'Two sessions': China expected to unveil new controls on Hong Kong

Helen Davidson in Taipei and Emma Graham-Harrison
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

China is expected to unveil new political controls on Hong Kong at this week’s meeting of its rubber-stamp parliament, which is also likely to showcase President Xi Jinping’s further consolidation of power.

Beijing plans to ensure only “patriots” – Communist party loyalists – can run Hong Kong, according to a speech by a top Chinese official ahead of the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC).

The gathering serves as an important showcase of power and policy shifts within China’s opaque one-party system, though the thousands of delegates have little say over the laws they pass and discussions are largely political theatre.

The national security law, which has been used to muzzle Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, was announced at last year’s NPC.

That session was delayed from its usual early March date, as China fought to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. This year, the NPC and its advisory body will meet on schedule – although for fewer days than usual – and promote an official narrative of triumph over the Coronavirus and economic success.

China has largely managed to contain Covid-19 within its borders, through strict lockdowns and controls on international travellers. It has developed its own vaccines, which it is using as part of a global push diplomatic push to bolster its influence.

It was also one of the few countries in the world to officially register economic growth in 2020, and recently claimed to have ended “extreme poverty” at home.

But Beijing’s domestic triumphs come at a time of increasing pressure from western powers about authoritarian policies at home, its handling of the early days of the pandemic and subsequent investigations into the origins of Covid-19, and its aggressively expansionist behaviour in disputed regions, border territories, and towards Taiwan.

Diplomatic and trade sanctions have been piled on Beijing over its intervention in Hong Kong, and human rights abuses in western Xinjiang. Officials have also raised concerns about crackdowns and mass arrests of domestic lawyers.

These are only likely to be exacerbated by any new policies on Hong Kong unveiled at this year’s NPC.

In a speech published this week, the head of the Hong Kong and Macao affairs office, Xia Baolong, said the city’s electoral system had to be “improved”, to close loopholes and guarantee “central government’s comprehensive management of Hong Kong”.

Unnamed government sources have told media it was likely the changes would shake up the process of both elections to the city’s Legislative Council, and the composition of the committee to elect the city’s leader, known as the chief executive.

Currently the committee includes district councillors, the majority from pro-democracy parties that won a landslide in November 2019 elections. The flagged changes have caused concern even among some pro-Beijing politicians.

“Don’t go too far and kill the patient,” Shiu Sin-por, a pro-Beijing politician and former head of Hong Kong’s Central Policy Unit, told reporters after a briefing session with on the matter.

The “two sessions” are also being closely watched for details of how President Xi Jinping, already considered the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, has cemented both his personal power and place in the communist pantheon.

“The most important significance of the two sessions to China’s political life may be observing the consolidation of Xi’s rights, the totalitarianism of China’s politics, and the reaction of China to the surrounding issues and security environment,” said Wu Qiang, a former political lecturer at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

They come at a time of great focus on legacy, as Beijing prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist party in July, although no major announcements are expected.

“It’s not that any one thing will make us suck in a collective gasp, but it’s important in that it gives you a sense of the priorities of the leadership, and the language they’re using … and how much Xi is being elevated even further in the rhetoric,” said the law professor Margaret Lewis, a China specialist at Seton Hall.

The most-watched part of the agenda is usually the GDP growth target report, but none was given in 2020 and sources told Reuters there would be none this year either.

The NPC will, however, witness the launch of the 14th “five-year plan”, which lays out the medium-term agenda for the national economy. Outlines released after planning sessions in October indicated a focus on trying to replace lost international trade with increased domestic demand – although the government has been trying to bolster consumption at home for years with mixed success.

As China faces a social and economic crisis with its ageing population, state officials have already flagged plans for a new pension system, which could be announced, along with potential delays to the statutory retirement age.

Raising the retirement age was a necessary but politically risky move which threatened to upset the party’s support base among retired party cadres and officials, said the Fordham University law professor Carl Mizner.

“They’ve been kicking this can down the road for a couple of years now,” he told the Guardian. “There are pressing financial pressures they face and they have to address them … But it’s politically difficult in China, just as much as anywhere else.”

Eyes will also be on the attendance of China’s tech industry elite at their first gathering since authorities tightened regulation and began targeting monopolistic behaviour.

Xi also made major environmental pledges and state officials promised amendments of animal protection laws, following a ban on the illegal consumption of wildlife.