by Laurie Chen and Jing Xuan Teng
China’s parliament will hold its annual session next month after being delayed because of the coronavirus, state media said Wednesday, signalling the communist leadership’s growing confidence in taming the epidemic.
Beijing announced in February that it would put off the annual National People’s Congress (NPC) for the first time since the Cultural Revolution as the country battled the coronavirus outbreak, which has since become a pandemic.
The rescheduled session on May 22 will highlight confidence by the leadership that China has largely brought its outbreak under control.
Top Communist Party leaders including President Xi Jinping attend each year’s gathering with thousands of delegates from across the country, to rubber-stamp bills, budgets and personnel moves.
According to a statement cited by official news agency Xinhua from the NPC Standing Committee — the body that oversees the legislative session — the epidemic in China is “improving steadily” and “normal economic and social life is gradually resuming”.
This means the “conditions for convening the NPC annual session… are ready,” the statement said.
China’s capital on Wednesday lowered its emergency alert from the highest level and lifted a strict quarantine requirement for domestic travellers from “low-risk” areas, which it had kept in place long after many other regions in the country eased travel restrictions.
Arrivals in Beijing from the virus epicentre of Hubei province as well as travellers coming from abroad are still required to complete a 14-day quarantine, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The annual gathering was originally due to start on March 5.
A number of local governments have held their regional political meetings online — fuelling speculation at least part of the NPC might consist of virtual sessions.
But Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, told AFP that given how symbolic the national legislature meeting is, delegates are more likely to attend in person.
“I believe that the delegates, many of whom are middle-aged, would not be able to accept virtual meetings as much as face-to-face meetings –- they see it as a great privilege to go to Beijing for these meetings and would hope to physically attend,” he said.
The NPC is usually a 10-day gathering, but state-run tabloid Global Times quoted one delegate saying the length of the meeting is likely to be reduced this year.
Xinhua said earlier this week that there was a plan to create or revise 17 health-related laws this year and next, including a biosecurity law and a revised law on “animal epidemic prevention”.
Chinese scientists have said the virus emerged from a food market which reportedly sold exotic wild animals for human consumption.
‘Show of strength’
“This is a show of strength,” said Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam.
“It’s a sign that China is back on its feet, and the economic machinery keeps humming, and a big reassurance to the people that the epidemic is over.”
Lam said the announcement was also aimed at the domestic audience, to reassure Chinese citizens after a sharp 6.8 percent contraction in the first quarter’s economic growth.
China’s official number of infections has dwindled dramatically over the last month, with no new deaths reported for two weeks straight.
The NPC’s Standing Committee said at the time the gathering was postponed that the top officials who normally attend the meeting should prioritise tackling the virus in their home regions.
The NPC has been held every year since 1978, and on March 5 specifically for the past two decades.