The National People's Congress (NPC) was held in China from May 22 to 28. The 2020 NPC, originally scheduled to open on March 5 as usual, was postponed due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. No new date was announced at the time of postponement and, despite rumours of a meeting in late March or mid-April, in the end it was not held until late May. The session was shorter than usual, and participants underwent PCR testing. Most delegates attended the opening ceremony wearing masks, but the NPC leadership and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Politburo members seated in the two front rows did not wear masks.
Before this year's NPC got underway, the key agenda items were whether to declare victory in the battle against the coronavirus and what economic growth targets to establish. However, other issues not initially anticipated, such as the introduction of the Hong Kong version of the National Security Law, also came to garner attention. This paper briefly reviews and analyses issues that were the focus of deliberations at the NPC.
Coronavirus and economic conditions
The Government Work Report presented by the Premier of the State Council on the NPC's first day is a highlight of the NPC and a grand once-a-year event for Premier Li Keqiang. The Government Work Report is, of course, reviewed and revised in advance within the administration and thus does not necessarily reflect the personal views of Li Keqiang. This year's Government Work Report was shorter than usual at only 10,000 words. It is speculated that the report may have been shortened as a result of omitting questionable content while the outlook is still uncertain.
Before the Congress opened, there was speculation that the NPC would declare victory in the battle against the coronavirus. However, it turned out that, although Li Keqiang noted at the beginning of the Government Work Report that "significant strategic results had been achieved," he also cautioned that "the infections have not yet ceased." Since April, there has been a triumphant mood in China, but new infections have continued to occur in land border areas, and asymptomatic infections are still being discovered. Naturally, the government understood the need to watch out for a second wave. In fact, in mid-June, a large-scale cluster at a wholesale food market in Beijing was declared an "emergency." The battle against the coronavirus continues.
One of the highlights of the annual Government Work Report is the presentation of annual economic growth targets, but no specific numerical targets were presented this year. In explanation, Li said frankly that the economic and trade situation in the wake of the pandemic was highly uncertain and difficult to predict. In fact, in the first quarter from January to March, the economic growth rate was an unprecedented -6.8%, and it will be extremely difficult to make a V-shaped economy recovery from so low a level. To forestall any failure to achieve targets, it was necessary to refrain from presenting specific numerical targets.
On the economic front, Li Keqiang's remarks on China's economic disparities at a press conference after the close of the NPC drew attention. Li Keqiang said that in China "there are 600 million middle- and low-income earners, and their average monthly income is about 1000 yuan (about 140 USD)," acknowledging that the corona outbreak is adversely affecting the lives of these people and that ensuring their livelihoods is an important political issue.
It can be said that China on the whole took a cautious attitude toward the corona disaster and the economic situation, emphasising people's livelihoods. On the other hand, China's defence spending reached a record high of 1,268 billion yuan (approximately 178.2 billion USD), up 6.6% from the previous year, demonstrating that China is still intent on strengthening its military capabilities in the face of the corona crisis.
Reference to Taiwan
Another noteworthy point in Li Keqiang's Government Work Report was the change in reference to Taiwan. No mention was made of the "92 Consensus," said to be an agreement between the mainland and Taiwan on the "one China" principle, and the word "peaceful" was not used in the section referring to unification. Needless to say, China has never renounced the use of nonpeaceful means to reunify with Taiwan, but the change in nuance made through subtle changes in words and phrases has naturally come as a great shock and has been widely reported. Chinese domestic media have explained that the "92 Consensus" was deleted only to reduce the number of characters and shorten the Government Work Report, but this is not a persuasive reason to revise terms with such high political significance.
Surprisingly, both "92 Consensus" and "peaceful" were included in the revised/supplemented Government Work Report released in full on May 29 after the close of the NPC. Deliberations on the Government Work Report are the most important agenda items for the NPC. About 80 revisions are made each year, and a total of 89 were made this year. However, the majority of amendments usually cover civilian issues, and such major amendments in reference to Taiwan are unusual. The Xinhua article on the amendment does not mention any amendment with reference to Taiwan.
