China is getting ready to kick off two of the biggest political events of the year, but a flagging economy will likely cast a shadow over the proceedings. The National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress are annual shows, heavily scripted and surrounded by pomp and circumstance, that are meant to give Communist leaders a chance to raise support for their policies. But the past year has been one of ineffective economic measures, punctuated by the occasional spectacular failure to stabilize increasingly volatile markets. At the same time, China's political crackdown has intensified as party leaders move to eliminate any resistance to their policies ahead of the next Communist Party congress in 2017.
Both events are intended to project a sense of unity among China's leaders and tranquility in the country at large. However, reports of severely restricted press access and tension among the delegates suggest a very different reality. The oppressive atmosphere has only been reinforced by a carefully timed anti-corruption investigation into Wang Min, the deputy head of a National People's Congress committee and the former party secretary of Liaoning province. Officials announced the investigation March 4, just one day before the congress was set to begin.
At a time of such tightened control, anything that occurs off-script will merit close scrutiny. With that in mind, the following is what we expect to see during each event:
Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress
The Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress is a political advisory body in which China's eight minority parties have seats. In theory, the organization gives these parties a way to have input on Chinese policies. However, its primary purpose is to make China appear more democratic. Though it plays a small role in bringing perspectives from across the spectrum of Chinese society into the policymaking process, the congress likely will not accomplish much of note during its upcoming session.
National People's Congress
The National People's Congress is the highest legislature of the Chinese state, and theoretically, the most powerful branch of government. For the most part, it is staffed with members of the Communist Party, who make up roughly two-thirds of the total 3,000 delegates. The congress' purpose is to approve policies formulated by the Communist Party so that the government can then implement them.
When the National People's Congress convenes, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will present his annual report, summarizing the government's accomplishments over the past year. He will also lay out the priorities and policy targets for the upcoming year, including those on gross domestic product growth, which is expected to be about 6.5 percent in 2016. The congress will then ratify key policies. Among them will be a new defense budget that is predicted to expand by about 8 percent, the first single-digit increase China has seen since 2010. The 13th Five-Year Plan, which will chart the country's economic course until 2020, will also be on the list.
Furthermore, lawmakers will likely approve legislation needed to implement the supply-side reforms unveiled during the Central Economic Work Conference in December 2015. These reforms are intended to trim the tremendous overcapacity within heavy industries such as coal and steel as well as rid the government of excess housing inventories. They will also try to manage the unemployment that will result from the first two measures. (Layoffs in heavy industries, which are projected to affect at least 6 million employees in state-owned enterprises over the next three years, have already begun, despite the fact that social safety nets have not yet been put in place.)
Finally, the National People's Congress will likely ratify or revise proposed legislation on cybersecurity and the operation of foreign nongovernmental organizations in China. If finalized, these laws would strengthen officials' legal basis for the ongoing crackdowns on Chinese society.
Most of the policies that will be on the table during the upcoming congress are not new. Rather, they were largely determined in advance at either the Fifth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress in October 2015 or at the Central Economic Work Conference in December 2015. Therefore, the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress will not give rise to any new initiatives. Instead, they will serve as useful gauges of China's political atmosphere, revealing changes that have occurred in the months since last year's policies were first announced.