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China in the Age of Trump and Brexit

Beijing.

The harsh winter has passed, the sky is blue, spring is in the air and the store that sells fake DVDs in Beijing is closed. The two sessions is about to start. Beijing goes political and is being spruced up (stores selling fake goods are shut down) from Friday (March 3) for the next two weeks or so as the delegates and deputies of the CPPPCC and the NPC gather for their annual meetings.

The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body drawn from delegates representing a cross-section of society, including the arts, medicine, transport, construction, and the National People’s Congress, the top legislative body, gather to discuss and pass legislation for the coming year.

The two sessions, as they are colloquially known in China, gauge the political mood of the country outside Beijing’s “Beltway” the Fourth Ring Road. This is a one-party state and decisions take place behind tightly locked closed doors. But the two sessions is where many of those decisions will be made with about 3,000 provincial administrators, top businessmen and Chinese Communist Party bigwigs set to attend.

For the duration, smartly dressed delegates and deputies from across the country will pose for photographs on Beijing’s streets.  Ultimate political authority, of course, rests with the Chinese Communist Party, whose Politburo Standing Committee, headed by President Xi Jinping, sets policy. So the NPC’s influence is limited but it has an important input into the decision-making process.

While the deputies to the Congress will sit politely, row-upon-row in the Great Hall of the People, their presence in Beijing allows for forthright discussions on the economy, anti-pollution efforts, and international affairs. In public the NPC, with its bowing heads and demure clapping, may make a rubber stamp look energized but in the tea houses, and restaurants around Tiananmen Square, the issues of the day will be debated long into the night.

Premier Li Keqiang’s “work report,” which is delivered on the opening day of the NPC, will be the headline event, especially as it will forecast China economic growth for the year, presumed to be around 6-7 percent.

China’s official economic statistics are generally considered to be less than fully accurate, but the numbers are expected to give a sense of how dramatically officials expect growth to decline from the glory days of double-digit expansion.

At the end of the session, the premier’s closing news conference sometimes reveals insights into the leadership’s thinking, either by what he says or does not say.

The backdrop to this year’s two sessions is intriguing. At the end of the year, many of the seven members of the standing committee of the politburo will be replaced as Xi starts his second five-year term and is able to place his own men (they will be men) into the top positions. The sessions could give an indication as to what the priorities of the new leadership, for the next five years, will be.

On top of this the Trump presidency, with all its uncertainties, may, the feeling in Beijing goes, provide China with opportunities, or at least more leeway. According to this viewpoint the new administration in Washington, will not pay too much heed to human rights and view relations with China in a more pragmatic vein. In other words, it will be good for business.

The same goes for Europe, already dealing with Brexit, and possibly facing a National Front victory in France that would shake it to its foundations. Beijing senses greater opportunities here.

The feeling in Beijing is that anything that weakens its rivals is bound to make China stronger. That old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times’’ has a certain resonance these days.

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Tom Clifford is a freelance journalist and can be reached at: cliffordtomsan@hotmail.com.

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