There have been no official explanations for the unusual mentions or the factors prompting the amendments. Theoretically, there could be various explanations, e.g., a trial balloon to gauge reaction, a threat to raise awareness of a potential use of force, or disagreements over Taiwan policy within the administration. In the past, Xi Jinping showed a strong interest in, and a positive attitude toward, the Taiwan issue, so the change in the wording of the Government Work Report was not necessarily abrupt. However, subsequent modifications confused observers. The Taiwan issue is a complex one that involves various factors, including public opinion on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese identity and the role of the United States. In this sense, China's policy toward Taiwan has not necessarily undergone a major change. Nonetheless, the subtle changes in the NPC and the responses to them both at home and abroad will offer feedback that could potentially lead to adjustments in Taiwan policy.
Introduction of the Hong Kong version of the National Security Law
The biggest surprise at the NPC this year was the introduction of the Hong Kong version of the National Security Law. Article 23 of the Basic Law of Hong Kong stipulates that Hong Kong itself enact national security legislation to prohibit treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the state. In 2003, as many as 500,000 Hong Kong citizens demonstrated against moves to enact the National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill, and passage of the bill was postponed. Since the 2019 campaign against the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, China's central government has been increasingly frustrated with the situation in Hong Kong and with its government's inability to make a breakthrough. As a result, there was speculation that China might try once more to pass a national security bill in Hong Kong. However, it was believed that Hong Kong government would enact this law, and no one envisioned that the central government would do so directly. The introduction of the Hong Kong version of the National Security Law was a move that defied the imagination of experts.
The Hong Kong version of the National Security Law is included in Annex 3 of the Hong Kong Basic Law as a national law enacted by the NPC and its Standing Committee and applicable to Hong Kong. The NPC, however, continues to demand that the Hong Kong government push ahead with legislation on national security. When it was reported that a Hong Kong version of the National Security Law would be enacted, there was concern that the central government, especially the Ministry of State Security, would set up a new regional office in Hong Kong to restrict the activities of dissidents, democrats, and foreign NGOs. As expected, the details of the bill were discussed at the NPC Standing Committee meeting held in June, and it was announced that the central government would establish a national security office in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong government its own national security commission. Other provisions include the selection of a judge by the Chief Executive of Hong Kong to try crimes related to national security; the appointment of a national security adviser to the Hong Kong government's national security commission and the dispatch of personnel by the central government; and the assignment of precedence to the National Security Law in the event of a conflict with Hong Kong law. In this way, it became clear that the authority of the central government would be further strengthened and direct intervention enabled. The bill is passed at the NPC Standing Committee meeting on June 30. Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong are scheduled for September, and it is also said that the central government will prepare national security-related legislation prior to these Legislative Council elections to prevent rival candidates from running in the elections so as not to repeat the disastrous loss suffered by pro-Beijing parties in the 2019 District Council elections. The introduction of the Hong Kong version of the National Security Law has had a significant impact on freedom of speech and the lives of Hong Kong's citizens, as it remains unclear who will be subject to what restrictions and to what extent. Opacity and uncertainty are major sources of concern.
Since its return to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong has enjoyed a high degree of autonomy under the "one country, two systems" principle. Employing the slogan of "Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong," the central government has avoided public intervention as much as possible. Freedom of speech and the independence of the judiciary have been guaranteed in Hong Kong. In recent years, though, China's central government and the CCP have tried to adjust Hong Kong policies and strengthen control. In the eyes of those opposed to the central government, various measures in recent years have been aimed at undermining the "one country, two systems" principle and suppressing freedom in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the central government has explained that any measures related to Hong Kong will strengthen the "one country, two systems" principle. For the central government, "two systems" implies a high degree of autonomy that can be enjoyed on the premise of "one country," and requires regulating the activities of the "very few" hostile forces that undermine the stability and national unity of Hong Kong. The biggest issue in the Hong Kong dispute is the gap in understanding of the "one country, two systems" principle.
The international community has shown strong concern in the situation in Hong Kong. Naturally, the introduction of the Hong Kong version of the National Security Law has been severely criticised in, for example, a joint statement issued by the G7 foreign ministers. China seems to have already taken the response of the international community into consideration, but it nonetheless appears that China has determined it cannot overlook the current situation in Hong Kong. China has rejected repeated criticism of its actions in Hong Kong as unwarranted interference in its own internal affairs. However, the Sino-British Joint Declaration stipulating that China would abide by the "one country, two systems" principle and not change its basic policy toward Hong Kong for 50 years constitutes a promise made by China to the international community. In keeping with that promise, other countries have endorsed China's position and supported Hong Kong's development. Support and cooperation from the international community are essential for the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong. China needs to listen to the voices of the international community and try to gain its understanding and cooperation.
(Dated July 1, 2020)
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