own wallets.
A 64-year-old retired Beijing public servant, who like many locals in China declined to give his name due to political sensitivities, said he was enjoying taking care of his grandchildren.
“I don’t watch news on TV often but keen on some substantial welfare to be announce at this year’s Two Sessions,” he said.
A 67-year-old man from Jiangxi Province with his wife added he was “particularly interested in elder’s welfare”.
China has largely withheld the wage subsidies and unemployment benefits seen in Australia and the United Kingdom during the global shutdown, preferring business loans and monetary policy to stimulate the economy.
China’s Finance Minister Liu Kun held out hope of further measures this week in the People’s Daily.
“A more proactive fiscal policy is a practical need to hedge the downward pressure of the economy,” he said.
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Parliament House in Canberra.