‘Patriots’ for Hong Kong, economic growth, self-reliance and more manly men – Yvonne Murray reports from Beijing as China’s national parliament meeting wraps up.
China’s National People’s Congress, held at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, is a political pageant on a grand scale.
Called the “two sessions”, because it also includes meetings of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the annual event is guaranteed to slow traffic, as well as internet speed, in the capital to a crawl.
Sunshine and blue skies also usually welcome some 3,000 delegates from all over China, but not this year. Instead, a stubborn smog hugged the city all week, one of the worst bouts of pollution here for a long time.
The NPC is often referred to as China’s rubber-stamp parliament, not so much a frenzy of rigorous parliamentary debate, but rather a time for the top leadership to calmly hand down their pre-arranged policy decisions to the representatives.
Nevertheless, in a system that is growing increasingly opaque as the government tightens its grip on information, the NPC is a window into the thinking of CCP leaders and a useful indication of what’s coming next.
An end to ‘one country, two systems’.
This year then, it was inevitable that Hong Kong should feature heavily.
After the National Security Law was passed at the 2020 NPC, banning “succession” and “subversion” after mass protests in the territory, Beijing further extended its reach by reforming Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure “only patriots” could stand for office.
The vote passed unanimously on Thursday. (“No” votes at the NPC, while never particularly numerous, have plummeted under Xi Jinping’s leadership.)
“The rioting and turbulence that occurred in Hong Kong society reveals that the existing electoral system has clear loopholes and deficiencies,” the NPC vice-chairman Wang Chen told the parliament.
The move brought criticism from overseas, with the EU saying it may take “additional steps” over the announcement.
Chris Patten, the last governor of the former British colony, said China had “taken the biggest step so far to obliterate Hong Kong’s freedoms and aspirations for greater democracy under the rule of law”.
But China’s Premier, Li Keqiang, urged other countries to mind their own business, saying China would “resolutely guard against and deter interference by external forces in Hong Kong’s affairs”.
Indeed, telling other countries to butt out has become quite a feature of modern Chinese politics as it flexes its growing muscle on the world stage.
“Xi Jinping and China’s leaders believe the east is rising – meaning China – and the west is in decline – meaning the United States,” said Natasha Kassam, director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Programme, Lowy Institute in Sydney.
It’s indicative of China’s emboldened stance on issues it considers sovereign and shows Beijing will not be swayed from its determination to neutralise opposition to its rule in Hong Kong.
“The Communist Party will keep using the phrase, but functionally the meaning of ‘one country, two systems’ has been hollowed out,” said Katie Stallard, Global Fellow, Asia Programme, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.
“This is a one-way ratchet with Beijing continually tightening its control over the territory and signalling zero tolerance for dissent, while the second system increasingly exists in name only,” she added.
Beijing’s pursuit of its national agenda is bolstered by the global fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. Local transmission rates have dwindled in China while much of the rest of the world still struggles to keep the virus in check.
The Chinese leadership points to the “resilience of its own system in handling the pandemic,” said Katie Stallard, “compared to what it depicts as the chaos and dysfunction of key competitors like the United States”.
Economically too, China has the edge over others in the post-outbreak world. It was the only major economy to expand last year and is predicted to grow by 6% this year, according to official figures.
But China’s leaders want to see its economy shift away from the low-skilled manufacturing sector, that powered its breakneck development over the past three decades, towards new high-tech, innovation-driven industries.
The 14th Five Year Plan, laid out R&D investment in priority areas of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, integrated circuits, brain sciences, biotech, as well as deep Earth, sea, space and polar explorations.
China still depends on strategic rivals like the US for core components such as microchips. While the trade war under President Trump sought to curtail Chinese companies’ access to American technology, it has hastened China’s desire to make its own. But it still has a way to go.
“Both the self-reliance of core technology and upgrading the manufacturing sector to secure the supply chain are born out of a real concern in Beijing about economic security,” said Ether Yin, founding partner of Trivium, China, a Beijing-based consulting firm.
US policies like “sanctions of Huawei is the wake-up call on just how easily the US can kneecap Chinese companies and cut China off supplies of key tech”, he added.
“Policymakers are working to minimise that vulnerability,” he said.
“But it cannot afford to pursue tech-decoupling in earnest – China needs to continue its technological partnership with major economies to buy time to figure out what technologies it must develop itself and how to develop them.”
Meanwhile, over at the CPPCC session, sometimes referred to as an advisory body to the parliament, a delegate from Suzhou put forward a proposal for “gender-differential” education for students to “make boys more like boys and girls more like girls,” bemoaning a rise in boys who are “timid, quiet, dependent and lacking adventurous spirit”.
The proposal follows a recent social media storm in China over a “crisis in masculinity,” where internet users expressed their concern about a trend of men wearing make-up and appearing “effeminate”.
They also questioned their ability to defend the nation in the event of “an invasion”. Others, though, argued traditional gender stereotyping has no place in a modern society.